States Develop Strategies To Decrease Moose Collisions
11/25/10 5:50PM Shannon Mullen  Download MP3
(Host) In recent years, moose populations have been growing in New York and New England.
And although some residents are delighted to see them, as their numbers increase these large animals pose a growing danger to drivers.
So states farther north have launched educational programs to try to reduce moose collisions.
As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Shannon Mullen reports, New Hampshire may have something to teach the rest of the region.
(Mullen) It started in northern New England twenty years ago...
Moose returned because the hardwood forests they depend on had grown back after farmers clear-cut them in the 1800s. Now the moose have come back to states farther south, too, but in small enough numbers that they're still a novelty.
Skip O'Rell lives on a farm in Granville, Massachusetts, near the Connecticut border.
(O'Rell) "I mean they're beautiful creatures. I've been within thirty to forty feet of them, massive in size."
(Mullen) Moose can grow to over seven feet, and weigh up to 1,400 pounds. Biologists believe their numbers are growing in the lower part of the northeast. For instance, in Massachusetts the moose population has swelled from fifty to around one thousand in the past ten years, and last year there were thirty moose vehicle collisions in the state.
Environmental Police Sergeant David Unaitis rigged his pick-up truck to remove moose from crash sites.
(Unaitis) "If it's dead we'll throw a strap right around the neck and winch it up that way. If it's alive, we'll throw the moose in the cargo net."
(Mullen) Unaitis tells people that moose are the most dangerous wild animal in the Massachusetts, but he says drivers are clueless about the growing collision risk.
(Unaitis) "People aren't even aware of it, or don't even think about it. I think we, now, are where New Hampshire and Vermont were fifteen years ago."
(Mullen) Back then the moose population in the North Country increased sharply and New Hampshire lifted a ban on moose hunting. Even so, there was an increase in moose collisions and by 1990 there were 170 per year.
Physician Campbell McClaren works in the emergency room at Littleton Hospital in New Hampshire's White Mountains.
(McClaren) "More often than not the injuries surprisingly were relatively minor, but then in my area here I began to see deaths, human deaths."
(Mullen) One night about ten years ago some tourists - a woman and her daughter - hit a moose on the interstate, and when the woman came to, McClaren had to tell her that her daughter had died.
(McClaren) "She was so deeply, deeply grieved by her daughter's loss, that I felt that to stand by and just carry on, be professional, wait for the next one was not appropriate. We needed to do something."
(Mullen) He started by helping form a moose committee that included fish and game, and transportation officials. New Hampshire's first responders began identifying exactly where moose collisions occurred. Then the state posted warning signs with flashing lights during spring, and the fall breeding season.
Last year New Hampshire followed an earlier effort in Maine, and made a video about moose hazards. Now it's part of the curriculum at every driving school, and it's played at highway rest stops.
The video features wildlife biologist Kris Rines from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, who warns drivers to keep their speed below 55 miles per hour, use their high-beams whenever possible, and constantly scan the road ahead.
Rines says educating drivers about moose behavior is a never-ending job, and even then, moose are unpredictable.
(Rines) "We have people that call us and say, I never expected it to dart out in front of my car. I know it saw me and it still ran into the road."
(Mullen) Rines says it's impossible to eliminate collisions - the most recent count in New Hampshire was 183 two years ago. But all of New Hampshire's efforts have paid off with a 31 percent decrease in collisions since 2004.
Farther south, the states don't have major outreach efforts about moose. According to Connecticut state wildlife biologist Howard Kilpatrick collisions there have been sporadic until the past few years.
(Kilpatrick) "We're getting reports every year of moose vehicle accidents. Two accidents a year is not a crisis. The question is where will we be ten years or twenty years down the road."
That depends on how big the moose populations get, and how humans respond. But no matter what people do, these huge, wild animals are here to stay, in the woods, and sometimes on the roads.
For VPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.
(Host Outro) Northeast environmental reporting is made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.
Moose populations in the Northeast
Connecticut 100 moose, on average 2 moose vehicle accidents per year
Maine 29,000 moose, on average 600-700 collisions per year
Massachusetts 1000 moose, 30 moose vehicle collisions in 2009
New Hampshire 6,000 moose, on average 230 collisions per year
New York 500-850 moose, 10 collisions reported in 2009
Rhode Island -- occasional unconfirmed sightings
Vermont 3500 moose, 150-200 moose-vehicle collisions per year