By Jenny Neyman
Ironically enough, the progress report was where progress got tripped up on a project meant to decrease the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions on the Sterling Highway.
The report was issued at the conclusion of a Sterling Highway Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Study, covering Mileposts 58 to 79, from the east entrance of Skilak Lake Road to just east of Kenai Keys Road outside Sterling. Agencies involved in the study need to sign off on the report and its findings to move on to the design and construction phases of the highway rehab project. The project would re-pave that section of highway, add some passing lanes and address the growing problems of large wildlife — moose, caribou and bears — crossing and being hit on the highway.
For the differences of opinion holding the project up, there is agreement on one thing — something needs to be done with that stretch of highway. That, at least, gives Rick Ernst, wildlife biologist with the refuge, hope for a project that’s been nearly a decade in the making.
“I think the Department of Transportation agrees that we don’t want to do nothing, and the refuge and all the agencies involved I’m sure don’t want to just do nothing,” Ernst said. “But it’s trying to decide on how much we’re going to do that’s at issue.”
Nine years ago, state DOT sent the refuge a letter, saying it was looking at repaving a portion of the Sterling Highway, Mileposts 58 to 79. Traffic volume was increasing, as were the number of collisions between animals and vehicles on that section of road.
At statehood, the federally managed refuge granted the state an easement for the highway cutting through the refuge. One of the stipulations was state DOT needs the refuge to sign off on any highway projects happening on refuge land.
The refuge doesn’t oppose the highway revamp. New pavement, wider shoulders and passing lanes would better facilitate the increasing traffic on the highway, but the project also needs a way to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions in order to truly be safer for drivers, Ersnt said. The refuge is tasked with protecting the interests of the environment and wildlife on its lands, so any proposed collision mitigation efforts need to work for drivers and be healthy for wildlife, too.
To figure out what options would fit the bill of being effective and protective, an interagency work group was formed in September 2005, with representatives from the Federal Highway Administration; Alaska DOT; Alaska Department of Fish and Game; Alaska Division of Public Safety; the nonprofit Alaska Moose Federation; and Ernst, representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the study, the group gathered data on the number and location of wildlife-vehicle collisions along that stretch of road, established a hotline where drivers could call in and report where and when they’ve seen wildlife along the highway, and tracked the migrations of GPS-collared moose and caribou, to see where and how often they crossed roads.
After two years of study, a progress report was issued summarizing the study results. From the findings and research into wildlife-vehicle collision mitigation efforts that have proven successful elsewhere, Ernst believes the best option is to construct underpasses along the highway where animals can safely cross underneath the road.
In order for the project to move forward, all members of the interagency work group need to sign off on the progress report and agree to a plan for mitigation efforts. Several revisions later, the last one issued in February 2009, and that still hasn’t happened.
“This is probably the sixth draft,” Ernst said. “We’ve made numerous revisions, where all the agencies involved made comments and it’s been rewritten several times. This, we were hoping, was the document that everybody could agree on. All the agencies have tentatively agreed to it other than state DOT.” Continue reading