ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Deep mountain snow usually drives moose to seek lower ground in Anchorage, but the snow piling up in town this winter is a bit much even for the stilt-legged animals.
So they're going where they'd rather not, choosing major roads, plowed sidewalks and groomed trails to sidestep the vast cushion of snow in neighborhoods and greenbelts left during a remarkably temperamental month in Alaska's largest city.
The half-ton ungulates are even showing up downtown, placidly gnawing on bare trees at busy intersections.
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"They don't want to walk through deep snow either," said state wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott. "Most moose don't really want to interact with people and cars and dogs."
Snow removal crews are overwhelmed with the aftermath of storms that dumped almost 76 inches of snow midway through a season that normally totals 68 inches.
It'll be weeks before they get a handle on the massive chokehold, but if the weather pattern continues the city's moose could suffer — and so could people, said Don Spalinger, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
"The problem is the moose are sticking to the trails. They're out on the roads. We could see a lot more of them hit by cars," he said, not to mention more dangerous encounters between moose and people.
In a normal winter, 130 moose can die from car collisions within the city limits.
Statistics have not been compiled yet for the latest moose casualties, but they could be two, even three times the average by winter's end, said Gary Olson of the Alaska Moose Federation, a nonprofit moose advocacy group.
"We could be heading into a killer snow year, with the snowiest months ahead," he said.
Without or without the big snow, food will become increasingly scarce over the next few months. But experts say more storms in this heavy snow season could keep moose reaching all available food, it takes more energy to trudge through deep snow, at a time when there are more of the animals in the city.
In summer, only a few hundred moose roam Anchorage. But the urban population can swell as high as 1,000 in winter. That's when many of the animals leave the harsh conditions in the nearby Chugach Mountains, traveling up to 20 miles.
In Anchorage, they forage on twigs and bark until spring brings back the plentiful greens and flowers. Moose eat up to 40 pounds of wood a day, enough to fill two large garbage cans, Sinnott said. But as the accessible food diminishes, adult moose are losing a pound a day.
A few hundred moose end up dying in town each year, including those hit by cars, according to Sinnott. Sometimes they starve to death or succumb to diseases in their weakened states, frequently in people's yards. Sometimes the carcasses aren't discovered until the snow melts.
In any case, it's the property owner's responsibility to remove the body.
"I tell people when the moose is alive, it belongs to the state," Sinnott said. "If it's dead and on your property, it belongs to you."
Sinnott keeps a roster of local trappers who will remove the carcasses for free. It's the only legal way they can use game meat for their traps, so finding volunteers is no problem.
Lynn Keogh, who uses the meat mostly for trapping wolves, already has been called to remove two dead moose, including a calf and the remains of an ailing moose that expired on a popular coastal trail.
"A lot of times I just haul them into the woods and let the animals feed on them," he said of the meat he doesn't use.
When trappers aren't available, residents either tackle the chore themselves or they hire someone like Robert Doran.
Removing dead moose is just one of the services offered by his Wasilla company, Nuisance Wildlife Management, whose ads state: "When the wilds of Alaska get too close to home."
Residents pay anywhere between $195 and $265 for his moose retrieval service. The price includes depositing the carcass at the local landfill.
"I expect it'll be busier this year because of all the snow in Anchorage," Doran said.