By Jenny Neyman
When the phone rings in the middle of the night, the reason for the call often is as jarring a disturbance as the shrill sound of the ringer. Especially when the voice on the other end is a dispatcher from the Alaska State Troopers, and they’re calling because a death has occurred.
That scene plays out for 600 or more Alaskans a year — a couple hundred on the Kenai Peninsula, alone. In the best cases of that scenario, no people are injured and the only death involved is that of a moose, killed as a result of a collision with a motor vehicle.
When an unfortunate ungulate meets its end from shattering windshields and crumpling metal on a road in Alaska, the moose salvage program exists as a lemons-to-lemonade way to keep that meat from going to waste. Troopers maintain a list of applied-and-approved recipients — food banks, churches, families with limited financial means, etc. — who are called to harvest the animal when a moose is killed on the road. But even though salvaging meat that otherwise would go to waste is a sweet dose of lemonade, the process of getting the moose meat to a freezer can be a sour one.
Most collisions occur in the dark, so the call can come in the middle of the night or during the cold, extended darkness of winter. The recipient must get to the scene immediately, then butcher and/or haul off the moose themselves, even if it’s 2 a.m., 20 below and alongside a dark stretch of icy highway.
Starting this year, though, the road-kill harvest process in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna area, Fairbanks and, most recently, the Kenai Peninsula, has gotten sweeter for recipients, thanks to a partnership with the Alaska Moose Federation. Now when the call about a moose road-kill comes, it isn’t saying, “Come get your moose,” it’s asking, “Where do you want your moose?” as federation volunteers now pick up and drop off the moose for recipients.
Think pizza delivery, Alaska style. True, it’s not neatly boxed up and ready to eat, but instead of just one meal delivered to the door, it’s an entire winter’s worth of meals, no payment involved.
“What they’re telling me is they appreciate the fact that they can almost stay in their jammies. They like the fact that I’m bringing the moose to them because if they’ve got things to do to get ready for it, at least they know that moose is coming in. It gives them that extra time to prepare for when I arrive, then it’s onto a tarp or winched into an overhang or wherever they want it,” said Laurie Speakman, who lives off Kalifornsky Beach Road near Soldotna, a volunteer for the federation’s moose salvage delivery program on the peninsula.
The pilot program started in Anchorage, then the federation got $700,000 in funding from the state to expand to the Mat-Su in January, Fairbanks in March and the peninsula in April. The money pays for 13 flatbed trucks equipped with a winch and safety lights — five in Mat-Su, two in Anchorage, two in Fairbanks and four on the peninsula — plus maintenance and insurance, Olson said. One federation staff person manages the program, and moose pickup and delivery is done by unpaid volunteers. Now the volunteers are the ones getting the call at all hours of the day or night.
“Sometimes you gotta swing your boots out at 2 a.m., and those volunteers are just amazing,” Olson said.
When a moose kill is reported, troopers call the federation, which contacts an on-call volunteer driver in that region. The drivers hop in their truck, get to the site, winch the moose into the truck and strap it down for transport. The driver is put in touch with the next recipient on the salvage list, whom they call to get directions for the moose delivery. There’s some information about the kill to be recorded — where, when, what — and paperwork to be signed by the recipient, and the driver is timed for their response to the scene, time at the scene and time to get the moose delivered.
Butchering and disposal of the moose still is entirely up to the recipient, and troopers still manage the recipient list. But now, it’s a volunteer like Speakman having to hop out of bed from a middle-of-the-night call, whereas the salvage recipients just have to coordinate the delivery, and can butcher at their leisure.
“I have no problem with a call at 2 in the morning,” Speakman said. “I get the call, I jump up and it’s like, ‘Let’s go.’ The phone rings, dispatch tells me where it is and I say, ‘OK, I’m on my way,’ and I get in the truck. But I might need to wake up a few minutes. Sometimes I’ll make coffee. If it’s three o’clock in the morning, yes, I’ll make coffee.”
So, why? Not the coffee — that makes perfect sense. But why volunteer for this duty? Speakman doesn’t get paid for her efforts, period, much less overtime for after-business-hours salvage calls. She doesn’t even get a cut of the meat.
What she does get, as a hunter and appreciator of responsible game harvesting, is the knowledge that she’s helping a program she supports.
“I don’t like fact that moose are getting killed. But what I do like is that I know that somebody’s going to eat. Somebody’s going to have food on their plate,” she said.
Olson said that many of the salvage volunteers are outdoorsmen and women who want to help conserve wild game populations as much as they want opportunities to harvest them. Statewide, the biggest pool of volunteers are employees of the Sportsman’s Warehouse chain of retailers, Olson said. On the Kenai Peninsula, volunteers come mostly from the Kenai Peninsula chapter of Safari Club International. Mike Crawford, president of the local SCI club, and board member Tom Netschert signed on as volunteers for the salvage program when it expanded to the peninsula this spring. But both ended up being busier than expected this summer, so Speakman, Netschert’s daughter, took over handling most the calls.
At 5-foot-1, 125 pounds, the smiley, slight Speakman doesn’t look the type to be wrangling 1,000-pound immobile moose
carcasses. She doesn’t even look a likely fit for driving the oversized truck — now regularly cleaned to spotlessness and scented with a lilac air freshener. With a husband with a North Slope job and two teenage stepsons, one who suffered a serious injury in an accident last October and has required intensive medical care and coordination since, she’s not lacking for things to do with her time. But she is deficient in the ability to say “No” to what she sees as a worthy cause.
“I guess that’s the way my dad raised me,” Speakman said. “Dad ended up getting really busy this summer, so basically they had me on call. I took it and ran with it. I’ve loved it so much, I’m boisterous about it, I do a lot of PR, telling everyone about it. I’m a people person, I like to get out and meet people, so it’s been great. I love meeting the charities and I’ve met a lot of the troopers and dispatch and everybody. And the people seem appreciative of it.”
More important than the convenience factor for recipients, though, the delivery service is intended to represent an increase in safety, which is primarily what prompted troopers and the Alaska Department of Transportation — which oversees the salvage program — to allow the federation’s involvement in the first place.
“Picture a dark, snowy night, people driving home, conditions aren’t good, and that’s the last time you want people out. We’re less than 10 minutes at the scene. We pick up the moose and we’re gone,” said Gary Olson, federation executive director.
“The theory behind it was it would be the safest way to do it, versus a charity (harvesting a moose at the scene of a collision).
We have had no injuries with charities, but I know for a fact — for myself, from a patrol perspective — where they’ve definitely been in unsafe positions. And it was by the grace of God they weren’t hit,” said Lt. Tom Dunn, trooper liaison for the moose salvage program.
There are an average of 600 reported moose road kills a year in Alaska. In a deep-snow winter, as last year was and this year is forecast to be, that number can rise to 1,000. The Mat-Su region logged about 455 moose road kills last year, and the peninsula had around 250, Olson said. Of those, certainly not all result in dangerous, right-on-the-side-of-the-road salvage situations, and many of the recipients coming out to salvage are perfectly safe, capable and experienced. But that’s not always the case, Olson said.
“From what law enforcement has told us, there have been a number of different situations that occurred that we knew we could do a better job. One was two grandmothers that came out in the middle of a blizzard on a weekend and learned how to butcher a moose for nine hours on the fast lane of the New Seward Highway. And this was with (Anchorage Police Department) covering them the whole time. There are charities out there that do a really good job of picking those moose up. But the next charity might be that grandma in the middle of the night,” Olson said.
Even if a recipient is experienced at butchering, carving up a moose unavoidably takes a certain amount of time. The longer that process lasts, the longer the recipient might be in danger, if the road kill is in an unsafe location. Olson gave another example of a moose hit by Thunderbird Falls on the Glenn Highway. By the time the federation volunteer got to the scene, the carcass had been drug by a bear about 100 feet toward the woods, he said.
“We got that moose up on the truck and out of there, and there was a big bite mark out of it. If you had sent a charity out to butcher that moose there, the bear could have been in the bushes right there the whole time,” Olson said.
For law enforcement, once an accident scene is processed and any people involved are taken care of, officers prefer to be freed
up for other duties. But if salvage recipients are in a dangerous spot, officers sometimes stay on the scene to signal traffic and otherwise protect their safety while they work. Federation volunteers can load a moose quickly onto a truck equipped with safety lights and flashers.
“The concept behind it is that the troopers are going to be released from the scene sooner, on the theory that (federation volunteers) will get there sooner than the charity, and allow the trooper to go because they have lights and things equipped on their vehicles, and they know how to get out of the road (to avoid passing traffic),” Lt. Dunn said.
“I would say in the vast majority of incidents the troopers have been able to get out of there a little sooner. And I think that their salvage on scene is as safe as it can be, considering what they’re dealing with out in the middle of nowhere. It’s definitely safer than a charity there,” he said.
Olson said that the Anchorage Police Department verified an average time savings of about 2.5 hours when federation volunteers clear a moose road kill, as opposed to a charity recipient doing it.
“We’re hoping that the consistency of the program is something that law enforcement and the public can rely on for years,” he said.
It hasn’t been without hiccups so far, though. Misinformation had been circulating about the change to the federation salvage delivery. Some recipients thought the volunteers would do some of the butchering, and Olson said that is definitely not the case. Moose are delivered in the state in which they’re picked up.
Lt. Dunn said there have been some instances of communications problems — difficulty reaching volunteers due to cellphone reception, for instance.
“But with any new program you’re going to have that. It’s just a matter of working through that,” he said.
And he encourages anyone with questions to give troopers a call.
“The reality is, don’t believe rumors. If you hear something, come talk to us because we can certainly clarify things. If something doesn’t make sense, it probably isn’t legitimate,” Dunn said. “If citizens ever have questions or concerns about what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, they’re always welcome to call us.”
Olson is encouraging calls, too, from people interested in volunteering as drivers. The federation recently stationed a truck in the Homer area, and is recruiting volunteers interested in covering the area from Ninilchik south. The upper peninsula, with three trucks, covers Cooper Landing to Nikiski to Ninilchik. Interest is the main requirement.
“Laurie is one of the best drivers we have. You’d look at her and you wouldn’t think she’s one of the best people at picking moose off the highway, but she is. It doesn’t have to be a big, burly, bearded guy that is used to hauling pipe or anything. It’s just people that are passionate about moose and they want to try to reduce collisions,” Olson said.
Ultimately, Olson said his goal for the federation’s involvement in the salvage program is to help reduce the number of collisions. Volunteers gather data about the collisions, which is compiled and studied to determine particularly dangerous spots, situations and times of year. With that knowledge, the federation can target remediation programs in those areas to get moose away from the roads.
“We’re collecting the data trying to make it where we’re picking up less and less (moose) every year. When we determine what are the real big collision patterns with this data, then it brings on other mitigation programs to try to reduce collisions,” Olson said.
Mitigation programs could include plowing trails away from roads to give moose and an easier place to walk through the snow other than the road surface. The federation also hopes to work on clearing moose browse from right of ways and cutting large swaths of overbrowsed or overgrown trees away from roads to enhance moose habitat and food supply away from roads.
“The salvage program is reactive work. We’ve got to get ahead of these collisions. We’re going to try to give these moose more enticement to be back in the woods rather than the highway corridor. Yes, we are trying to put ourselves out of the salvage job,” Olson said.
For more information on the Alaska Moose Federation, visit http://www.growmoremoose.org.
For information or to volunteer for the salvage program, call 33-MOOSE (336-6673).