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Alaska snow woes hit weary, starving moose

February 7, 2012 |  1:05 pm

Moose-snow-lyurq1pd
Alaskans can add one more woe to the problems that come with a long, cold winter full of heavy snow: weary moose.

It's actually gone beyond weary, wildlife advocates say, because moose are starving, perishing on railroad tracks and slamming through automobile windshields along highways where they go to escape the deep snow.

"It's belly deep, shoulder deep for these moose," Gary Olson, head of the Alaska Moose Federation, said in an interview. "The calves are the worst off. We've gotten reports of calves that have just given up, and the ravens are already picking at them, and they're still alive."

The state Department of Fish and Game this week announced approval of a permit for the federation to begin a diversionary feeding program for snow-stranded moose, allowing the clearing of plowed trails and the placing of bags of healthy feed as a respite until spring.

"We are authorizing this extraordinary step due to public safety concerns. We hope the diversionary feeding stations will lure moose away from roads and will reduce moose-vehicle collisions and other dangerous encounters," Tony Kavalok, assistant director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said in a statement.

Snow is now 5 to 6 feet deep in many parts of south central Alaska. Anchorage has received 103 inches of snow so far this year, and parts of the state, notably Prince William Sound, have seen even more.

While moose with their long legs normally can navigate relatively heavy snow, plowing through 5 feet for any length of time is exhausting. Many make their way to highways or railroad tracks, where the snow is cleared, but dangers abound. 

In the Matanuska-Susitna borough north of Anchorage, the average number of vehicle-moose collisions is 270 annually. That number was reached near the end of December, and officials are predicting it could double by the end of winter.

There have been more than 600 moose collisions so far across the entire region down to the Kenai Peninsula, state officials say.

"The problem with your typical moose is the body mass of the animal is far above most cars, so when a moose is struck it has an unfortunate tendency to come in the windshield, and sometimes not to trigger the airbags," Olson said.

"With the increased fuel standards coming out of our capitol in D.C., the cars are getting smaller, and the moose aren't. So it's bad."

Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said the agency has no records of how many people have been injured in moose collisions this year, but Alaska's history is replete with horror stories.

"I remember a wreck a few years back where all four people in the vehicle were killed after a moose was struck," Peters said in an email.

State authorities also get calls about defiant moose straddling plowed sidewalks at rest stops, defying those who hope to reach the restrooms.

Kavalok told the Los Angeles Times that the diversionary feeding authorized this week is different from the controversial feeding supplements sometimes offered wildlife whose winter ranges have been reduced, such as those put out for elk in Wyoming.

"This is not a supplemental feeding program. This is about getting moose attracted off the [road] corridors where they're concentrating so they're not subject to collision with motor vehicles," he said. "The whole issue is getting them a place to move to, and providing a way for them to get there."

The moose federation is using heavy track vehicles to clear snow pathways for the animals. Next, workers will put lay out feed bags to lure moose into the safety zones.

The organization has also resumed its road-kill salvage program, under which it sends trucks out to pick up carcasses and deliver them to charity groups where they can be safely butchered, avoiding the need, as is normally the case, to set up butcher stations right next to the roads.

Olson said workers are also conducting aerial surveys away from the highways, finding places where moose are stuck in deep snow near trees whose branches they can reach for food.

"What a moose does when it gets in really deep snow is they in essence plow a big circle out with their body, and they're going from tree to tree. Each time they take more of the limbs, and as they reach further up, they keep getting more wood and less bark -- and remember, the nutrients are in the bark. So they can literally perish with a stomach full of wood," Olson said.

"These herded moose are quickly exhausting any food where they are now."

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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: A moose forages on a branch in a neighborhood of west Anchorage. Credit: Erik Hill / Anchorage Daily News / Associated Press

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