Montanans might be whipping up venison quesadillas, antelope steaks or barbecued moose if a roadkill bill being considered in the legislature becomes law.
Montana would join Colorado, Florida, Illinois, West Virginia, Georgia and a handful of other states in allowing residents to turn roadkill into dinner. The bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate’s Fish and Game Committee after it passed the House of Representatives Feb. 11 on a 95 to 3 vote.
“I’ve been a state trooper for over 20 years and have responded to hundreds of crashes involving animals,” said state Representative Steve Lavin, who sponsored the measure, during a Feb. 9 floor debate. “I’ve had people ask me if they can take these animals, but the public cannot legally take them. Unfortunately the animal is left to rot along the highway.”
Tens of thousands of deer, elk, moose and smaller animals are meeting untimely deaths at the end of fenders each year, as increasing numbers of people move into rural areas, especially in Western states. The carnage is catching the attention of lawmakers, residents and undersupplied food bank operators who view it as a cheap, readily available meal source.
Most states don’t document roadkill cleanup expenses. A spokeswoman for the Montana Transportation Department, while providing a list of animals killed by vehicles that included mountain lions, grizzly bears, black bears, deer and other species, said the state doesn’t break out roadkill pickup costs.
In Colorado, it took about $58,605 to clean up 1,143 animals in 15 counties in the southwestern part of the state in 2009, considered a “big year for roadkill maintenance,” said Nancy Shanks, a Colorado Transportation Department spokeswoman.
While savings to state budgets provided by roadkill programs are difficult to quantify, residents who partake in the practice said eating animals slaughtered by vehicles can shave thousands of dollars a year off their food costs.
Whether Americans view roadkill as food is largely determined by geography and local customs. Big-city residents tend to frown on the practice, while those in rural regions and the South, particularly in West Virginia -- which will celebrate its 21st RoadKill Cook-off this year -- embrace the practice.
“People see a dead animal on the side of the road and think it’s not much to look at,” said Matt Kenna, a Durango, Colorado, attorney who has brought roadkill home to his wife and sons for 15 years. “But it’s worth quite a bit of money.”
Kenna, a hunter who carries a hunting knife and bone saw in his trunk, searches for dead elk alongside rural roads in years he’s unable to shoot one. He estimates his family has saved as much as $1,800 annually dining on up to 150 pounds in roadside fare including his favorite -- elk steak marinated in Italian dressing. Kenna butchers the animal himself and said people will often pull over and ask him if he’s going to take it all.
Roadkill carries health risks, said Lawrence Goodridge, associate professor of food safety at Fort Collins-based Colorado State University. For those who handle it, they include exposure to bacteria or infectious diseases, and those who eat it may be exposed to food-borne illnesses if the meat isn’t cooked properly at the right temperature, Goodridge said.
“Personally, I would not support any such legislation,” he said.
In some states, collecting certain animal appendages, such as antlers or parts of black bears, is banned. In Illinois, where residents are required to submit a “Road Kill Deer Reporting Form” within 24 hours, the animals can’t be claimed by those who are delinquent in child-support payments.
Interviews with residents from Alaska to California to West Virginia to Florida show the practice of collecting and eating roadkill is widespread.
In Alaska, residents can only legally pick up roadkill if state troopers invite them to do so. Troopers keep a list of families and charities they call to collect dead moose, caribou or bear found by roadsides. If a potential recipient can’t respond right away and pick up the animal, the person goes to the bottom of the list, said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers Division.
Montana food banks also respond when state troopers offer them the carcasses, even though the practice isn’t currently legal, Lavin, the roadkill bill sponsor, told lawmakers.
About 6,568 animals died after colliding with a vehicle on Montana roads in 2011, including 6,069 deer, 171 elk, 63 antelope, 33 black bears and six mountain lions, according to statistics provided by the state transportation department. In 2010, the list included two grizzly bears.
Alaska’s program hasn’t prompted people to intentionally hit animals to collect the meat or other parts, Peters said.
“People don’t go hunting with their car,” she said. “We had a wreck recently where a 2012 KIA, a little SUV, was totaled and the moose walked away on its own accord. The driver was fine.”
Some drivers don’t survive collisions with animals. About 203 died after hitting wildlife and 14,000 were injured in 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Claims related to wildlife-vehicle accidents amount to about $1.1 billion a year, averaging about $3,200 each, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
Interest in roadkill and its potential as a food source is at an all-time high. More than 15,000 people flocked to Pocahontas County, West Virginia last year to sample squirrel gravy, porcupine stew, mink gumbo, and other delicacies at the 20th annual RoadKill Cook-off. A cast-iron stomach and “no vegetarian tendencies,” were listed as requirements for judges.
“People wait in line a long time so they can taste the food,” said Gail Hyer, a marketing specialist for the Marlinton-based Pocahontas County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Cooking wild game is a real art because when you put it in your mouth and eat it you want to be able to chew it and taste it and savor it, so some of the gaminess has to be cooked out.”
Other uses for roadkill abound. In Florida, where it’s legal for drivers to take home any animal as long as it isn’t a protected species, Tony Young, a state hunting division spokesman, picked up a dead fox alongside the road, took it to a taxidermist and had it stuffed.
“You are not allowed to kill foxes in Florida,” he said. “If you find a roadkill fox, you can take it to a taxidermist and have them stuff it. You don’t need a permit for it.”
In Georgia, a 2010 law lets residents take bear killed by motorists home for dinner as long as they report it within 48 hours to the Natural Resources Department so employees can “come out and collect a tooth sample for aging purposes,” said Robin Hill, a spokeswoman.
“As the population increased in the North Georgia mountains, incidents of wildlife and human interaction increased,” she said. “With bears, it was illegal to shoot one and take the carcass, whether for food or parts.”
Across the country at California’s Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of Sacramento, keepers feed roadkill on a limited basis to the animals “under very strict guidelines due to the potential danger of diseased animals and lead poisoning,” said Sue Ryan, a city spokeswoman.
Health concerns that the animals may not be fresh, voiced by a few Montana House lawmakers last month, are allayed by picking up the carcass as quickly as possible after death, roadkill enthusiasts said.
“It’s easy to tell a fresh roadkill from one that’s been there too long,” said Kenna, the Colorado lawyer. “In the winter time, there is fresh snow and if the body is still warm it means it was killed that night. I’ve never taken one in the summer.”