Moose vs. motorists

Ambling ungulates a destructive problem for peninsula drivers

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006


  Car headlights illuminate a moose as it ambles across the Sterling Highway near Sterling earlier this winter. While this moose made it across safely, many others don¿t. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Car headlights illuminate a moose as it ambles across the Sterling Highway near Sterling earlier this winter. While this moose made it across safely, many others dont.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Editor’s note: This is the first of five stories examining the high number of moose road kills on the Kenai Peninsula. Monday’s story will focus on property damage resulting from moose collisions.

Paul Axtmann, of Kasilof, adjusted his headlights as he approached an oncoming car through a mix of falling snow and rain on the Sterling Highway and peered into the night through the rhythmic sweeping of his windshield wipers.

His wife noticed he had suddenly slowed and had just begun to ask why when Axtmann veered left and yelled “duck!”

No sooner had Axtmann yelled than the windshield and roof caved beneath the rear of a large moose, bloodying Axtmann’s knuckles and his wife’s knee as she tried to protect herself.

When the car came to a stop three shaken occupants — Axtmann, his wife and his son — sat beneath a large v-shaped dent in the roof.

Although the windshield remained in one piece, it was shattered and disfigured, bowing into the car like a melted sheet of wax.

Axtmann, his wife and his son did not suffer serious injuries. But the Axtmanns’ accident is just one out of approximately 200 moose related collisions that have been reported on the peninsula since July 1. Although human fatalities are uncommon, injuries are not.

And moose and vehicle do not necessarily need to collide for vehicle damage and injuries to occur in a moose-related accident.

In an accident reported earlier this month, for example, a man from Anchor Point swerved off the Sterling Highway and successfully avoided a moose, but totaled his truck and trailer, and suffered back injuries as a result.

While vehicles sometimes leave an accident scene up and running, moose almost never do.

“When a vehicle hits a moose it’s destructive, it messes them up pretty bad,” said Tom Lohuis, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game moose research center. “They’ve got such long legs and they’re fragile. Unfortunately they don’t generally walk away from that.”

Since 1988 the recorded number of moose killed by vehicles on the Kenai Peninsula has fishtailed anywhere from 366 to 171 per year. So far in regulatory year 2005-06, which started July 1, 176 moose have been killed by vehicles.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game tracks the number of moose killed by vehicle collisions on the peninsula each year using Alaska State Troopers and local police reports.

However, the recorded number of moose killed by vehicles does not reflect the total number of moose-related accidents that occur on the peninsula each year.

A large number of moose and other animal-related accidents may go unreported because either people do not know they should report the accident or want to avoid contact with law enforcement officers.

Uninsured, unlicensed or inebriated motorists who hit an animal, for example, are unlikely to report the accident if they can still drive away, said Larry Lewis, a Fish and Game wildlife technician.

Moose that are hit, but not found because they walked away from the scene of the accident before they died or walked away and recovered, are recorded separately.

Since the beginning of this regulatory year in July 1, 34 moose have been recorded as hit and reported but not recovered, according to Lewis.

Moose are not the only large animals that get hit on the peninsula, but they are far and away the most common road kill victims.

So far this regulatory year, two bears, one coyote, three caribou, three geese and one eagle have been hit and recovered. In addition, six bears have been hit but not recovered.

Over the last 20 years an average of 263 moose have been killed and recovered each year.

Moose behavior around roads varies. They may dart, they may mosey or they may just stand in the road, oblivious to the danger around them.

A number of factors can influence their behavior, including how habituated they are to roads and traffic. Moose that spend most of their lives deep in the wilderness, for example, are likely to be more skittish around roads and traffic than moose that spend months browsing on bushes in the backyards of Soldotna.

“Some of them, you’ll notice when they hit the road it’s a different feeling on their hooves so they kind of scramble across it when they hit it,” said Jeff Selinger, area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “The ones living around it all of the time are used to it, they just kind of walk.”

As the darkness retreats to the early morning and late evening hours, and fewer moose wander roadways to avoid walking through snow, the risk of hitting a moose subsides somewhat. But the risk of hitting a moose will rise again in late May and June when cows drop their calves.

Calves sometimes leap into the road after the cow has already crossed and motorists should keep a watchful eye out for them as spring approaches, Fish and Game experts say.

There is no sure way of avoiding moose on the road. Fish and Game experts say drivers who drive at speeds appropriate for the current road, weather and lighting conditions and keep an eye the sides of the roads reduce their risk.

Axtmann said that until he hit a moose himself, he thought a driver could only hit such a large animal if they were not paying attention to the road.

Now, however, he knows first hand how easy it can be to hit a moose.

Axtmann said despite all of his attention being directed to driving, the moose still managed to escape his detection until it was too late.

“All of the bells and whistles were going,” he said, referring to the moment that he first noticed a hazy shadow that quickly turned into a moose. “It just seemed like a black hole. I couldn’t figure it out. It just happened so quick.”

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