KENAI, Alaska – One of the moose in a research project aimed at reducing moose-vehicle collisions on the Kenai Peninsula was recently hit and killed by a vehicle in the research area along the Sterling Highway.
But researchers are learning a lot, since the moose 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 zigzagging the highway in the coldest, darkest, most dangerous time of year," said Rick Ernst, a wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
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.
Ernst is a member of an 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. The group is focusing its efforts on 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.
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.
Ernst said he was surprised with the initial data gleaned from the dead 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.
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. Ernst said it was difficult to know why the moose spent so much time in the same area.
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.
The also involves putting up wildlife crossing warning signs at each end of the project area and opening a hotline number.
Workers also installed more — and more visible — mile markers within the area.
"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.