An ambitious state study aims to reduce Mat-Su moose crashes

KNIK — Only a frozen patina of blood remained on the stretch of Knik-Goose Bay Road where a 30-year-old driver hit a moose two days earlier.

The moose had been hauled off to somebody on a salvage list for meat.

The driver of the 2010 Ford Edge that smashed into the animal was arrested on drug charges following the crash. The moose, a cow that probably ventured onto the busy two-lane road from a stand of spruce, became a subject in an ambitious Alaska Department of Fish and Game study.


Mat-Su: Moose-strike capital of Alaska?

That study, conducted in partnership with Utah State University at a cost of $418,000, is expected to gather an unprecedented amount of data about why and where moose and vehicles collide on roads in Mat-Su, one of Alaska's hot spots for the potentially deadly collisions between animal and man.

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The study will also identify "moose movement corridors" by fitting 60 moose with radio-tracking collars.

The study doesn't necessarily aim to address the reasons humans sometimes hit moose: distracted driving, going too fast for winter road conditions, not watching for moose in high-risk areas.

Instead, the research could help Fish and Game fine-tune an existing targeted moose hunt program to reduce animals in high-collision areas, officials say. It could also inform the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities' road construction techniques to reduce collisions along Alaska's roads.

Between 2000 and 2012, 9,949 moose-vehicle collisions were reported statewide, according to unpublished DOT data referenced in the state's study proposal. The collisions resulted in 23 human fatalities, 118 incapacitating injuries and approximately 1,400 minor injuries. Thousands of moose died.

Collisions are most common in Mat-Su, along with the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage.

"We may be the top region in terms of collisions," said Michael Guttery, Fish and Game research coordinator for the Mat-Su area. "We're the fastest growing in terms of the human population. This is just going to continue to be a bigger and bigger issue."


'Is it the people or the moose?'

Utah State graduate student Luke McDonald is tracking every collision in an area the size of a small state, from along the Parks Highway north of Talkeetna to 60 miles out the Glenn Highway from Palmer almost to Glacier View. He's logged about 130 since summer.

McDonald, a native of Mississippi, is focusing on human-wildlife conflict as he works on a master's degree in wildlife biology.

"I want to know: Is it the people or the moose that's more involved in the decision to hit the moose," he said. "Is it people not seeing moose, or moose crossing at the same place every time so it's more likely?"

Either McDonald or a Fish and Game wildlife technician travels out to each site to gather that unprecedented database, noting the topography in the area — brush, trees, a steep roadside hill — and other factors such as sight lines, width of the road shoulder, lighting, speed limit, fencing and traffic volume. The study doesn't include information about the driver involved. 

Separately, Fish and Game biologists will start attaching radio collars in the next month or two. The collars will allow the research team to track the animals every hour — unless the animals approach a road, when the collars will transmit location information every five minutes, Guttery said.

The results of the three-year study aren't expected to be published until 2019.


Close call

The state gets reports about collisions from the Alaska Moose Federation, a nonprofit that salvages road-killed moose and transports the meat to a list of qualified recipients.

Then McDonald or a technician travels to the scene within 72 hours.

Technician Nick Jensen, armed with a meter stick, took data readings along Knik-Goose Bay Road Monday as he gathered information about that weekend's bloody collision near Mile 8.

[Moose collisions a real, present danger on Alaska roadways]

Mat-Su drivers experience an average of 1.5 moose-vehicle collisions every day in the months of December and January, Guttery said. This year and last, however, were above average because of scant snow: the brown ground provides little contrast to help drivers spot moose.

Talkeetna resident Josh Klauder has experienced a half-dozen close calls in his nearly four decades driving Alaska's roads.

Klauder, a freelance web designer and board member with the nonprofit Alaska Wildlife Alliance, says he isn't always a knee-jerk supporter of Fish and Game but this study seems like a good idea.

"It's definitely a serious issue and it's scary as hell driving these dark roads and waiting for a dark-brown moose to suddenly appear on your windshield," he said.

Klauder said he'd "definitely" be supportive of a study showing what drivers can do to avoid moose.

He figures the super-bright headlights some drivers have taken to using probably help cut down on collisions by spotlighting moose better, especially on long, dark stretches of the Parks Highway.

On Monday, as the two Fish and Game employees wrapped up data collection, a cow and calf moose suddenly appeared on one side of KGB and crossed in an ungainly gallop. Traffic coming around a slight bend slowed and stopped. The animals made it across unharmed.

The researchers breathed a sigh of relief.