WASILLA — The only group in Alaska contracted to deliver road-killed moose to charities and families from Kenai to Fairbanks just lost most of its funding.
The Alaska Moose Federation, a private nonprofit based in Anchorage, on March 1 learned of the elimination of a state contract that, since 2015, provided up to $300,000 in federal funds to pick up roadkill animals at a rate of $200 per moose.
Under the contract, the group picked up more than 1,110 moose between the end of September 2015 and the end of February, according to the federation. About half were in Mat-Su, a quarter on the Kenai, and the remainder in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Since the contract ended, calls have trickled to winter-killed animals on private property, according to federation executive director Don Dyer. State authorities won't let them pick up roadside moose anymore.
So crews spend most of their time taking dead moose to the dump for donations.
That, and fundraising.
"We're not working the roads at all," Dyer said on March 25, as he and a volunteer winched a dead calf up a steep birch-covered hillside near Wasilla before driving it to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Central Landfill.
As they worked, two cow moose hovered nearby.
Not the first challenge
Founded to "grow more moose" in 2002, the Alaska Moose Federation drew condemnation a few years ago, thanks to a troubled calf-rearing program and accusations of bloated spending. The federation, using state funds, began picking up roadkill moose for salvage in Anchorage and Mat-Su in 2011, and Kenai and Fairbanks later.
The group lost funding in 2013 and stopped nearly all of its operations in 2014.
In 2015, incoming executive director Dyer — a former economic development director for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and president of MatSu Economic Development Corp. — refocused the group's energy on the moose salvage program.
The group's annual budget is about $180,000, according to Dyer. He said he makes $72,000 a year doing everything from keeping the books to administration to taking calls at all hours and vehicle maintenance.
The group's prospects stabilized in September 2015 when it signed a one-year contract with two possible renewals with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to pick up roadkill moose using federal highway safety funds. No other entity expressed interest in the contract, DOT officials say.
A few months later, the federal Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act changed the funding eligibility so the money had to be used for infrastructure and not dead-moose pickups in Alaska, state officials say. There would be no additional money for moose.
The federation didn't do anything wrong to lose that funding, acting state traffic and safety engineer Matt Walker said in March. The group was paid a little more than $160,000 out of the federal funds in the 2016 fiscal year and nearly $140,000 in 2017.
"We were satisfied with the performance," Walker said. "We didn't have any issues."
The change comes at an especially busy time for moose collisions. The first "normal" winter in several years in Southcentral Alaska has deposited a deep, spring-crusted layer of snow that's pushed moose toward more easily traveled roadways and yards.
Until March, the federation's fleet of six specially equipped pickups and seven paid-per-moose volunteers plus Dyer made runs at all hours when 911 dispatchers called to report a moose accident. They pulled over along sometimes heavy traffic and delivered the animal — and the potential for hundreds of pounds of meat — for processing by beneficiaries ranging from individual families to soup kitchens.
With the end of the federation contract, roadside moose salvage will go back to the way it used to be: Dispatchers go down a list and call the first available charity to go get their moose themselves — even if it's 2 a.m. and 30 below.
Several senior centers and churches from the Kenai Peninsula to Fairbanks said they've never used the federation, choosing to fetch their own roadkill moose. The Upper Susitna Senior Center bought a trailer and relies on Susitna Valley High School to do the pickup, according to vice chair Larry Dearman. They get half the meat.
But Skipper Cowgill was sorry to hear the roadkill pickups are ending. The 76-year-old director of the Friendship Mission in Kenai said the federation brought a cow moose to the door about two years ago. The meat got used at the 10-person-capacity mission.
Cowgill has a truck and a trailer. He could go get a moose if the call came. But he'd really rather somebody else did.
"I'm an old man. I don't like to get nothin' at 2 or 3 in the morning by the side of the road in the freezing cold," he said.
More work or less?
Dyer says the change means more work for underfunded law enforcement: Dispatchers will have to keep calling until they find a charity, troopers will have to wait at the scene of a moose collision until the charity arrives, and charities face the risks that come with wrestling a half-ton carcass off a busy road.
He said he's heard concerns from dispatch centers in Kenai, Mat-Su and Fairbanks. He showed a reporter a copy of a letter from the Mat-Com supervisor in Wasilla saying already-busy dispatchers now will have to spend more time trying to find someone to pick up a roadkill moose.
Wildlife authorities say the change won't be for the worse, and could be for the better.
Maj. Bernard Chastain, deputy director of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers, said in an email he doesn't expect the change will lead to "any additional measurable time at the accident scene."
Troopers respond to a moose-vehicle collision to investigate the crash. A trooper stays "for the time necessary to investigate," Chastain said. Then they "routinely" flag the moose and leave it for a charity to arrive later, he said.
"The loss of Alaska Moose Federation actually makes it slightly easier for dispatchers since they only need to call the charity recipient (one phone call) and not the charity and AMF (2 calls)," he wrote.
Dyer contends, however, that a dispatcher calls the federation right away but then has time to find a charity after, and charities are more likely to accept quickly if they know someone is already bringing a moose to the door.
Jim Faiks, in Big Lake, is one of a number of residents reporting moose dead in yards or around the local airport in recent weeks.
People who call the federation to pick up a dead moose from a yard often make a donation, Dyer said. He usually tells them it costs anywhere from $35 to $60 to take the carcass to the landfill, and the DOT contract that expired March 1 paid $200 a moose.
Most people pay $100 to $150, he said. Some more. Some nothing.
Those donations represent the group's remaining source of revenue, along with about $6,000 in rental payments on a roller chopper, a piece of heavy equipment once used for roadside clearing.
Dyer said he hopes to get a larger donation from an entity like the Mat-Su Health Foundation or from the early April raffle of a log building that once housed the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau next to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. A company Dyer is supporting, Idaho-based Spring Creek Capital LLC, bought the property. The building needs to be removed.
Faiks said he was happy to pay his small share.
He called Dyer to come get the young moose that died on his property around St. Patrick's Day. Otherwise he could have left it to decompose — his dogs were already guarding it from the birds — dragged it by snowmachine someplace else or loaded it into his truck with a tractor to haul it off.
"I called the Moose Federation and they came out at 10 p.m. from Palmer, an hour away," Faiks wrote in an email. "They said that they were nonprofit and would appreciate a donation if possible. I was happy to oblige. The moose was gone in less than 24 hours and the dogs were disappointed."