Partnerships working to reduce moose collisions in Alaska

The Alaska Moose Federation, or AMF, is partnering with state agencies and private industry to implement new strategies to reduce the number of vehicle versus moose collisions.

AMF Executive Director Gary Olson said heavy snowfall last winter pushed more moose into urban environments and onto plowed roadways. That led to more than 1,000 confirmed moose collisions last winter totaling more than $35 million in damage. In one 24-hour period in early February, the federation’s moose salvage program picked up 17 dead moose.

“Those are just quantifiable numbers with X amount on vehicle damage, personal injury and loss of work to about $35,000 per collision. So, it costs a lot not doing a program,” Olson said.

As a testament to cost of moose accidents, Olson said, Allstate Insurance donated $25,000 to the federation in 2011 to support the nonprofit’s work.

The programs AMF is focused on are designed to encourage the animals to stay in their natural habitat by reducing the benefit for them of traveling in road corridors. Moose are drawn to roadways because they provide easy walking and access to young trees, a primary food source, along their edges.

“The moose are there because we’re compelling them to be there. It’s an easy place to walk; some of the best habitat, sad to say, in Mat-Su and the Kenai (Peninsula) is within 75 feet of the asphalt,” Olson said. “If you took that mentality and moved it away from the roads, but you always put it on a rotation — 15 or 20 years before it’s cut again — it’s a never ending resource.”

Last winter AMF cut 157 miles of diversionary trails near the Parks Highway in the lower Susitna valley. The cut trees and brush were then formed into 11 feeding stations. Early returns on the work indicate a 50 percent drop in moose collisions in the final two months of the winter, according to the AMF website.

At the same time Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities also widened the visible right of way to 200 feet on a 12- mile stretch of the Parks Highway near Willow, giving drivers a wider field of view and pushing the browse line farther away from traffic.

If everything works out, Olson said he hopes the federation can cut up to 400 miles of trails statewide this winter. While most work has been done around Alaska’s population centers, AMF is working all over the state to reduce moose collisions.

“We’re working in Tok right now. This is a statewide deal. We’re pretty much going where the blizzards tell us to go,” Olson said. “If you have a really deep snow year, you’ll be doing more with cutting trees and snow machines. If you have a light snow winter, we’re doing more with dozers and heavier iron. There’s really no down time.”

Doug Vincent-Lang, director of wildlife conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said AMF is issued permits before doing any work and that the federation has a working relationship with Fish and Game.

“I see the Moose Federation being a key partner in helping us increase moose production on state lands, at least, because in many areas we haven’t had fires in many years because of public safety concerns,” Vincent-Lang said.

A big reason moose are heading to road corridors to feed is the lack of forest fires in their natural habitat, Vincent-Lang said. Fires initiate the new growth moose need for food and cover. ADFG and AMF are trying to determine effective alternatives to the historical widespread blaze.

“Is there a way we can develop fire barriers and let some of those fires burn, or short of that, are there ways we can go in and physically manipulate habitat and make it more productive for moose?” he said.

The type of partnership AMF has formed with Fish and Game is critical to the success of its goals, Olson said.

What the Moose Federation needs is for the agencies to determine what needs to be implemented and when and then put the wish list out to us to go out and get it done, he said.

Last winter AMF teamed up with local snow machine clubs on the Kenai Peninsula to cut birch trees which, when down, provided moose with otherwise inaccessible food and kept them in the woods. Olson said 200 trees were cut by a small group of volunteers with snow machines and chainsaws in one day.

“There are so many people that have their own testimonial as to why it’s important to them. Our primary strength is our grassroots support,” Olson said.

AMF currently has approximately 1,200 members paying its $20 yearly membership. Olson said he hopes to have 2,000 members “by next calving season.”

Recently AMF has been cutting brush inside the fence on the New Seward Highway corridor near the Dimond Boulevard interchange with the help of volunteers. Olson said 48 cadets from the Alaska Military Youth Academy donated time to assist in removing moose food.

“Some day there’ll be zero reason for the moose to live inside that corridor,” he said.

The federation is also reaching out to private industry for help providing equipment to facilitate roadway cuts and diversionary trail clearing. Olson said AMF has purchased wood chippers and auxiliary equipment to be coupled with bulldozers and other large equipment through state grants.

Olson wants the moose federation to become specialists with attachments used on donated equipment, he said.

“If we can get that public private partnership kick-started with equipment from industry that’s going to be a win-win for everybody involved. There’s a lot of dozers that sit all winter long with snow on them,” he said. “If they were out working with Fish and Game or the (Department of Natural Resources) or the Moose Federation, for enhancing critical wintering habitat out there, there’d be less moose here on the roads and rails.”

Dave Cruz, president of Cruz Construction in Palmer, said his company is happy to provide anything AMF asks for. Cruz Construction has donated trucks, bulldozers and specialized Sno-Cat vehicles for federation work, he said. Over the past five years Cruz Construction has donated roughly $35,000 to AMF.

“We’ve been involve with Gary since the Moose Federation got going. We’ve hauled equipment, we’ve donated money, we’ve done multiple things and it’s a good business partnership because it’s a good cause,” Cruz said. “I just don’t want to see a nonprofit that’s actually doing something lose steam.”

Olson has headed AMF since it’s formation in 2002.

While AMF relies heavily on donations, Olson said the work it does pays for itself every time a moose collision is avoided. Numbers he’s seen report up to 11 emergency response personnel are called to every moose collision with injuries. Olson calls the costs “just staggering” and says that’s why AMF’s work is so important.

Olson said the moose salvage program the federation implemented has been successful in shortening accident disruption time but hopefully won’t be needed nearly as much in the future.

“We don’t want to be the best at just picking up dead moose off broken cars and hurt people,” he said. “We want to try to put ourselves out of a job when it comes to the salvage program.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/11/2016 - 8:25pm