Wolf Song of Alaska News

Moose Welcome Mat Packs a Jolting Punch

KEEP OUT: Electrified system at Wasilla airport zaps intruding ungulates

Doug O'Hara / Anchorage Daily News / November 7, 2004

Moose trying to snack on brush inside the fence surrounding the Wasilla municipal airport this winter may be in for a painful shock, in what amounts to a new electrifying idea in Alaska's struggle to keep moose off highways and airports.

A Canadian company that sells flexible electric fencing aimed at horse farms will install a new device in the ground across the airport's two entrance gates, which remain open during the day.

Made of 2-inch-thick plastic boards with electrified brass rods, and inserted flush into the pavement, the 22-foot-long ElectroMAT is supposed to zap trespassing moose with the same kind of low-amp, high-voltage jolt delivered by livestock fences. But it won't bite people wearing shoes or riding in vehicles.

The theory is that the trespassing moose will step on the mat -- feel a harmless but extremely unpleasant 8,000-to-10,000 volt zing -- then flee the tarmac for good, said David Bryson, president of ElectroBraid Fence Inc., of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The same company has also been pitching state and local governments to try out its white, rope-like electric fence along highways and roads.

"It costs about one-fifth the cost of chain link fencing," Bryson said. "A moose comes up and touches it with its nose, gets shocked and doesn't want to come back. ... They don't understand electricity. They just know it hurts like hell."

But stringing an effective electric fence raises the same conservation issues as any other fence: It can trap moose in the highway corridor or stop them from freely migrating to food, said state biologist Rick Sinnott, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"You just can't practically put fences on every road in Anchorage that you want to keep moose off," he said. The simple solution? "When it's dark and it's icy and you're driving to work every day and there are moose all over the road, just slow down a little."

The proposals come at the start of another moose-vehicle collision season in Southcentral Alaska. Each winter, cars and trucks and trains plow into hundreds of moose -- causing millions of dollars in damage, scores of serious injuries to people, and one or two deaths.

Wasilla can use the $18,500 system at its airport gates all winter and pay for it next year only if moose stay out, Bryson said. "This is an ideal demonstration site," he said.

"I am extremely happy to say that Wasilla is the first airport in the state of Alaska to test this product," said Mayor Dianne Keller. "I'm directing my staff to work with (his) staff, and we're going to make this happen."

Moose sneak into the Wasilla airport compound a couple times each winter, said airport manager Thomas Westall. The airport is officially "unattended," which means individual pilots are responsible for making sure it's safe to land.

Still, Westall, retired manager of the flight standards division for the Federal Aviation Administration in Alaska and a forensic consultant for aircraft accidents, responds to moose reports as quickly as possible.

"I become a moose cowboy and herd them back out," he said. "It doesn't happen often, maybe twice a year. But any time it happens is too often."

Keller said she learned about the ElectroMAT from Gary Olson, chairman of the 800-member Alaska Moose Federation. Olson's group has been lobbying for funding to build moose overpasses and install fencing, create a holding area for orphaned calves, and raise awareness about moose-vehicle issues in the region.

The Canadian company started working on ElectroMAT as a way to plug gaps made by driveways and all-terrain-vehicle crossings in places where airports and highway departments were testing its ElectroBraid fence as deterrent to wildlife, Bryson said.

The fence is a basically a white rope strung with copper that's hooked up to a device that charges it with the same type of electrical pulse used in electric livestock fences. Unlike stiff wire used with cattle, it's flexible -- something that attracts people with expensive horses.

"It looks something like a boxing ring," Bryson said. "It's resilient, and it's the kind of thing animals can run into and they won't get hurt."

The company has sold the product to about 20,000 horse farms, doing about $10 million worth of business annually, Bryson said. But it's also been successfully tested on three-mile stretch of highway in New Brunswick and at military airports in the Lower 48.

Scientists at the National Wildlife Research Center in Ohio strung an ElectroBraid fence around a trough full of feed corn and tested it for three winters among a dense population of white-tailed deer, federal biologist Thomas Seamans said in an e-mail message.

The electric fence reduced deer intrusions by 88 percent to 99 percent, he said. But animals would still sometimes get across. "As with most fence systems, an animal that is motivated by fear or perhaps hunger can defeat the fence and enter into the protected area."

The state ought to consider using the ElectroBraid system along the Glenn Highway through the Palmer Hay Flats or along the Bragaw Street extension, Olson said. It would be inexpensive enough to extend the Glenn's anti-moose fencing from Fort Richardson on out to the Valley.

Over the past few months, Bryson has been talking with state highway officials about installing a demonstration fence along the south side of Tudor Road and other locations, including stretches along the Parks Highway near Church Road and Mile 61.

But in the end, he decided the sites weren't practical as demonstration projects.

One reason that Tudor Road wouldn't work was that Anchorage moose seem to step into traffic from unexpected directions, Bryson said.

"The moose are actually walking down the middle of the roads, like Bragaw Street and Boniface Parkway," Bryson said.

 

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'harra@adn.com.

 

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