Voices of the Peninsula: Sterling Highway Project questions prudent use of public money

  • By Ted Spraker
  • Tuesday, December 15, 2015 6:38pm
  • Opinion

As a retired wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game having served over 28 years, with 24 years on the Kenai Peninsula dealing with all facets of wildlife management including moose/vehicle accidents, I have serious concerns with the justification of constructing a fence in a portion of the Sterling Highway Project to reduce vehicle/wildlife collisions. The issue of moose/vehicle accidents has been an extremely difficult challenge across the state. When I worked for ADF&G, I spent untold hours thinking about and discussing with colleagues ways to reduce road kills, and there are no “quick-fix” solutions. We considered the merits of reducing speed limits, road conditions and every other variable imaginable and the only common denominators were: drivers must be vigilant and road sides need to be cleared to allow better visibility.

In a recent article published by the Clarion on Dec. 11, 2015, “Sterling Highway to include wildlife infrastructure” stated “the road has one of the highest wildlife/vehicle collision rates,” but that’s simply not true. Most road-kills occur within a 15-mile radius of Soldotna.

Data U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, DOT and DOWL Engineering are using to justify fencing is over three decades old. In 2012, ADF&G reported an average of about four moose kills in this stretch of the highway. With a declining moose population, the kill is even less now. I question U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and DOT’s logic in advocating spending THREE MILLION extra dollars to construct a couple miles of fence and an overpass, in hopes of saving a few of moose, when that money could be used to improve visibly. In addition, the nine foot high fence will stop wildlife migration, prevent access to public lands and create a challenge for Emergency Responders in the event of wildfire in the area.

Short of fencing the entire length of a highway, which has been successfully used in Canada, there are no guaranteed methods to reduce wildlife/vehicle accidents. However, there are techniques that can reduce their occurrence. The second most effective method to reduce accidents is to install lights along roads to increase visibility but the cost would probably be prohibitive. The third method is to clear road right-a-ways and mow annually to destroy all regrowth of browse that attracts moose. Due to the absence of fire in this part of the Peninsula since the 1947 burn, the best moose browse is along our highways. Clearing is not a guarantee but it is the most cost-effective method. DOT and the Engineers of Sterling Highway Project have the opportunity to use funds more prudently with the following suggestions.

1. Clear road right-a-ways out to 75 feet from the center line which is adequate to spot moose and reduces cost of maintenance.

2. Using a dozer, grade right-a-ways to minimize mowing effort and reduce shadows that “hide” moose.

3. Mow right-a-ways annually in late June. Cutting browse in late June, at full leaf-out, will reduce the plant’s vigor and production the following year.

4. Investigate cost savings in maintenance between annual mowing and replanting with a low growing, perennial grass (boreal fescue) that moose will not eat.

In conclusion, I am very thankful that DOT is scheduling improvement work on this section of the Sterling Highway from mile 58 to 79; I am also appreciative that DOT has contributed to building a better highway infrastructure for Alaska. Governor Walker recently proposed a 100 million dollar reduction in the state budget, during a time when State and Federal governments are in fiscal crisis public funds should be used prudently.

Ted Spraker of Soldotna is a retired state wildlife biologist.

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