Anchorage has experienced a spate of bike-moose collisions already this summer. At least two bikers – perhaps as many as four -- were injured by moose over the Memorial Day weekend. Several other Anchorage residents, including two young girls playing in a back yard, were injured by moose the same weekend. And at least one biker has been injured since then.
Moose, especially cow moose with young calves, have always posed a potential threat to Anchorage residents. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Anchorage's moose population has declined in recent years. Based on aerial surveys early last winter, an estimated 1,500 moose inhabit the municipality, which includes Chugach State Park, compared with about 2,400 moose a decade ago. But encounters seem to be increasing. The chief reason is there are more people living in the city and more people recreating in the woods. But changes in the way people recreate are likely factors.
Racetracks in the woods
The three confirmed moose attacks on bikers came on the new singletrack trails in Kincaid Park. It doesn't surprise me that bikers are having problems with moose on singletrack trails.
A singletrack is a narrow trail, about the width of a bike's handbars, used by mountain bikers. Although a singletrack trail features sharp twists and turns through the trees – over hill over dale we will hit the dusty trail – it is also designed to be ridden at relatively high speeds. Singletracks have steeply banked curves so a biker can maintain velocity. A singletrack trail is a race track in the woods. A moose-begotten motocross.
Janice Tower, the founder of Singletrack Advocates, has described the experience: "It's like an amusement park ride. We're adults, and we're out there hooting and hollering."
Singletrack Advocates (STA) is a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to build and maintain networks of singletrack around Anchorage. Formed in 2004, the organization has built eight miles of singletrack in Far North Bicentennial Park and nine miles in Kincaid Park, acquiring funds through donations and grants. The singletrack network in Far North Bicentennial Park opened in 2009. The Kincaid Park singletracks were built in 2011 and cost $205,500, half of which was provided by private contributors.
The Municipality of Anchorage loves to partner with Singletrack Advocates because the organization brings so much money to the table and its members are enthusiastic trail-building volunteers and park advocates. There's much to be said for enthusiasm and outdoor recreation. But singletrack enthusiasts seem to be focused more on exercise and adrenaline, more on recreation than the outdoors. Some are unwilling to tolerate moose on the trail.
In contrast, most Anchorage residents believe the large, wooded city parks like Kincaid, Beach Lake, and Far North Bicentennial are appropriate places for moose and bears as well as recreation. However, all signs point to more singletrack trails in the city.
Electron cloud model of singletrack bikers
Moose and bears regularly use human trails. Anchorage's most popular trails remain the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and the wide dirt trails in Kincaid and Far North Bicentennial parks. On these trails, although many trail users have had a close encounter with a moose, human injuries have been rare. But singletrack trails are gaining fans.
More than other trails in Anchorage, singletracks are narrow and winding, often corkscrewing and doubling back on themselves. Riding the trails is an adventure. But imagine what would have happened if these bikers on a Hillside singletrack had run into a cow moose with a young calf on the trail. If you aren't familiar with the way a moose defends itself, check out this encounter between several bikers and a cow and calf on a wide ski trail in Kincaid Park.
A large wild animal doesn't have to loiter to constitute a threat to a fast-moving and unpredictable stimulus. Envision a moose or bear as a nucleus located somewhere inside a maze of singletrack trails. Then imagine a few mountain bikers swirling unpredictably around the nucleus like negatively charged particles in Erwin Schrödinger's model of an electron cloud. The creature will catch a glimpse here, a scent there (no, over there), the sound of knobby tires or shrieks of delight from almost every point on the compass. A moose or a bear that has good reason to be defensive – let's say it's accompanied by a calf or cub – is going to think it is surrounded and is likely to get agitated. An agitated animal is a potentially dangerous animal.
Risk, of course, is what singletrack riding is all about. Whizzing past trees, jumping roots, wheeling high on banked curves, pumped up on adrenaline … it's not a sport for the timid. So what's the problem with a few moose tossed into the mix?
This being Alaska, at least some of the singletrack crowd pack handguns for self-defense. But the greater threat to any moose that exercises its right to self-defense is in the court of public opinion. Many Anchorage residents who read or hear stories of moose attacking bikers assume that moose numbers are increasing or that moose are becoming more aggressive. Some may conclude that moose don't belong in Alaska's largest city.
'DAMN MOOSE' tee shirts
When incidents of "aggressive" moose are reported by the media or passed on by word of mouth and across Internet forums, the knee-jerk reaction is to demonize moose or call for their elimination.
Think it can't happen? Collide with a moose while riding a motorcycle in Vermont, and you may be eligible for financial assistance from the Moose Foundation. The Moose Foundation is a charitable organization that helps pay motorcycle crash expenses not covered by your insurance.
Vermont's Moose Foundation was inspired by a motorcycle crash in 2007. Two friends were riding Harleys after sunset. One of the bikers broadsided a moose on the highway, killing it. The collision left the bike on the road and the rider in the ditch, pinned under the moose. His injuries were serious. He recovered, but lost work time. The insurance company didn't cover his medical expenses because it considered his motorcycle a recreational vehicle.
The Moose Foundation is entirely funded by donations and sales of "DAMN MOOSE" tee shirts -- nobody claims Harley owners don't have attitude to spare. You don't have to hit a moose to be eligible for financial assistance. Yet, despite the myriad ways motorcyclists find to kill themselves, the Moose Foundation chose moose as the scapegoats for their woes.
Moose are more phlegmatic creatures but, considering that the moose in Vermont was minding its own business when struck and killed by the motorcycle, I imagine its family and friends would sport "DAMN MOTORCYCLES" tee shirts if only they could find some in their size.
To their credit, Singletrack Advocates has acknowledged the risk of high-speed encounters with moose and bears on their trails. The organization's website recommends using "great caution" on all the singletrack trails and using the much-wider ski trails until moose calves are more mobile. They also recommend carrying pepper spray, an effective way to stop moose as well as bear attacks.
Kids more vulnerable
Unfortunately, bikers aren't the only ones being stomped into the duff by Anchorage moose. Kids are occasionally kicked and have suffered in several recent encounters. At least some of these attacks might be attributed to a recent change in Anchorage School District policy.
When I was the Anchorage-area wildlife biologist I dreaded the day kids were let out of school for summer vacation. For about a month every spring, from mid May to mid June, moose calves are born all over Anchorage. Cows are protective and prone to attack people during their calves' first month of life.
Prior to 2006 kids were most vulnerable for a comparatively short period because summer vacation usually started a week into June. Then the school district moved the first day of summer vacation into late May. Before the change, elementary and middle-school kids were out of school for about a week when cow moose were most likely to attack in defense of a calf. This year kids were released on May 17, the beginning of calving season.
The latest incident took place in the evening on a holiday, so school wouldn't have been in session, even under the previous schedule. But kids are clearly more exposed to moose attacks than they used to be.
The Anchorage School Board shifted the school year for several reasons. It allowed students to finish the first semester at the winter break instead of carrying over a couple weeks after vacation. Seniors could get an early start on the summer job market. And kids would no longer miss out on May's often-sunny weather.
Opponents argued that, by starting school several weeks earlier, kids would miss the Alaska State Fair and traditional hunting opportunities in August. No one considered moose calving in late May and June.
I don't envision the school district reverting to the previous school calendar any time soon. Because moose are a potential threat, parents should recognize the risk and occasionally inspect the woods in places where their kids play, especially in May and June. In most cases, the attacks occur when children enter the woods from a nearby play area. A cow accompanied by a very young calf is likely to inhabit the same patch of woods for several weeks. Invariably, the cow will move on when she has depleted the food supply in the immediate area or her calf is more mobile.
Singletrack, double trouble?
Kincaid's singletrack trails were built through the "islands" of natural habitat between the ski trails. Moose will continue to use the parks because they have no better place to go, and fast-moving bikers on winding trails will provoke more defensive attacks.
As bad as that sounds, it could be worse. Several years ago, Singletrack Advocates wanted to build singletrack trails in a couple of locations in Far North Bicentennial Park close to the South Fork of Campbell Creek. One of the proposed singletrack networks would have straddled a wooded corridor used by a dozen or more brown bears to travel between Chugach State Park and salmon-spawning streams.
The other proposed singletrack network would have been near Rover's Run, where two bikers and a runner have been mauled by brown bears in the past four years. The municipal parks department withdrew support for the proposals when they were convinced that seasonal concentrations of brown bears in these natural areas would constitute an unacceptable risk to bikers and runners, especially on singletrack trails.
I'm a proponent of risky sports, so long as the practitioners are fully apprised of the risk. Moose are part of the risk on Anchorage's singletrack trails. I just hope Anchorage residents don't turn on moose because singletrack trails have almost singlehandedly increased the number of attacks.
Some would say biking is inherently dangerous. From 1996 to 2004 an average of 141 bicycle-vehicle collisions occurred annually in Anchorage, with a total of 152 major injuries and eight deaths. That's just the vehicle-related accidents, and that's a big reason why bikers are encouraged to wear a helmet. If running into a moose is a risk you're unwilling to take, don't use singletrack trails in late May and June. It's always a good idea to carry pepper spray and a good health insurance policy.
Despite all the hype, moose attacks are far rarer than motor vehicle accidents. But even if you don't risk life and limb on singletrack trails, it's a good idea in Anchorage, especially in May and June, to look both ways before you cross the greenbelt.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org