Rick Ernst outfits a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Piper Super Cub with radio tracking antennae before taking off from Soldotna Municipal Airport earlier this month to search for radio-collared moose in the Kenai Mountains near the Sterling Highway west of Cooper Landing. His agency is one of several working together to minimize collisions with moose.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Editor’s note: This is the final of five stories examining the high number of moose road kills on the Kenai Peninsula.
Imagine for a moment a moose preparing to amble across the Sterling Highway in the black of a moonless night.
Rather than thinking of this dark-colored animal as a half-ton road hazard, try to visualize it instead as a warning beacon to motorists.
Before the moose can lay one hoof on the pavement, its hulking body breaks an infrared beam that triggers flashing lights on a moose warning sign a few miles away.
While still just an imaginary scenario, it’s one of several options an interagency work group devoted to reducing moose-vehicle collisions is hoping to make into reality.
“There’s a lot of technology out now,” said Rick Ernst, a wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Ernst is a member of the interagency work group made up of representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Federal Highway Administration, Alaska Moose Federation and Alaska State Troopers involved in a wildlife mitigation and human safety project for the Sterling Highway from Milepost 58-79.
“This section has one of the highest moose-vehicle collision rates in the state for a rural area,” Ernst said, which corresponds to state of Alaska records that 214 moose-vehicle collisions were recorded in this area between 1980 and 2001.
Future construction projects are planned for this section of highway, which extends a few miles west of the Russian River Ferry to just east of Kenai Keys Road. Where the roadway is upgraded and passing lanes are created, increased traffic and vehicle speeds may subsequently follow.
This has the potential to further increase the number of moose-vehicles collisions. The inter-agency group is actively involved in research that aims to make this new section of road safer for motorists and wildlife.
“We’re pleased with how the project is going so far,” Ernst said.
The first phase of the project got under way last October when Fish and Game biologists captured 30 moose along the highway corridor and fitted them with tags and global positioning system collars for the purpose of identifying preconstruction moose migration routes.
Ernst said he is expecting the collars will reveal significant amounts of information on where, when and how often moose cross the highway. A similar study was conducted involving radio-collared caribou.
“That one animal crossed the study area of the Sterling Highway about 17 times in one year, but also crossed other roads as well,” he said.
Ernst said the caribou may have crossed the highway even more than what is recorded, since the GPS collar it was fitted with only recorded its location about every 13 hours.
The collars the moose are fitted with record their location every 30 minutes from October to April, then every two hours after April.
“We’re expecting a lot of movement data,” Ernst said.
This data will be obtained after he retrieves the collars ,which drop off by remote release in early June.
Despite their size, moose are able to blend in with their surrounding at any time of the year. This attribute protects them from every predator except a motor vehicle.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In addition to collaring the moose, the initial phase of the project also involves the installation of signs at each end of the project area with a hot line number (262-2300), and more visible milepost markers within the area.
“We had 36 calls on the hot line between November and March,” Ernst said.
Ernst said he wants to encourage motorists who see wildlife between miles 58-79 to continue to call the hot line and report the species of animal, the date, time and closest milepost to where it was seen.
Information obtained from the hot line will be combined with data from the GPS collars this year and next to determine the sections of the highway with the highest densities of wildlife activity.
At that point, the project will shift to the next phase, which looks at mitigation measures that could reduce moose-vehicle collisions for those sections, such the infrared lasers that detect animals and trip a flashing light on an animal crossing sign to warn approaching motorists. Underpasses and overpasses are other critter-crossing possibilities.
“We’ll review the literature for the latest wildlife crossing structures, techniques and other options for mitigating wildlife impacts,” Ernst said.
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