PINCKNEY, Mich. – One doesn’t have to spend much time on the roads and bike paths in the Lower 48 to be starkly reminded of Alaska’s biggest myth – the supposed bounty of wildlife in the north.
There are good arguments to be made for preserving ANWR as one of North America’s last great wilderness areas. Its similarity to the Serengeti is not one of them. The comparison is an insult to the productivity of the Serengeti.
The Serengeti is home to 1.2 million wildebeest, 750,000 zebra and hundreds of thousands of other species of big game. ANWR is home to small numbers of moose, musk ox and bears, several thousand Dall sheep and 150,000 caribou.
The number of wildebeest that die on the annual migration across the Serengeti is greater than the entire population of all big-game animals in ANWR. When, of course, the main big-game animals are in ANWR, which is only for part of the year.
Of the caribou herds in ANWR, the Porcupine herd is the biggest, and it spends a goodly amount of its time in Canada. Maybe life is better on the other side of the border.
Life is tough in Alaska, which is why wildlife populations are almost unbelievably small given the size of the state: 175,000 moose, 750,000 caribou, and 350,000 deer. That’s almost 1.3 million ungulates. There aren’t enough Dall sheep, mountain goats, and musk ox to get Alaska to the number of deer in Michigan, a state a seventh the size.
That Alaska is actually poor in wildlife shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Crossing the highway…
And yet, as an Alaskan, it always come as a surprise to putter around the back roads of the American Heartland and witness all of the road kill: deer, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, rabbits and more.
The dead and rotting carcasses of motor-vehicle killed animals are everywhere. This is something you just do not see on Alaska roads.
Some of the dead animals drivers might have been able to avoid, but it’s doubtful they could have avoided all. There are so many animals running around in Michigan that it was hard to ride a bike the 20-mile length of the LakeLands Trail without hitting a chipmunk, grey squirrel or cottontail rabbit.
Granted, the trail follows an old rail bed that runs though plenty of wetlands and other productive wildlife habitat, but so does the Campbell Creek Trail in Anchorage (at least by Alaska standards), and there are few worries about running over small mammals or big ones.
Anchorage is home to a few hundred moose. Ann Arbor, the home of the University of Michigan just to the southeast of this small town, is overrun with deer. It has so many it brought in professional killers to try to get the population under control.
Maybe the City Fathers should have skipped the sharpshooters and offered a road-kill bounty to encourage drivers to avoid swerving to miss deer and hit them instead as they do with smaller wildlife, the carcasses of which litter nearly all paved roads other than the freeways.
There is so much road kill that the lack of road-kill cleanup became an issue on Michigan public radio. The Environment Report at MI Curious a few years ago explored “Why doesn’t road kill get picked up on a timely basis in Michigan?”
Short answer: It costs money, and there’s too damn much of it.
Drivers here are estimated to hit almost 80,000 deer per year. That’s a big number, but it is also insignificant given the Michigan deer population of about 1.75 million. Bountiful Alaska, by way of comparison, is home to about 350,000 deer.
Good deer habitat in the coastal rain forest of Southeast Alaska, the ecologically most productive region of the state, supports 20 to 25 deer per square mile, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Ann Arbor would like to get down to such a number; it has an estimated 94 deer per square mile. The Michigan raccoon population is reported as “several million” on various websites, which would seem about right given that road-kill raccoons are everywhere, but there doesn’t appear to be an official state estimate on numbers.
On the one hand, it’s depressing to pedal a bike around Michigan and witness all this road kill. On the other, it does take some of the edge off concerns about global warming in Alaska. As temperatures creep up, net primary productivity is destined rise with the temperature in the north.
The result will be a richer, more productive ecosystem.
Given the sub-arctic (not to mention arctic) ecosystems of today, Alaska is a great place to be a bear or a salmon – creatures that have evolved to beat the long, cold, snowy dark. Bears skip the unproductive winter by hibernating. Salmon go to sea where they achieve almost all of their growth.
The animals that actually live above ground year round struggle to survive the winter and often die. An estimated 40 percent of the Kodiak Island deer herd died in the harsh winter of 2011-2012, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
By comparision, all this road kill in the warmer regions to the south – as bad as it looks (and sometimes smells) – is nothing.