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Group Floats Plan to Save Railway Moose

Winter Kill: Nonprofit wants National Guard to help keep animals off tracks

Zaz Hollander / Anchorage Daily News / December 29, 2004

Wasilla -- Moose struggling through this winter's deep, wet snow north of Talkeetna gravitate to the cleared paths of the Alaska Railroad tracks.

They don't leave the tracks for anything. Not even the trains that run twice a day.

Between late November and mid-December, trains killed a dozen moose in a particularly snowy and narrow 100-mile corridor from Talkeetna to the Susitna River, according to statistics supplied by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

That's an average of nearly a moose a day.

"When a moose gets in front of a train, it runs down the tracks. It takes two miles to stop a train," said Gary Olson, chairman of the Moose Federation, an Anchorage-based nonprofit with about 700 members. "A moose gets stuck under the engine, they have to run back and forth to get rid of it."

Olson wants to enlist the Alaska National Guard to prevent additional train kills. Theoretically, he said, Guard crews could use tracked amphibious personnel carriers called Susvees to do the job. The carriers would create a crusty path on the snow next to the tracks. The moose would walk on the new path instead of the tracks.

Olson said he discussed the idea with Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell, commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. At this point, no coordination for the project is under way, a Guard spokesman said.

Several things need to happen first, said Maj. Mike Haller.

First, Olson needs to file an official request. Then the railroad would need to sign off on the project. The Guard would also need to make sure a commercial contractor wouldn't be a better choice for the job. Officials also need to establish a training component to the job.

And there's the larger question of whether Guard members busy preparing for overseas missions even have time to pack moose trails.

"We have two companies of soldiers readying to go to Iraq and Haiti," Haller said. "We're not sitting someplace just waiting for things to do."

Officials from the railroad say they try their best to avoid moose kills.

The railroad normally clears a 20-foot-wide path across the tracks when enough snow falls.

But officials say they can't clear moose paths along the tracks north of Talkeetna because of the terrain hemming in the rails: the Susitna to the west and steep ridges to the east.

"There's no stinkin' way to do it," said railroad spokesman Tim Thompson. "The train literally goes through there."

Rail crews always clear the tracks, then generally clear paths along the tracks with wings that come off the plow, Thompson said. Between Talkeetna and Hurricane, however, the railroad doesn't have room to clear the wider trails.

This year, the amount of snow is creating more than the usual problems for moose on railroad tracks. Regular early-season dumps blanketed Trapper Creek to Cantwell and north this winter. On Friday, heavy snow created impassable conditions on the Parks Highway around Cantwell.

Biologists say heavy snow years kill many moose because the big animals burn valuable energy just moving around to find food. Moose also tend to migrate down from the mountains to munch on willows and other brush in the valleys and travel on frozen rivers.

But the Susitna isn't frozen yet. So moose in the high-kill rail corridor north of Talkeetna are probably following the tracks, said Bob Tobey, area wildlife biologist based in Glennallen.

"The tracks mimic a natural passageway. When they're plowed, (moose) can move from plant to plant without expending a whole lot of energy," Tobey said. "They see the train as another predator. They try to outrun it."

Last year, automobiles killed three times more moose than trains did, Thompson said.

Snowmachiners often encounter moose on trails during heavy snow winters like this one, said Wayne Wilken, who owns a cabin in the Chulitna area where he measured six to seven feet of snow last month.

"In big snow years, the moose on snowmachine trails are sometimes a problem," Wilken said. "We just give them the right of way. Unfortunately, it's difficult for the train to do that."

Meanwhile, Olson's group is targeting a nine-mile section of track near Cantwell for a bigger project to protect a dwindling number of moose that move in and out of Denali National Park & Preserve.

The plan involves a railroad-built under-crossing to give moose a tunnel below the tracks, combined with directional fencing that corrals the animals into the tunnel.

Deep snows about 15 years ago near Cantwell resulted in a total of 77 moose killed in the area by trains, Olson said.

"The herd is now 25 to 30," he said. "You can't kill 77 again."

Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander can be reached in Wasilla at 1-907-352-6711 or at zhollander@adn.com.


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