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Too-Close Encounter with Moose

Building what amounts to a mobile bunker to defend against herds of errant moose may seem an overreaction. But New Englanders may not think it such a bizarre notion for long. Moose are steadily marching south into populated areas, and the odds of having an impromptu meeting with a moose are correspondingly rising. More than 1,000 moose collisions are recorded in a typical year in New England, and that number stands to swell.

Drivers across the northern tier of New England from Burlington, Vermont, to Houlton, Maine, have long been keenly aware of the dangers. Last June, Dana Carbonneau, a 46-year-old principal at Orleans Elementary School, was driving home on Vermont’s Route 14 from the school graduation to his home in Barre. Around 9:00 that night, a moose stepped out into the roadway; he hit it, then veered into the pathway of an oncoming truck.

Carbonneau, who had been principal at the school for eight years, died before he reached the hospital. His students hung a banner across the front of the school reading, “We miss you, Mr. C.” He was the 11th Vermonter to die in a collision with a moose.

Cedric Alexander, a state wildlife biologist in Vermont, says that while the Vermont moose herd hasn’t grown much in recent years, the moose are starting to stir, exploiting new ranges and trending south. Drivers in the state’s Northeast Kingdom have been trained to be alert for moose for the past couple of decades, but residents of southern Vermont are only beginning their education. “It’s a new phenomenon down near the Massachusetts state line,” Cedric says.

And beyond. The Massachusetts herd numbers between 500 and 700 moose and is growing. The state recorded its first crash fatality last July, when 24-year-old Amber Ronzoni of Webster struck a moose on the turnpike. And moose are increasingly colonizing Connecticut — since the state’s first collision in 1995, eight others have taken place. Moose are even breeding in Connecticut now, with at least 25 moose calves identified since 2000.

Not surprisingly, Maine is ground zero for the moose issue, since it’s home to three out of every four New England moose — about 30,000 in all. Around 700 moose collisions are logged in the average year, with three or four typically resulting in fatalities.

“More people are moving to wildlife areas, and the amount we drive has increased an incredible amount,” says Karen Morris, a wildlife biologist with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. “That combination has really become an issue.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the northernmost part of the state. Aroostook County, a sprawling county the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, claims a disproportionate number of crashes: 650 were reported between 2000 and 2002.

But it’s not statistics that have people riled up. The issue has become personal. Two of the four drivers killed last year were Aroostook County residents — Eugene Levesque was riding a motorcycle when he hit a moose, and Norman Thibodeau was in a convertible. The vague sense among many here is that moose have declared war on the residents, and the residents are ready to take up arms and fight back.

Some residents have called for sharpshooters to help manage the population. Around 2,700 people signed a petition to the state’s wildlife department last August, asking that the population of moose be dramatically culled in northern Maine.

The state did agree to boost the number of moose permits issued in the 2004 hunting season to a total of 2,895, an increase of 310 over last year. Most of the new permits, the state announced, will be issued for areas where moose collisions have been a problem.

At night, moose are especially deadly — studies in Maine found that the hour between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. is the worst for moose collisions, and some 70 percent of all moose crashes occur between 7:00 p.m. and midnight. The fur on a moose is as dark as asphalt, and headlights tend to be aimed low along the road surface, shining unhelpfully through a moose’s spindly legs. Moose have never developed the deer-like habit of staring vacantly at oncoming cars, so their eyes tend not to be reflected in headlights. And moose utterly lack road sense — there’s no guessing what a moose will do around a car.

In 1998, Maine established a committee with members from five state agencies to consider options for reducing moose crashes. The committee has concluded that it has fairly limited options: make the roads safer or make drivers more cautious. Or both.

An obvious solution — keeping moose off the road with tall fences — has been proven effective elsewhere, but it’s not cheap. Sweden has done this to good effect, lining major arteries with fencing, and it’s been done in some northern U.S. states, including Alaska. But Maine figures the cost would be $20 to $25 per foot — fiscally impractical for the state’s thousands of miles of rural roadways where the problem is endemic. Even the simple expedient of reducing winter road salt, thus eliminating the salty roadside puddles that attract moose in the spring, is difficult since alternatives are so costly.

A more practical approach may be to give drivers a heads-up when there’s a moose in the road, offering enough warning to avert a collision. Proposed methods range from high-tech to low-tech. Among the high-tech ideas is a system of light beams edging the road, which would create a virtual fence that, when crossed by an animal, would trigger flashing signs to warn motorists of an imminent hazard. A pilot project recently was proposed for a section of Maine’s Interstate 95, where two fatalities have occurred, but the bids were unexpectedly high, and the state’s now reconsidering.

Updated Friday, April 18th, 2008

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