“Florida shakes in the mystery of numbers
Panhandlers cookin them road kill wings”
— The Gourds, “Lower 48,” Blood of the Ram
by Andy Walgamott
And why shouldn’t Washingtonians be able to dine on roadkill?
Fresh, lean, organic free-range meat is all the rage these days, but times are tough.
Sure, it comes pretenderized — but also a helluva lot cheaper than the same grade of beef.
By god, that deer or elk that just snapped its neck on your front left quarter panel or ate some other driver’s grill ought to go towards something better than feeding a murder of crows.
Indeed, dinner’s just about ready, Seattle and Spokane, Omak and Orcas Island!
AHEM, I WILL ADMIT THAT THOSE WERE NOT EXACTLY MY FIRST THOUGHTS when I learned that Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission was considering legalizing the possession of blacktails and muleys, whitetails and wapiti accidentally run down on the state’s highways and byways.
It actually went a little like this:
“Hey, Madonna [WDFW spokesman], this is Andy, Northwest Sportsman. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat in THE hell are you people …”
But after some reflection, I recently ran it past my wife and young sons as we ate tortellini with pesto and cucumber slices:
Andy: “What do you think about collecting and eating roadkill, my love?”
Amy: “No, we’re not going to do that, Andy. Why would you want to? Disgusting.”
River: “What is roadkill?”
Amy: “Dead things in the ditch.”
Andy: “But what if it was a deer that had just bounced off our bumper?”
Amy (more thoughtfully): “Wellllllllllllll, I guess if you immediately processed it — but no raccoons, skunks or other animals I would not otherwise eat!”
Indeed, once you get past the idea that we’re not talking about serving up possums, squirrels or Mr. Fluffynoodles after they got whacked, crawled into the roadside weeds and stewed for a couple hot August days, the idea doesn’t seem half bad.
You might even say it sounds appetizing.
JAY KEHNE LIVES NEAR THE BLOOD-SPLATTERED HEART of Washington’s roadkill country, a 12-mile stretch of Highway 97 north of Riverside in Okanogan County that might as well be the road out of Kuwait City for the local herd.
Nearly a deer a day gets strafed down by tractor-trailers, ranch rigs and other vehicles as the critters come down out of the hills across the road to the Okanogan River in winter and then return to the mountains in spring.
It’s been even worse since last summer’s wildfires.
Six of the last seven months have seen higher recorded roadkill than those same months in recent years, according to DOT stats, and by one estimate as many as 1,200 bucks, does and fawns could end up bumper fodder between October 2015 and this October.
Kehne and his wife Rita have accounted for two themselves.
“Both of the deer we hit, I wish we could have used and not wasted the meat,” he says.
The animals are otherwise collected by DOT crews and dumped down a nearby hillside for scavengers to pick over.
The coyotes get the backstraps; you’re stuck with a mangled front end, if not far worse, and an average damage claim of $4,135, according to State Farm.
But over the past few years you could say that Kehne has been setting the table to allow dead deer and elk to be salvaged.
“It’s something my hunting friends have always asked me about, so I brought it up a couple of years ago,” recalls the member of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. “Then I talked with Montana about how their program is working and they encouraged it completely. Idaho had similar reports of a good program that was appreciated. Most hunters hate to see game wasted, so we kept at it and I think this will happen now,” he forecasts.
Who’s to say how the eight others on WDFW’s citizen oversight panel will actually vote, but public comment on the proposal has been good.
“I’ve never seen an issue before the commission that didn’t have comments split 50/50 or 60/40, so I was pleased to read almost everyone that commented on a salvage roadkill change was positive for it. Most said, it’s about time,” Kehne says.
One hunter I ran it past agreed — “If it’s fresh roadkill, there’s nothing wrong with the meat” — but another worried about “people running across I-90 for elk steaks and getting creamed by a semi” themselves.
According to DOT, 81 percent of all reported wildlife-car collisions do occur on state-administered routes, which comprise just 9 percent of Washington’s road network but have the highest speed limits.*
MY FIRST EXPOSURE TO WHAT SOME CALL “FREEWAY FORAGING” came unexpectedly, in John McPhee’s “Travels in Georgia.”
Originally published in an April 1973 issue of The New Yorker (I read it in a later compilation of McPhee’s work), in it the author tags along with a man and a woman with the Georgia Natural Resources Council as they crisscross the Peach Tree State talking to landowners about registering unique properties in a conservation program, as well as picking up roadkilled animals for a university’s specimen collection and/or supper:
We went around a bend in a mountain highway and the road presented Carol [Ruckeldeschel] with the find of the day. “D.O.R.!” she said. “That was a good one. That was a good one! Sam, hurry back. That was a weasel!”
Sam [Candler] hurried back. It was no banana peel. It was exactly what Carol said it was: Mustela frenata, the long-tailed weasel, dead on the road. It was fresh-killed, and — from the point of view of Georgia State University — in fine condition. Carol was so excited she jumped.
Slicing smoothly through the weasel’s fur, she began to remove the pelt. Surely, she worked the skin away from the long neck. The flesh inside the pelt looked like a segment of veal tenderloin. “I lived on squirrel last winter,” she said. “Every time you’d come to a turn in the road, there was another squirrel. I stopped buying meat. I haven’t bought any meat in a year, except for some tongue. I do love tongue.”
We went into the cabin. Carol put the weasel on the tines of a long fork and roasted it over the coals.
“How do you like your weasel?” Sam asked me.
“Extremely well done,” I said.
The taste of the weasel was strong and not unpleasant. It lingered in the mouth after dinner. The meat was fibrous and dark. “It just goes to show you how good everything is,” said Carol.
It did not lead me to begin poking speculatively at dead things along the road like (what I thought of them at time as) those two filthy Southerners, but since Travels was published, several states have begun allowing people to cart off critters, including the two here in the Northwest, Idaho in 2012 and Montana in 2013.
“How they did it in Montana is what we will be doing most likely,” says Kehne. “You will have to take the entire carcass, and dispose of the entrails or inedible meat after you process it. Montana has a very simple website. You have 24 hours to go online (or call an enforcement officer) and complete a two-minute application, which you can then print for your permit, and answer questions like where did you pick it up, put a pin in a map showing the location, your name, address, etc.”
Certain checks would also help fight against poaching.
“You cannot in any way dispose of a wounded animal and must call law enforcement to do that. This keeps someone from shooting an animal and claiming roadkill — no bullet holes allowed. Montana then did about a 5 percent spot check and found very few if any problems,” Kehne says.
“In the first month of use — it become law in July, I think — only one or two people used it. By cold weather more and more were using it, and after the first year I think around 1,200 animals were picked up. No real costs to [Fish, Wildlife and Parks]. No real problems. Something like 150,000 pounds of meat saved — that’s no small thing, especially at about $8.00 a pound for lean meat,” he notes.
In addition to deer and elk, moose and antelope can be collected off roads in Montana.
Next door in Idaho, all big game as well as upland birds and small game, furbearers and predators can be picked up.
But state highways are not Safeways; it is salvager and their stomach beware.
“To pick up a deer or elk you’ve hit or you see alongside a road is, of course, your choice, and no one is vouching for the safety of the meat,” says Kehne. “Most people who would stop can figure it out pretty quick.”
Some general but NOT foolproof guidelines might include:
Sunny and hot? Stays on the asphalt.
Cold and cloudy? Jump out and load the Audi!
Eye sockets empty? Don’t risk dysentery.
Eyeballs clear? Dinner’s here!
If it’s bloated, don’t be totin’ it.
Hit a buck? Pull a Wolfgang Puck!**
IDFG lays out the risks and their liability even more clearly.
When you fill out their required permit, you “acknowledge that any meat salvaged is wild game meat which does not meet the requirements of the Idaho Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” and furthermore, you also “waive any claim against the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the State of Idaho for any damages or injuries that may result from the use of (sic) consumption of wild game meat.”
ROADKILLED GAME HAS BEEN AND IS ON THE MENU FOR SOME IN WASHINGTON already. A longtime observer of the state’s hunting world recalls that prisoners on the West End were fed it in the 1980s, and crippled or dead deer, elk and moose have provided sustenance to the hungry in the Spokane area since 1996, thanks to the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council.
The venerable organization’s Big Game Recovery Committee was the subject of a feature in our March 2010 issue. Written by longtime club member and local author James A. Nelson, he reported that when roadkills are phoned in during the cold and cooler months, trained volunteers head to the scene and collect the animal, then take it to a butchering shed INWC had custom-built for $3,000.
Between 2008 and 2009, 164 deer, seven elk and 15 moose were salvaged, yielding 16,730 pounds of meat that was then wrapped and donated to local organizations that made it available to the poor, Nelson reported.
“The work makes our highways safer by getting the carcasses off roadways, as well as helps fill the stomachs of the needy. After all, a good deer, moose or elk steak has never hurt anyone,” he wrote.
At this time, moose couldn’t be salvaged under Kehne’s proposal, as there was less support for including that species than there was for deer and elk. But if approved and the kinks are figured out, the giant ungulates could one day be added, if Montana and Idaho’s successful programs are any indication.
ADMIT IT, ALL THIS IS STARTING TO MAKE YOU SALIVATE, ISN’T IT? And you’re probably wondering where in your travels you might start keeping a sharper eye out for possible free venison later this year.
Just under 60 percent of 5,224 dead deer shoveled off the state’s roads by DOT between 2011 and 2014 were in Eastern Washington, while 42 percent were on the Westside.
For a recent mule deer summit in Omak that Kehne was involved in to build support for new wildlife underpasses and fencing to prevent roadkill on Death Highway 97, DOT produced a couple maps that showed the worst stretches.
Besides the middle Okanogan Valley, the highways radiating out of Spokane see some of the highest deer collisions in Washington, but other hot spots include Port Angeles, Sequim, Whidbey and Bainbridge Islands, Olympia, Bellingham, Goldendale, Cle Elum, Cashmere, Wenatchee, Entiat, Colville, Touchet, Lacrosse and Colfax.
The worst areas for elk are along Highway 101 from Raymond to Ilwaco, Highway 20 from Sedro-Woolley to Concrete, I-90 from North Bend to Thorp and from Kittitas to Vantage, Highway 97 from the Teanaway Valley to Blewett Pass, Highway 7 on either side of Eatonville, Highways 12 and 410 west from Naches over to Randle and the Cascade Crest, respectively, and the highways south and east of Spokane.
Allowing people to salvage deer and elk off those and other roads could provide another benefit. When Kehne’s idea was discussed at last week’s commission meeting, fellow commissioner Jay Holzmiller, an Asotin County Public Works Department heavy equipment operator, was very supportive.
“We spend a lot of time going around picking up deer carcasses, so hopefully that will alleviate some of that,” Holzmiller pointed out.
It potentially represents a savings for small, rural cash-strapped counties like his.
A final decision may be made by the Fish and Wildlife Commission at its April 8-9 meeting and, if passed, could go into effect as early as this July.
If approved as currently proposed by WDFW staff, salvagers could also keep the antlers of any bucks or bulls they haul off to process. It was thought that requiring them to turn the head gear in would eat up state resources and storage space.
“The best thing, of course, is to never hit the deer in the first place, hence the effort to get fencing and underpasses,” says Kehne about his work on the Safe Passage 97 project. “But on all the roads in the state, having a salvage alternative to a big pile of dead deer is a far better option in my book.”
Now, to get my staff chef to start coming up with some recipes …
* This sentence has been updated with the word “reported” to more accurately state the situation.
** Hat tip to two friends who came up with most of these tips but who are in no way liable (and neither are we) if they backfire and you get food poisoning and die and need to be thrown on the bonepile.