Kurt Schmidt heard bison hooves clattering on the car before he saw what happened.
He was driving home from work on a small road near his home in Delta Junction on a dark January night when he saw a herd of bison ahead of him. On the other side of the herd, a small car was also waiting to pass the animals.
Schmidt said he stopped his van and waited. Suddenly the herd turned and fled. Several of the huge animals tripped over the car.
“I don’t think they intended to crush it,” he said. “They pretty much ran in, slid the hood off and ran over it.”
The driver of the car moved forward quickly after the incident, and Schmidt could see clog marks on the dashboard within a foot of the steering wheel. The event could have been much worse.
Deep snow this winter has prompted more bison to travel on plowed roads in the Delta Junction area, said Bob Schmidt, wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“Animals don’t want to leave plowed roads because it’s so hard on them,” he said. “It’s chest deep in snow and it cuts their legs off and so they use the roads as travel corridors.”
And more animals on the road have led to an increase in collisions with vehicles. This year, at least nine bison have died after being hit by cars. By comparison, only a couple typically die this way each year, Schmidt said.
The crashes resulted in no injuries, but some vehicles were significantly damaged, said Austin McDaniel, director of communications for the Alaska State Troopers. An adult plains bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds.
Dodi Wontorski was in the passenger seat of her Chevy pickup truck two weeks ago after picking up her boyfriend from the airport. They were driving home to Tok around 8 or 9 p.m. when Wontorski saw a herd of bison ahead of them on the road. By then it was too late to stop.
“He hit the brakes and he was able to at least move the truck to the smaller ones – the big ones were huge,” she said. “And I thought for sure we were going to die.”
The truck crashed and injured several bison, she said. The front of the truck crumpled on impact – Wontorski said it was total.
A soldier dispatched two of the bison, Wontorski said.
Had they been in a smaller vehicle or driven fast, the situation would have been much worse, Wontorski said.
“It was scary as hell,” she said.
It’s normal for bison to cross the Alaska Highway each year, said Schmidt, the wildlife biologist, because they move south to calving grounds in the spring and summer. But bison generally avoid humans and roads, he said.
“But now they’re not off the road for hours or even a day or more,” Bob Schmidt said. “They just want to hang out on the road.”
Kurt Schmidt (no relation to the biologist) said it had become routine since January for him to encounter herds of bison sleeping or walking along the road.
Bison activity for the past several months has been centered on a roughly 20-mile section of the Alaska Highway east of Delta Junction, Bob Schmidt said. The Delta Junction Buffalo Range is a 9,000-acre protected area about 12 miles southeast of the city, established by the legislature in 1979 as a place where the herd of several hundred animals can roam in the winter without damaging agriculture.
This winter, some bison turned to farmers’ fields because it was very difficult for them to access forage buried in the snow. There is a layer of ice up to 2 inches thick in the snowpack which further complicates foraging.
“The bison are resourceful animals and have trampled areas in the hay meadows to get through the ice sheet to the grasses below,” Clint Cooper, a Fish and Game technician, said in a statement. “However, many of these fields are owned by local farmers, who do not appreciate the ingenuity of the bison.”
Hoping to keep bison away from farms and roads, Fish and Game and Alaska Forestry Division bulldozer crews have plowed more than 30 miles of trails in recent months to allow animals to travel and access fodder. . About 200 acres of fields were also cleared.
Officials said the plan was working: During a flight in February, biologists saw 70 bison using the fields and trails.
Bob Schmidt said it was important to clear the bison and allow them to find space to get off the road.
And one of the most important things is just to drive slowly. Bison are more active at night and can be difficult to see.
“I’m scared to hit one,” Kurt Schmidt said. “I can only see so far and these things at night – they don’t reflect any light. So usually if you’re going to be 60 when you see them, it’s too late. If they’re in your way, you’re going hit them.