As daylight hours dwindle, drowsy area drivers once again face the prospect of dealing with the Kenai Peninsula's most infamous commuter: alces americana, the dreaded moose.
Collisions between motorists and the largest member of the deer family are a common occurrence on area roads, especially during the winter. That's when darkness and icy roads conspire to make vehicle versus moose encounters a daily event.
Statistics compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game indicate an average of 266 moose are struck and killed each year by peninsula drivers.
The number of collisions is even higher, according to Fish and Game area biologist Larry Lewis, because statistics only take into account moose that are killed immediately following a wreck. Many more wander off, only to succumb to injuries later.
"You can add about a third to that number," Lewis said Thursday from Soldotna.
Seventy-five moose have been struck and killed peninsula-wide since July 1. Lewis said that number is right on the average for this time of year. However, with more of the morning and evening drive times now shrouded in darkness, those numbers are expected to rise.
Phil Weber and Ron Gravenhorst harvest a moose killed by a vehicle near Cooper Landing two winters ago.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"That's when you see the most of the accidents," he said. "People on their way to work or on their way home."
Although winter traffic can be hazardous for humans and animals alike, some good does result from the annual carnage.
Alaska law requires that road-killed moose be donated to charity. That allows many underprivileged residents the chance to fill freezers with much-needed meat for the winter. Numerous charity and church groups participate in a program that distributes the meat to needy families.
According to Fish and Wildlife Trooper Sgt. Glenn Godfrey, whenever a moose is struck, troopers immediately notify a participating agency that it's time to go to work.
"They have to be able to respond within 30 minutes, 24 hours a day," Godfrey said.
He said whoever is responsible for picking up the moose must handle the animal pretty much like any moose killed in the field. That means the animal's hide, meat and guts have to be properly disposed of.
That often means someone can be saddled with an enormous task, especially during cold winter nights. That's where the support of concerned citizens becomes invaluable.
Peggy Moore, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, credits volunteer support with enabling the program to be a success. She said one volunteer in particular has enabled the food bank to distribute thousands of pounds of meat to those who most need it.
"(Troopers) have a hard time finding people to go out there, especially late at night. He goes out whatever time it is. He has been so gracious in doing this," Moore said, although she declined to reveal the name of the anonymous midnight butcher.
Moore said any moose the group receives is quartered, then distributed to the top four families on the food bank's list. That way, numerous families get a large supply of meat to use throughout the year.
"It will make a significant difference to families who need it," she said.
She said although the food bank can usually handle any request to salvage a moose, more volunteers are always welcome.
Both Godfrey and Moore stressed that the success of the program lies in the fact that its sole purpose is to get food to the people who most need it.
Moore said the program turns something that can often be a tragic event, a traffic accident, into a benefit to the community.
"The people who have received the moose have been extremely grateful," she said.
Those not so grateful -- besides the moose -- are the unlucky drivers who encounter the beasts head-on. For drivers concerned about their safety, biologist Lewis offers some simple advice.
"The standard advice is leave earlier and don't overdrive your headlights," he said.
Lewis noted drivers should be especially aware of moose standing beside the road when headlights from oncoming traffic can distract a driver's attention.
"My advice to folks is when you have oncoming traffic, slow down and really be aware," he said.
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