An adult moose crosses the Sterling Highway near Sterling last winter. This moose made it across safely but every year several hundred others end up in collisions with motor vehicles.
M. SCOTT MOON
A project devoted to reducing moose-vehicle collisions was recently hit with bad news when one of the 30 cow moose in the study was struck by a vehicle in the research area along the Sterling Highway.
Yet, from this animal’s death, researchers are learning a lot, since the cow was wearing a global positioning system collar.
“We were able to learn that she crossed the highway roughly 86 times in five months, 85 of which were in the month of January. She was just zig-zagging the highway in the coldest, darkest, most dangerous time of year,” 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 Mile 58 through 79.
The project started 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 moose migration routes. The collars recorded their location every 30 minutes from October through April, and every two hours after April. The collars are scheduled to drop off by remote release in late June.
This map shows the movements of a single cow moose in January. The blue dots represent her location, tracked every 30 minutes in January, with the lines representing her course of travel, which crossed the Sterling Highway -- shown by the red line -- 85 times that month.
Map courtesy of Rick Ernst, Kena
Ernst said he expected the collars would reveal significant amounts of information on where, when and how often moose cross the highway, but even he was surprised with the initial data gleaned from the first moose’s collar.
“We knew this was a dangerous section of highway from trooper records and such, but it was a surprise to find out that one animal crossed that many times,” he said.
Despite her numerous highway crossings in January, the cow was struck in May.
“It got smacked by a car on May 8, right near Milepost 70.5 at roughly 8 a.m.,” Ernst said.
Rick Ernst, a wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and a member of an interagency work group devoted to reducing the number of moose-vehicle collisions along a stretch of the Sterling Highway from Mile 58-79, holds up a global positioning system collar from a moose that was recently stuck by a vehicle in the study area.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Ernst said that the majority of the moose’s highway crossings took place within a 2 1/2-mile stretch of road between Miles 68 and 70.5.
As to why the moose spent so much time in this area, Ernst said it is difficult to say for certain at this point in the research.
However, from the 8,000 locations recorded in the five months the female wore the collar, Ernst said he was able to learn what the moose was doing on certain days at certain times.
“We saw that north of the highway between Milepost 68 and 69 where there was clearing for power lines she spent a whole lot of time several days at least in that area,” he said.
He said one possibility of why the cow frequented the site was she was drawn to young birch and aspens growing in sections that have been cleared of trees and brush.
Based on what Ernst has gleaned from this first collar, he said he is excited to retrieve the data from the remaining 29 moose, whose collars are scheduled to drop off within the next two weeks.
“It’ll be fascinating when we get all the collars and data from them. They should each have 10,000 locations recorded, as opposed to the 8,000 the moose that was hit had,” he said.
In addition to collaring the moose, the project also involves putting up wildlife crossing warning signs at each end of the project area and opening a hotline number (262-2300). Workers also installed more and more visible mile markers within the area. Ernst said this aspect of the project is going well.
“We’re learning a lot from the hotline. We’ve had 52 wildlife sightings called in, including three for black bears and two for caribou. That’s important to looking at the big picture that many species of wildlife are crossing the highway, not just moose,” he said.
Information obtained from the hotline will be combined with the data from the collars this year and next, when more moose will be fitted with collars, 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 these sections. Underpasses, overpasses and signs with infrared lasers that detect animals and trip a flashing light on an animal crossing sign to warn motorists are a few of the possibilities.
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