After two vehicle accidents last week involving caribou within about five miles of each other along the Glenn Highway leading to the Interior Alaska community of Glennallen, Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are warning that about 10,000 caribou are wintering near a 30-mile stretch of road there and advising travelers to exercise caution.
According to Becky Schwanke, a Fish and Game area biologist in Glennallen, it's not unusual for some members of the Nelchina caribou herd to gather in the vicinity, though it's been a few years since they were last seen wintering there. The animals -- about a third of the total herd -- seem to be residing in a triangular area between Glennallen, Lake Louise and Tolsona Lake, very near the highway.
Many of the herd are hovering around the Lake Louise flats, farther from the road, Schwanke said.
"Unfortunately, a portion of them are right on the Glenn Highway, or right between the Glenn Highway and Tolsona," she added.
According to troopers, a 52-year-old Valdez resident hit two caribou shortly before midnight on Jan. 9 at about milepost 174 of the Glenn. The next night, a 55-year-old Tazlina resident hit a caribou at milepost 178. Neither driver was injured in those accidents, but it served as a cautionary tale for drivers of the Glenn Highway headed to or from Glennallen.
Schwanke said the general area where motorists are advised to exercise caution is between mileposts 150 and 180, while troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters described it as between mileposts 145 and 175. Either way, there are about 30 miles of roadway where drivers should be careful, especially at night, Peters said.
"We did have DOT about a month ago go put up some extra caribou signs on some of the milepost signs out there," said Schwanke, who urged people not to ignore wildlife signs along the highways. Alaska has many such signs dotting its roadways, and the warnings can occasionally become white noise to drivers on long road trips.
"There's not always an animal, but definitely pay attention when there's an animal sign that appears temporary or new," Schwanke said.
She said that the animals like to cross, especially at dips in the road, including where culverts run under the roadway for low creek crossings. She advised slowing down in these areas. Drivers should make sure their headlights are clean and debris-free, too.
Meanwhile, troopers offered some best practices for avoiding collisions with wildlife on the roadways:
"Be mindful of your surroundings both inside and outside of your vehicle," Peters said in an email. "Be on the lookout for movement or animals on the side of the roadways. Travel at a safe speed for the weather/road conditions … If it is dark out or visibility is low, drive at a slower speed. Moose and other big game can enter the roadway quickly and without warning."
She also urged motorists who hit any large animal to contact troopers, in hopes that the roadkill can be salvaged and put to use.
This season, the Nelchina herd is spread out in thirds from the area west of Glennallen to the northeast, in an area north of Tok.
Schwanke expects the caribou to remain in the area the rest of the winter. They may have returned to the region due to a late-arriving 2013 spring, which could have led to a change in the animals' wintering habits.
"Caribou are really dependent on early snowmelt and early spring vegetation that comes up, which really helps them after a long winter. Things were really delayed last spring, so animals had a little bit of a harder time," she said.
That's just one possible theory, however.
"One thing I learned in college is that caribou are predictably unpredictable," Schwanke said. "It's so difficult to know what caribou are going to do. Oftentimes, they have instincts that tell them to go certain places, and it's really hard to know why."
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com