MAT-SU - A winter that has much of Southcentral Alaska measuring its seasonal snowfall in feet rather than inches has an organization responding to what it's calling a wildlife emergency.
Alaska Moose Federation has expanded its mission of improving winter habitat accessibility for local moose herds to include responding to collisions between the largest of the deer species and motorists. Deep snows are driving moose to forage for food along roadways and railroad tracks, which have resulted in numerous collisions, said Gary Olson, Alaska Moose Federation executive director.
An average winter sees about 270 moose-vehicle collisions in the Mat-Su Valley, said Tim Peltier, acting area game manager for the Palmer office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. As of Friday afternoon, there have been 315 such accidents, with another 10 to 12 weeks of winter left.
That's why AMF has asked U.S. Sen. Mark Begich's office and Gov. Sean Parnell to declare a moose emergency, Olson said. That request also coincides with the federation taking over moose recovery efforts for Alaska State Troopers. Since Jan. 1, AMF has been responding to moose-vehicle accidents in the Anchorage area, and Friday saw that response expand to include the Valley.
Troopers have a list of charities that receive road-kill moose, Olson said. Until now, it's been the responsibility of those charities to respond and remove moose from accident scenes. In many cases, that has meant long waits for law enforcement personnel and dangerous situations for charity volunteers who often had to butcher the animals on the side of busy roads.
"It used to be people would come out and butcher a moose right there because they couldn't transport a whole moose," Olson said. "Now, it's out of there in 15, 20 minutes. It's better for the officers, better for the citizens, because you don't have people exposed out there on the side of the road."
Since starting retrieval in the Anchorage area Jan. 1, AMF has cut the average response time and removal of moose by an average of about 2.5 hours per incident, Olson said. Volunteers use a specially equipped truck with a winch to remove the moose whole, which is then delivered to the designated charity.
Olson recounts one incident along the Seward Highway where volunteers were ill-equipped to deal with a dead moose.
"They had grandmothers who'd never butchered a moose before and were out there for nine hours," he said. "They brought a drawer of kitchen knives and learned to butcher a moose right there in the fast lane of the new Seward Highway."
In less than a month, the difference in response has been remarkable, said Lt. Dave Parker of the Anchorage Police Department.
"It works wonderfully. They're Johnny on the spot," he said. "It cuts down the response time and the amount of time our officers have to spend worrying about traffic. The state is behind it and DOT is all in favor of it. They've expanded to also include relocation of baby moose when the momma gets hit. In those situations, the baby moose usually becomes the next one (to get hit)."
The recovery program is made possible through a $700,000 appropriation from the state Legislature spread out over a number of years, Olson said. But this winter's extreme moose kill numbers are eating through that funding, he said. The average truck costs about $10,000 to $15,000, and requires another $7,000 to modify for recovery. And there are five AMF trucks able to respond 24/7 in the Valley.
"We're being forced to acquire more trucks, and need a (larger) maintenance program and fuel (budget)," he said. "The whole heart of this program is the volunteers. When you see a moose out there and you see law enforcement waiting forever, there are so many reasons we need this program."
Another benefit for AMF to respond is the organization can also collect information from accident scenes to use for future mitigation planning, Olson said, adding it didn't take long for Valley volunteers to be put to work. Only hours after going live, the first call came in at about 7 a.m., Friday.
Justin Anderson, an employee at Sportsman's Warehouse in Wasilla, picked up that moose in the Palmer area.
"I just like to help give back to our community and help some people get some moose in their freezer," Anderson said. "Also, it helps the troopers get back out on the road helping our people more."
That's one reason why Sportsman's Warehouse employees have agreed to man two of the AMF trucks, said volunteer Josh Anderson. He responded to the second Valley call at about 7:30 a.m., Saturday. That call came after an extra-early false alarm.
"I got a call at about 3 a.m. to retrieve a moose that had been hit by a motorist," he said. "Then they called back and said that the moose had stood up and revived itself."
As winter moves on, Olson said he expects Valley volunteers to be busy. In fact, there are so many moose being hit, the state Department of Transportation has stopped trying to update its signs tallying moose-vehicle accidents.
"From what the numbers are telling me, we can expect to get at least one to three a day with all this deep snow out here in the Valley," Olson said. "(DOT) can't keep up putting numbers on their signs. If you look at those signs on the side of the road, they're blank."
Contact Greg Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2269.
WANT TO VOLUNTEER?
To learn more about volunteering with Alaska Moose Federation, visit the group's website at growmoremoose.org.