BANGOR, Maine — They’re majestic and awe-inspiring. But as breathtaking and imposing as moose are, they also can be deadly.
With an adult bull moose in its prime weighing as much as 1,600 pounds and standing as tall as 8 or 9 feet, moose pose serious risks to Maine motorists.
Thirty-three people have been killed in car-moose collisions in Maine since 1995, according to crash statistics maintained by the Maine Department of Transportation.
Though Maine saw no fatal moose accidents in 2008 — the first year without any since 1997 — that doesn’t mean that the risk is any lower. And with spring just around the corner, the animals will once again be more prevalent along our roads.
Because of their build — barrel-shaped bodies atop spindly legs — when moose are hit broadside, their legs break and their bodies often fly over hoods and through windshields.
They’re also hard to see, especially at night, because of their blackish fur, which tends to absorb rather than reflect light.
Another thing to keep in mind is that despite their awkward build and bulky bodies, moose are fast and extremely unpredictable.
With a statewide population estimated at about 30,000, Maine has more moose than any other state in the nation, except Alaska.
That’s why it’s hardly surprising that each year there are roughly 700 car-moose crashes, as many as five resulting in fatalities to drivers or passengers, as were the cases in 1998 and 2007.
And those accidents aren’t just happening in the woods of northern Maine, where moose are plentiful, Lee Kantar, moose and deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, pointed out in a recent interview.
“It’s a fact that you’ve got to be extra cautious when you’re up in moose country. The message that has to really be driven home is that it can happen anywhere, anytime,” he said.
Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation and former DIF&W spokesman, agreed.
“You are just as likely to hit one on the Maine Turnpike or the interstate as you are in northern Maine,” he said.
State moose crash mapping data show numerous collisions in southern Maine, where the animal is less prevalent but roads are busier.
According to the state’s latest two-year map depicting collisions between vehicles and large animals, Maine saw a total of 1,969 moose crashes per 100 million miles traveled from 2005 to 2007.
The part of Maine that saw the highest frequency of crashes was Aroostook County, which had more than 17 moose-car crashes per 100 million miles traveled during that two-year period.
The area that includes Piscataquis and Franklin counties had the next highest, with 13 to 17 crashes per 100 million miles traveled, the map shows.
The lowest crash frequencies — ranging from less than one to 2.2 crashes per 100 million miles traveled — were found along the coast of Maine, where deer are much more prevalent than moose.
The state’s crash data also show that the most dangerous locations are along roadways, especially those bordering wetlands. The peak time of the year for collisions between vehicles and moose is in May and June.
Latti and Kantar noted that in spring, moose are drawn to the edges of roadways, which are some of the first places to “green up” in late spring and early summer, making them attractive to hungry moose.
There moose can also find salt from winter road maintenance — salt that they crave in spring after enduring a long winter with bland diet, they said.
The areas along roadways also provide for easier travel because snow tends to melt there earlier, Kantar said.
“Another thing that’s going on is that cows are getting ready to calve,” Kantar noted. “Typically what happens is that when the cow has a new calf she drives off her yearlings, and the yearlings are a little bit bewildered.”
A little later in the season, moose often can be seen emerging from the woods to get some relief from black flies and deer flies and to catch a cool breeze.
“They can get heat-stressed,” Kantar said, adding that New England is at the southern end of their habitat.
A smaller peak in crashes comes during the mating season in late fall, when moose have been known to chase each other across roads.
Crash statistics also show that most accidents occur between dusk and dawn, when both moose and motorists are on the move.
Concerned about the toll that car-moose collisions was taking on families and property, the state in the late 1990s assembled a team of experts composed of representatives from the state’s Department of Transportation, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Public Safety and the Maine Turnpike Authority, Latti aid.
Some of the steps the state has taken so far in its effort to reduce car-moose crashes include:
• Warning signs.
• A public education campaign that has included posters, brochures and educational videos.
• Fencing along roadways, including Interstate 95.
• Cutting and applying herbicide to roadside vegetation to reduce sources of food.
• Painting wider reflective lines marking the edge of the roadway in such moose-rich areas as Greenville and Rangeley.
• Expanded moose hunts.
The measures have had mixed results: 2008 was the first year since 1997 that there were no fatalities from car-moose collisions, but the crashes continue to happen with frightening regularity.
Latti said the state also experimented with installing a wide strip of riprap along a marshy section of Route 4 in Phillips to see if that would deter moose. Latti said the results were inconclusive because the sample area was so small.
Short of trading their cars in for tanks, there are some things motorists can to do reduce their chances of running into a moose, Latti said.
The best protection is driving more slowly and keeping your eyes peeled, he said.
When driving in Maine …
The MDOT suggests the following tips for avoiding — or minimizing damage from — a car-moose collision:
– Be alert and watch for wildlife, especially from dusk to dawn, when moose are most active and hardest to spot. Always scan the roadside for moose and other hidden hazards.
– Use your high beams whenever it’s legal to do so.
– Reduce your speed. Do not overdrive your headlights so that you allow enough sight distance to react and stop if an animal enters the roadway. At 70 mph, a typical speed on Interstate 95, it takes nearly 500 feet to bring a car to a stop under ideal daytime driving conditions, according to DOT studies. At 50 mph, it takes more than 400 feet to stop.
– Heed warning signs. They are posted in areas of high concentrations of wildlife and where collisions have been a problem.
– Moose sometimes travel in small family groups, so if you see one on the roadway be prepared for others nearby.
– Don’t try to drive around moose or get out of the car because moose are unpredictable and have been known to charge.
– Give the moose plenty of room; it eventually will wander back into the woods.
If a crash is unavoidable, motorists are advised to:
– Apply the brakes, letting up just before impact.
– Aim to hit the back end of the animal if possible.
– Duck to minimize injury.
Source: MDOT in cooperation with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, secretary of state’s office, Maine Department of Public Safety, Maine Turnpike Authority.