A large cow moose heads across the Sterling Highway in downtown Soldotna several years ago. Alaskans routinely see the animals in the road but drivers in some other states and provinces have to dodge them too.
Clarion file photo by M. Scott M
Editor’s note: This is the third of five stories examining the high number of moose road kills on the Kenai Peninsula. Wednesday’s story will focus on high moose-collision areas of the peninsula and what drivers can do to avoid accidents.
The moose of Minnesota’s Cook County are puny by Alaska standards and roam in numbers hardly notable when compared to the millions of white tail deer in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
A bull moose in the state’s northeasternmost county rings up at 800-900 pounds nothing to shout about when compared to the half-ton hulks often spotted trotting through central Kenai Peninsula parking lots. The moose population is so small in Minnesota that only 284 moose hunting licenses, heavily restricted $310 items good for two to four hunters, are issued yearly statewide, via lottery.
Still, when Minnesotans think moose, they think of Cook County, a popular tourist destination in the Superior National Forest.
That’s also why Lt. Steve Pilsbury of the Minnesota State Troopers is glad his patrolmen drive cruisers equipped with roll bars.
Last December, a trooper was driving through blowing snow back to Duluth from Cook County and found himself in the middle of a common Alaska conundrum.
The trooper wound his cruiser around a tight curve and encountered three moose on the road. He swerved, missed two, and struck one, sending it flying over the cruiser’s hood and onto the roof. The roll bar kept the officer from being crushed, Pilsbury said.
“That actually saved him from any injury. (The moose) probably would have collapsed the roof if it weren’t for that.”
Soldotna’s Tom Krueger, an EMT instructor who volunteered with several ambulance services in Cook County while living there there 22 years ago, said Minnesota’s moose are deceptively dangerous.
“They’re black like a black bear, so people don’t see them at all,” Krueger said. “Any time we had a moose collision, it was almost always fatal. There wouldn’t be any skid marks until after they hit the moose.”
The dangers of moose are dwarfed in Minnesota by the dangers of deer, Krueger said, but their small numbers add a different element of highway danger. According to John Bray, a Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesperson, those dangers arise when tourists stop for snapshots of the seldom-seen animals on Cook County’s Minnesota Highway 1.
“It’s a winding, scenic highway right through the heart of moose country,” Bray said. “What happens when tourists see a moose? They stop. What happens when they stop? They pull out their cameras. All of the sudden, another car comes along and then you have a rear-ending.”
To mitigate the effects of moose-related wrecks, Minnesota has road signs posted in areas where the beasts seem bound to wander.
Maine does the same thing and goes a step further, with good reason: moose are Maine’s number one highway killer.
“Moose are definitely Maine’s most dangerous animal,” said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. “They are responsible for double the deaths of any other animal on the highway.”
Since 2003, 18 people have been killed in Maine as a result of collisions with moose, and more than 2,000 collisions took place between 2003 and 2004 alone, McCausland said.
The Maine Bureau of Highway Safety and the Maine Department of Transportation distribute a poster with moose collision facts for display in DOT offices and tourist information centers. Emerging safety ideas are being spot tested on stretches of highway, too. The two agencies have set up rumble strips on the edge of some roadways and scattered crushed rock on a few others.
“The hope is the noise will scare the moose off,” McCausland said.
Maine also is testing high-tech signs that detect the presence of animals on the road and notify drivers if danger is ahead.
To hear Gayle Hesse tell it, Maine may as well not bother with signs. Hesse is the program coordinator for the Wildlife-Vehicle Accident Prevention Program (WVAPP) based in Kamloops, British Columbia. The program started in 2001 as a joint venture between the nonprofit British Columbia Conservation Foundation and the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), a company with a provincial monopoly on basic automobile insurance coverage.
ICBC knew there was a steady increase in automobile collisions with large animals year after year and wanted the nonprofit to test new technologies, like the infrared signs, to see if anything could be done to slow the increase. The infrared technology used by WVAPP is called FLASH, which stands for “flashing light animal sensing host.”
“I prefer not to focus on those technologies because the results didn’t turn out particularly favorably,” Hesse said.
Between 2001 and 2003, WVAPP installed the signs around Kooteny National Park to little avail. The group got the same results Wyoming officials did when attempting to curb mule deer deaths in Nugget Canyon in 2001: FLASH is remarkably unreliable. In half the cases, the infrared sensors were set off by things like blowing grass or birds.
A geophone system, used to pick up ground vibrations, was more accurate in detecting danger for use in alerting motorists, but WVAPP and Wyoming both found that motorists didn’t slow down any sooner. In most cases, drivers didn’t slow down until they saw an animal.
“My program turned to public awareness at that point,” Hesse said, referencing her group’s distribution of highway safety brochures to car rental stations, rest areas, tourist information kiosks and advertising purchased in tourist, travel, trucking, logging and naturalist magazines. “In B.C., we don’t use the word ‘accident,’ because that implies there was nothing a motorist could do to prevent it. We say ‘collisions’ or ‘crashes.’”
So do Alaska State Troopers, for the most part. Another commonality between British Columbia, Maine and Alaska is how dead moose and other road killed animals are dealt with: the road kill list. In British Columbia, as in Alaska, a representative from one of a loosely-woven group of charities is called when a usable carcass is left on the road. The charities either butcher the animal and distribute the meat or call those on the road kill list for assistance in the task.
In Maine, the road kill distribution duties are organized primarily by The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which unlucky motorists or Maine troopers call at (888) 4DEERME.
“We hook the troopers up with a processor, we get the bill, then the processors distribute it,” said Tim Drake, an assistant director with the program.
The processor means the butcher, and distribution means the meat goes to the needy or to a TEFAP location for storage and later distribution to needy families.
Butchers in Minnesota get calls, too, although the butchering of a struck moose or deer is paid for by whoever claims the animal. If an animal isn’t claimed, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers are required to dispose of it usually by dragging it into the woods.
There is no network of distributors to get the meat to the needy in Cook County, but butcher Luke Whitney does carve up a moose or two between the hundreds of deer claimed or hunted brought in each year for processing at Zup’s Food Market in the city of Cook.
“It’s just like deer. If you bring it in, we’ll clean it up.”
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