The Secret Life Of Moose ... Crossing Signs
A question about wildlife crossing signs gets to the heart of a tension between the natural world and human infrastructure.
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Vermont’s largest mammal is the focus of a question that Jocelyn Hebert of North Calais village posed to Brave Little State. VPR’s people-powered journalism show answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and selected by our audience, because we think our journalism is better when you’re a part of it.
“I’m curious about the moose signs you see along Vermont’s roads,” Jocelyn says. “What factors are considered before placing one? Are they there because there’s been a moose-car collision? Or is there a wildlife corridor nearby? And who decides when one is placed and where it goes?”
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A close encounter
Jocelyn is the former editor of the Long Trail News magazine at the Green Mountain Club — she’s hiked the whole trail four times. And during one of those traverses, she had a close encounter.
“I could smell it before I saw it. So I knew something was in the area," Jocelyn recalls. "It's kind of a mangy smell. It was pretty strong. And then the moose ran diagonally across and stood off the side of the trail. And we had a little bit of a staredown.
"I didn't really dare to keep hiking, because I think moose can be aggressive and dangerous and ... it was pretty close. So I just waited. And then eventually, I started walking again, because he wasn't going anywhere.”
Jocelyn has spent so much time wandering through natural moose habitat — streams and beaver ponds and patches of young forest — and she’s seen so many moose droppings along the way, that sometimes she senses their presence even without an actual sighting.
“I have this feeling that it's like a — is it Gary Larson, the cartoonist, that has animals peering at you, from the woods? I always felt like that — like there's a moose just watching us go by, but we're not gonna see him,” she says.
To Jocelyn, spotting a moose is something of a mystery, with a healthy dose of absurdist comedy. Take her friend, Doug, for instance. Like Jocelyn, Doug has lived in Vermont his entire life. Unlike Jocelyn, Doug has never seen a moose. In fact, Jocelyn hasn’t seen a moose in the five years since she met Doug.
“It's just a joke now that if he's with me, I will not see a moose,” she says.
I know this feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time in moose country, and I’ve never seen one either. As part of my reporting for this story, I even visited one of Vermont’s moose hotspots: an 8-mile stretch of Route 12 in Elmore known as “Moose Alley.”
Conservation ecologist Paul Marangelo from The Nature Conservancy in Vermont, showed me around.
“People see them here all the time, driving up and down the road,” he says.
Apparently, a lot of people have seen moose in Moose Alley. But not me. On the day I was there, all I found were a bunch of flying pests.
It breaks my brain that animals like moose are so huge, and they live all around us, but they’re still so elusive. Hooved phantoms of the forest.
I’m not a very religious person, but I’m convinced that if I ever see one, it’s going to be a spiritual experience. And for that I have Jocelyn to thank, along with the many writers who describe their moose encounters with a sort of mythical reverence.
“Your antlers like seaweed, your face like a wolf’s death mask,” writes poet Anne Sexton. Henry David Thoreau called moose “God’s own horses.”
Who wouldn’t want a glimpse of God’s own horses?
And then there’s Elizabeth Bishop, who famously spent more than 25 years finishing a poem called “The Moose,” about an overnight bus trip from Nova Scotia to Boston. The climax of the poem is when a moose walks out into the middle of the road:
It approaches; it sniffs at the bus’s hot hood. Towering, antlerless, high as a church, homely as a house
Moose on roads is what our question-asker, Jocelyn, is wondering about. More specifically, moose signs on roads. You know, those yellow ones with “Moose” or “Moose Crossing” on them.
“I've been curious about it for a long time,” she says. “Every time I drive by one, I'm looking around and kind of looking at the area and wondering, like, why would there be a moose sign here? How do they decide?”
Jocelyn is on to something here. And this is where the rubber meets the road … meets the moose. Because while seeing a moose on a road in the middle of the night might have been a romantic notion for the poet Elizabeth Bishop, the reality of encountering a moose on a road — when it actually does happen — is usually much scarier.
It's probably good when you don't see a moose
Every time I drive by a moose crossing sign in Vermont, I get a little excited. “Moose! Where?” And then, predictably, I feel a twinge of disappointment every time I drive out of the area without a sighting.
The signs seem like a tease. Except, they’re actually meant to warn you of danger. Because all the animals that might be tempted to cross a road in Vermont, the last one you want to hit is a moose.
These notes from records kept by Vermont Game Warden get at why:
Sept. 27, 1985: East Haven. Young woman killed on Rt 114. The woman hit a big bull (approximately 1,000 lbs.) then veered into an oncoming pickup truck. Vehicles hit head on. Sept. 22, 2006: Traveling north on I-93 in Waterford approximately 11:00 p.m. Found dead in his 1995 Subaru, 500 feet off road. Two other motorists hit moose carcass in road. May 24, 2009: Killed on I-91 south, north of exit 24 in Sheffield. Collided with moose at approx 10:35 p.m. Moose went through the windshield.
These are huge, scary accidents. Yes, moose are big animals. But part of what makes them so dangerous is their behavior.
Here’s what you need to know, according to Nick Fortin, the head deer biologist at Vermont Fish & Wildlife:
“Unlike a deer, whose defense is to get the heck out of there, a moose’s defense is often to stand his ground, because it's bigger than most of the things that might try to eat it,” Nick says. “So, they're not really scared.”
“Not scared” means a speeding car with bright headlights is often not enough to startle Bullwinkle out of the middle of the road. Some moose won’t even bother turning their heads to look at an oncoming car, which means at night, a car’s headlights won’t reflect off their eyes, making them hard to see. Moose have much darker coloration than deer as well, adding to the visibility problem.
It’s a problem that Carl Brandon from Randolph experienced back in 2003. It was a Sunday night in July. Carl and his wife at the time, Ann, were driving on I-89. They were heading home to Randolph after attending a party in Thetford.
“So I rounded the curve, a slight curve to the right, at a crest of a little hill, and then it goes down into a dip,” Carl recalls. “And there were cars coming the other way. So my headlights were dipped. And all of a sudden, I say, ‘moose!’ And about a 10th of a second later, I hit the moose.”
Brace yourself ...
“And then I’m covered with moose guts — I went right between her legs,” Carl says. “And so she hit the windshield and the front of the roof, is where the moose hit. And so all the internal organs wound up inside the car. The rest of the moose went over the top.”
As gross as this sounds, it’s not all that unusual. Moose are so tall that a car will take its legs out from under it so it falls through the windshield and into the car, instead of bouncing off the front bumper. It leads to quite a mess.
“And we completely grossed out the ambulance people, because we were covered in moose guts,” he says. “And they thought I might have had a laceration on my head, because I had a lot of blood on my head. But it was moose blood, as it turned out.”
As it turned out, both Carl and Ann walked away with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises. (And some moose guts, too.)
After Carl got cleaned up, he learned more of the details about what happened after the moose crashed through his windshield. Like how his car skidded across the I-89 median and both oncoming lanes of traffic, and how it barely missed an 18-wheeler before finally coming to rest about 100 feet off the opposite side of the road.
During our interview, I told Carl I had no idea how he was here, talking to me.
“Because I was driving a Saab," he said. "I mean, if we were in most other cars, we'd be dead. Not just injured, but dead."
As crazy as it sounds, Carl might be right. Saab, before it went out of business, was based in Sweden, the country with the highest density of moose of any country in the world. They have about 400,000 of them, which is about 200 times larger than the moose population in Vermont. This makes moose-car collisions a major problem: They have about 7,000 of them, and 10 to 12 human fatalities, every year.
So Swedish car manufacturers like Saab and Volvo have responded by reportedly running their vehicles through “moose crash tests.”
The above is from a video that National Geographic Wild published in 2011. Engineers recreated a moose crash by driving a car at high speed into a moose dummy made of rubber discs, steel and wire.
“Over a series of tests, [engineers] found that improvements in the strength of a car's roof and windshield could potentially make the difference between life and death,” the video says. “But they've also found that the single most important factor lies within the driver's control: speed.”
So: Smart car engineering might help you survive a crash with a moose, like it did for Carl. But the safest way to protect yourself is to simply slow down in moose-y areas. And this is where the moose crossing signs factor into the equation.
Meet the sign guy
Which brings us to Marcos Miller. He’s worked at VTrans, the Vermont Department of Transportation, for almost three decades.
“So nearing retirement, hopefully soon,” Marcos says.
And if there’s one thing to know about Marcos Miller, it’s that there might be nothing he loves more than a well-placed and well-designed road sign.
“As a sign geek, I tend to pay attention to a sign that's well placed," he says, "that's got the appropriate vertical clearances on a nice straight post. And just looks good and is doing its intended job.”
Marcos is one of three “regional traffic safety investigators” in the state of Vermont.
“So it's our group, basically, that will make the determination of whether the sign is warranted,” he says.
But the process for placing new signs often doesn’t even begin with him, he says. Instead, it starts with one of you.
“Typically I get the requests from private citizens that bear witness to, ‘Hey, you know, I've been seeing a lot of deer, or I've been seeing a lot of moose,’” Marcos says. “And, you know, can we get up some warning signs?”
Those requests kick off a process that is both science and art. And it all begins with something called a "desk audit."
“I'll look at things on film, I'll get onto our GIS-based platform, and we'll look at habitat maps,” Marcos says.
Marcos also gets input from local game wardens, and he talks to the person who originally requested the sign.
“And then, we review the crash data, if we have anything that's been reported,” he says.
The crash data. As our question-asker Jocelyn suspected, moose-car collisions are a major factor in determining where to place a moose sign.
Add all that up, and you get very close to a final decision. Next step: what Marcos calls “engineering judgment.” A major highway, for instance, would be a more important place for a sign than a dirt road with very little traffic.
“And if all things add up, or don't add up, that usually sways the decision on whether or not it's prudent to install this type of warning signage,” Marcos says.
That’s the process of installing a moose crossing sign. In all it’s painstaking, tedious, bureaucratic glory.
In addition to moose signs, in Vermont you can also find road signs for deer and bear, and domestic animals like horse, cow and sheep. If you’re driving across Lake Champlain to South Hero on Rt. 2, you can even find the state’s only official turtle crossing signs.
Our question-asker, Jocelyn, was also wondering about signs that just say “wildlife crossing.” Those are used if there’s a lot of activity from multiple species in one area.
As for where the signs come from, VTrans gets them from Vermont Correctional Industries. Meaning they’re made by people in jail.
And, you may have noticed that there are different versions of moose crossing signs on Vermont roads. Some have a picture of a moose, while some just have the words “MOOSE” or “MOOSE CROSSING.”
“We used to install the moose symbol sign,” Marcos says. “That was the standard. It's still, within the MUTCD, as a standard warning sign.”
The “MUTCD,” or “Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” is a list of federally approved sign designs. The MUTCD recommends the image of a moose, on a moose crossing sign, for accessibility reasons.
“But those tended to disappear,” Marcos says. “The moose signs, I think, are just a popular sign to hang in a garage or, take to moose camp and hang it up there.
"[So] we decided in Vermont, that ... any new signs or replacement signs for that particular warning would be text-based.”
If you’re reading this, I implore you to stop stealing Marcos’ signs!
“I tend to pay attention to guide signs, warning signs,” he says.
Unfortunately, Marcos is in the minority here. Not only do most of us not appreciate signs like Marcos does, we don’t even pay attention to them at all.
It turns out there’s a dirty secret about animal crossing signs: They don’t actually do the main thing they’re supposed to do.
Did you see the sign?
When digital producer Elodie Reed and I went out to Moose Alley with ecologist Paul Marangelo, he asked whether I’d seen the moose crossing sign that we'd passed on the way. I … had not.
“It's just another yellow sign and people just don't see ‘em,” Paul said. “I don't always see ‘em.”
The fact that I hadn’t noticed the moose crossing sign on my way to report a story about moose crossing signs? That's indicative of a much larger problem.
Here’s Marcos Miller from VTrans again, on the efficacy of a moose sign:
“Would the success rate of, you know, possibly lowering the mortality rate, increase if people slowed down? Science has proven yes,” he says. “Is it going to slow drivers down? Typically, no.”
Marcos is right.
In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration submitted a report to Congress called the “Wildlife-Vehicle Collision Reduction Study.” At the time, there had been growing concerns about this issue, and for good reason.
Between 1990 and 2004, the total number of car crashes in the United States held fairly steady, and even decreased a little. By comparison, car crashes with animals increased by about 50% over the same time period.
So the 2008 report to Congress was born. It had this little nugget about deer crossing signs: “Based on the available data, standard deer warning signs are concluded to be ineffective in reducing wildlife-vehicle collision.”
To add salt to the wound, the report also said “unnecessary signs should be removed as they may distract drivers and require maintenance.”
So not only do the signs not work, but they may actually be counterproductive.
When I think about my own experiences driving past moose crossing signs, I can’t tell if the anticipation I feel is distracting, or if I’m simply more alert. It seems like a pretty fine line.
But there’s so much evidence that those standard yellow wildlife crossing signs don’t work, some states have abandoned them altogether. Vermont is not one of those states — for now.
“I know that our section is currently reviewing the policy on wildlife crossing signs,” Marcos says.
It’s a little hard to parse exactly why Vermont still erects new wildlife crossing signs. One answer might be found in that 2008 report for Congress: “Standard warning signs may be required to reduce liability in case of wildlife-vehicle collisions.”
I asked Marcos about this, and he said he’s not aware of any requirements for moose, deer, or bear signs. He did say that if a farmer requests signs for cattle, he is required to follow up.
All that said, Marcos insists that moose signs can still work well, if he does his job right.
“Are the signs effective? From a personal standpoint, I believe, yes, they are," he says. "If they're done sparingly in those locations where you really need them. So we try to eliminate litter on sticks and not put up signs that really are not going to have much of any value to a driver.”
According to Jens Hilke, the best case scenario is that signage plays an educational role. Jens, a conservation biologist at Vermont Fish & Wildlife, agrees with Marcos: Not all moose crossing signs are “litter on sticks,” so to speak.
“Drivers at least have the understanding, ‘Hey, wildlife cross roads, some places are going to be potentially more dangerous, because of wildlife crossing, than others,’” Jens says.
He did give me another reason, though, for Vermont’s continued use of moose signs: human psychology.
“We feel like we've done something tangible. We put up a sign, and everybody can see that sign. And so, clearly, we've done something,” Jens says. “But we're just scratching the surface of this huge issue of habitat connectivity, and how roads and wildlife interact, and what wildlife are looking for in a changing climate.”
Habitat connectivity. You can’t talk to anyone about moose without getting into a conversation about something much, much bigger than road signs.
That’s because moose crossing signs are just one tiny part of the state’s overall approach to keeping drivers and wildlife safe.
Why moose cross the road
Think of it this way: Moose signs are like a Band-Aid. It might feel satisfying to put one on the road, but it doesn’t address the root cause of why it’s needed in the first place. And the root cause, in this case, is that humans build roads where wildlife live, which often separates important chunks of crucial habitat.
Allowing — and even encouraging — animals to connect, safely, with different parts of their habitat is the core tenet of habitat connectivity. This helps promote genetic diversity in wildlife, and it allows animals like moose to expand their ranges as our climate continues to warm up.
But in Vermont, reconnecting habitat is an especially challenging proposition. For starters, Vermont has really old infrastructure.
Chris Slesar heads up the environmental section of VTrans, and says the state is not building new roads around here.
“We're repairing an aging infrastructure, and a lot of our focus right now is on culverts and bridges that are, in some cases, 50 or more years old, and in need of replacement,” Chris says.
Chris says that retrofitting old bridges and culverts to accommodate Vermont wildlife is much harder than building new infrastructure from scratch.
“When people talk about wildlife crossing infrastructure, they typically think of the sexy wildlife overpasses, like in Utah, or on the Trans Canada highway through Banff National Park,” Chris says.
And this brings us to the second major challenge for habitat connectivity efforts in Vermont: our animals.
Out West, they have species like pronghorn antelope that travel in huge herds and migrate at the same spot every year. So if you build one big suspension bridge over a highway, you can basically solve the problem.
Not so much in Vermont.
“Connectivity in the East doesn't look like that,” says Jens Hilke from Fish & Wildlife. “We have one animal here and a few days later, one animal there. It's a lower density. But it's in more places.”
This is yet another reason why moose can be so hard to find. There’s no one obvious place to go look for them. And if you’re shouting at me, “Just drive to the Northeast Kingdom!” — tell that to Chris Slesar.
“My wife and I drove up to the Northeast Kingdom a few years ago to go and see moose,” Chris says. “And that very day, there was a moose wandering around the Old North End of Burlington, where we had left from.”
Those crafty, mischievous phantoms of the forest, at it again.
There are people, though, who are working to demystify the movement patterns of animals in Vermont and improve the state's habitat connectivity efforts.
One of them is Caitlin Drasher, a grad student at the University of Vermont who studies wildlife movement in Vermont.
“We actually have a lot of existing transportation infrastructure in the state," Caitlin says. "We have over 88,000 state-managed transportation structures — so that's anything from bridges, culverts, to underpasses."
Her research will help Vermont Fish & Wildlife and VTrans figure out which culverts or underpasses or bridges to prioritize, based on how much use they get from wildlife.
“Getting these models of wildlife movement throughout the state is the first step to understanding where they're most likely to cross the road."
The models Caitlin and her team are using to look at wildlife movement are actually based on electricity.
"So, in this case, the landscape is serving as the circuit and wildlife are acting as the electricity moving throughout the circuit," she says.
Her research is ongoing, but, ultimately, it will help Vermont Fish & Wildlife and VTrans figure out which culverts or underpasses or bridges to prioritize, based on how much use they get from wildlife.
"And we can look at areas where we already have transportation infrastructure, and see whether or not we need to add some improvements to that infrastructure to help them cross underneath the road, or make it a little bit more appealing for them to actually use the structure,” Caitlin says.
To recap: Moose on Vermont roads can be very dangerous. Which is originally why we started putting up moose crossing signs. Only, those signs don’t really work. So in addition to those warning signs, Vermont conservationists are engaged in a massive, ongoing effort to help moose safely connect to parts of their habitat that got disrupted by roads.
Why moose don't cross the road
This leads to one final twist in this story about moose and roads. One final S-curve, if you will. It turns out not all moose visit roads in an effort to cross them.
Here’s moose biologist Nick Fortin again:
“Moose are actually attracted to roads in some areas because of the salt that we use to de-ice roads. And then it kind of pools in wet areas by the side of the road, and makes a salt lick for them.”
It’s thanks to our question-asker, Jocelyn, that salt was even on my radar in the first place. She asked: Is our road salt drawing moose to roadsides?
The answer is yes! Road salt is a huge reason moose are a danger near roads. You can see this in the data.
Moose mating season is in the fall, which is the time of year you’d expect moose to be most active around roads, leading to the most accidents. Except, according to the state, nearly 40% of all moose-car collisions in Vermont over the past 40 years have occurred in May and June. That’s double the number of collisions during mating season.
"Most of the time, when we're seeing moose really being attracted to these salty areas by the road, it's right around springtime, after they've spent the entire winter on a low-salt diet," says Katy Gieder, a biometrician for Vermont Fish & Wildlife, whose job is to analyze that data.
“And so they're kind of nutrient-starved coming into spring,” she says. “And one of the first things that they go for is that essential salt component.”
From a moose perspective, road salt run-off is an excellent way to find some delicious savory moose snacks.
“There are a lot of research projects underway to look at alternatives to salt,” Chris Slesar says. “We haven't gotten to a point of dialing that in yet, but we definitely want to keep an eye on that.”
Closing thoughts: Moose vs. roads
Whether moose are getting drawn towards Vermont roads to cross them, or simply to slurp up that delicious road salt, they get hit by cars a lot.
According to the state, nearly 3,400 moose have been killed by cars in the past four decades. This makes cars by far the leading cause of non-hunting moose deaths in Vermont.
By contrast, according to Vermont Game Wardens, there have only been 19 human fatalities from moose-car collisions during the same timeframe.
A total of 19 in 40 years might not sound like a big deal. And in some ways, it’s not. More Vermonters have died in non-moose traffic crashes this year alone, and it’s only June.
But 3,400 moose dead from cars means this is a huge issue for moose.
And the moose population in Vermont is on the decline. At its peak, Vermont had about 5,000 moose. These days, it’s closer to 2,000 and still dropping.
Aside from cars, habitat loss due to Vermont’s aging forests, and an increase in ticks due to climate change, are major challenges for moose.
And as the number of moose in Vermont has dwindled, so too have the number of requests Marcos Miller at VTrans receives for new moose signs.
“I can't even remember the last time I issued a work order to have a sign installed for this type of activity, Marcos says, "just because the numbers have really, really dropped off.”
So if you’re driving around the state and feel like there are simply too many moose signs on the roads? You’re actually onto something.
Marcos says VTrans will occasionally remove a sign, when there’s other construction going on. But they’re not keeping pace with the population decline.
All of this reporting kept leading me to one frustrating realization about conservation work: At least right now, we can identify more problems than we have solutions. This dilemma crystallized for me when I was visiting Moose Alley with Paul Marangelo.
Josh: So much of the solution that we've been talking about is kind of optimizing these types of wildlife crossings. But if moose are coming to the roads, not even to cross the roads, just to kind of lick the salts from the side of the roads, is there anything to be done about that? Paul: I don't know. I mean, there's a lot of very sticky questions in conservation in general that we don't have the perfect answer for and that's probably one of them.
I still have never seen a moose. Which means the great woolly behemoth’s mythical aura keeps growing in my mind.
But after reporting this story, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Maybe moose and humans can never coexist in complete harmony. Maybe, dare I say, moose and I are better off if we never meet.
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Thanks so much for listening to the show, and thanks to Jocelyn Hebert for the great question.
This episode was reported, produced and mixed by Josh Crane, with editing by Myra Flynn and Angela Evancie. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions and our very own Myra Flynn.
Special thanks to Ben Goldfarb, Jason Batchelder, Eve Frankel, Reed Nye, Henry Epp, and Liam Elder-Connors for their help with this episode. And thanks to the BLS listeners who got in touch during our reporting: Sue, Fred, Welthy, Chuck, and Marcella.
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