Most Alaskans are familiar with the bright yellow "Give A Moose a Brake" signs lining the state's roadways that keep a tally of the moose killed on that road or in that area each year. The signs act as a reminder for drivers to slow down and watch for moose darting into traffic.
But moose aren't the only Alaska critters that need a "brake" from drivers. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says slow-moving porcupines might have it the worst when it comes to vehicle-animal collisions on the state's roads, and it's even more evident this time of year, when Southcentral roads are packed with people trying to savor the brief Alaska summer.
"Porcupines may well be the No. 1 road kill in Alaska," Fish and Game says on its porcupine fact sheet. Vehicles are listed as one of only two threats to porcupines.
Last weekend, the Sterling Highway had its typical bumper-to-bumper traffic that accompanies the annual dipnetting season along the Kenai River. But on the road and beneath weekend warriors' tires was a porcupine graveyard, with bloody quilled carcasses lining the highway from the Seward Highway turnoff to Soldotna.
"What you saw along the Sterling Highway is probably not unusual for that region," Fish and Game spokesperson Ken Marsh said. "Over the last 40 years, I have also observed what sometimes seems to be a disproportionate number of road kill porcupine along the Sterling Highway."
According to Marsh, the high volume of porcupine road kill deaths in the Sterling Highway region is likely due to two factors: a thriving porcupine habitat near the highway and an uptick of traffic headed in both directions due to the sockeye salmon run and the opening of dipnet fishing.
"Fireweed grows well along roadsides and the emerging shoots are popular with porcupines," Fish and Game says. Last weekend, fireweed lined the highway.
Vehicles also a pose a greater threat during porcupine mating season in the fall, when porcupines are more mobile in search of mates, as well as in the spring, when vegetation begins popping up close to roadways.
But how do so many porcupine fatalities affect the overall population? Biologists say it's hard to tell.
"Unfortunately, porcupine densities are very difficult to determine," Marsh said.
He said former Anchorage-area biologist Jessy Coltrane, who conducted her Ph.D. work on porcupines, once said, "Obtaining population data on a small nocturnal creature that often dwells obscured in trees is nearly impossible."
Fish and Game doesn't keep track of exactly how many are killed by vehicles every year, as they do with moose, Marsh said, but the department assumes porcupines are getting the worst of it.
The number isn't small: On average, in the areas of Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, and the Kenai Peninsula, Fish and Game estimates more than 800 moose are killed by vehicles annually. Bulls can weigh more than 1,500 pounds and stand 6 feet tall -- a lot easier to spot than a 2-foot-long, 20-pound porcupine plodding across the road.
If maintenance staff with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities see a porcupine carcass and have time, they'll clean up the mess, department spokesperson Jill Reese said. But they don't make a special trip to do so.
Maintenance crews don't work on the weekends, so during the summer months, when Sterling Highway traffic is at its busiest, the carcasses of all the porcupines remain in the road.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing