Heavy snows cause "moose emergency" concern in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Tue Jan 31, 2012 10:01pm EST

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Heavy snows in parts of Alaska are taking a deadly toll on moose as deep snowdrifts force the animals into hazardous detours on plowed roads and railroad tracks, officials said on Tuesday, prompting one group to seek declaration of a "moose emergency."

The ambling animals are then being killed in increasing numbers in high-speed rail and road collisions, state and local officials said.

In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage, 315 moose have been killed in vehicle collisions so far this winter, said Tim Peltier, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The average is roughly 270 for the winter, he said.

The state-owned Alaska Railroad faces similar problems, with 131 moose killed so far this winter by trains, railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan said. That number is already higher than a yearly average of about 100 for the past three years.

"The moose like the clear areas on the tracks. We do everything we can to keep them off the tracks, but sometimes it's impossible," he said.

The large number of collisions this winter prompted the Alaska Moose Federation, a non-profit group associated with sport hunters, to ask Governor Sean Parnell to declare an official emergency.

Such a declaration would it easier for the group to get permits to cut trees and otherwise clear paths for the moose to escape roadway dangers, said Gary Olson, executive director of the organization.

"We still have 10 weeks of winter," Olson said. "The emergency request is to get all the agencies to the table to make sure the next 10 weeks are not as bad as it could be."

The Alaska Railroad was already employing some precautions to avoid moose collisions, Sullivan said. In some areas, workers can use a special plow to clear an extra 25 feet on each side of the tracks, giving the animals room to escape oncoming trains.

The railroad has also plowed about 50 miles of trail for moose to use to lead them away from the tracks, he said. Hitting a moose is traumatic for railroad employees as well as deadly for the animals, Sullivan said.

"Nobody likes it. Nobody gets used to hitting a moose on the tracks," he said.

In Anchorage, total moose fatalities from vehicle collisions were not yet available, said Jessy Coltrane, a regional Fish and Game biologist. But she believed the tally for Alaska's largest city will be significantly higher than the annual average of 155, she said.

"There are a lot of moose in town," she said. "Most of the moose have come in from the mountains because the snow is so deep."

Anchorage has received 91.8 inches of snowfall so far this winter, said John Stepetin, a specialist at the National Weather Service, far more than the average of 74.5 inches recorded for entire winters in the past.

Moose killed by trains are generally processed at a minimum-security prison, where inmates are getting food-industry and farm-related job training, with the meat given to a food bank. In other cases, charities and churches send representatives to haul away corpses and salvage the meat.

(Editing by Mary Slosson and Cynthia Johnston)

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