Roadkill—It’s What’s for Dinner, Legally
Lawmakers Green Light the Harvesting of Roadkill
BY ARI LEVAUX
The Montana state legislature passed a bill in the last session, signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock in April, that legalizes the salvage, consumption, and/or donation to charity of animals hit and killed by cars—roadkill. The new law applies to deer, elk, antelope and moose, and puts the state in the company of Alaska, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Florida, and West Virginia in condoning the consumption of vehicle-tenderized meat.
With deer populations at all-time highs in many regions—and car- on-deer collisions skyrocketing as well—it's possible more states will follow suit with roadkill bills of their own. Much of the details on how the law is implemented will be made by a Montana Fish and Wildlife commission that is accepting public comment on the details from July 25 through August 23. The law’s effective date is October 1, “but it will be November, probably,” before it’s finalized, FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim told the Pioneer.
Salvaging roadkill makes sense for several reasons. Wild game is some of the healthiest meat there is, and it's a shame to let it rot by the roadside. Eating roadkill could save families a lot of money they would otherwise have spent on meat, which might have something to do with why the beef industry lobbied against the bill, citing food-safety concerns.
In addition to feeding people, roadkill salvage would protect the lives of eagles, ravens, coyotes and other scavengers that typically feast on roadside carcasses, and are sometimes killed themselves in the process. And the bill could conceivably save taxpayer dollars, as every carcass removed by a meat salvager is one fewer road crews must deal with—a process that typically entails hauling it to the dump for composting.
While the beef industry's food-safety concerns may be motivated by the bottom line, there are, in fact, health issues to consider regarding roadkill consumption, which the FWP commission will likely have in mind as it crafts its rules. Additionally, there are ethical issues to contend with, such as the possibility that an unscrupulous motorist might intentionally hit an animal as an easy way to harvest meat or collect antlers, which salvagers would be allowed to keep.
Ron Aasheim, of FWP, empha-sized that those salvaging roadkill must take the whole animal, not just the head. “I would assume you can eviscerate it,” he said, adding that the meat must be used for human consumption, not bait.
When asked if allowing salvagers to keep the rack opens the door for the unscrupulous use of a solid bumper, Aasheim replied, “Fair question—I think it’s a stretch to think people are going to chase down a trophy and hit it. But when we give opportunity there is opportunity for abuse.”
While punishable by law, using a car as a weapon is, at the very least, an unsustainable use of a car, and probably disincentivized by the driver’s survival instinct. Anyone who's crashed into a deer knows how much fun it isn’t. But happens it does, and in that unfortunate event, the rules for getting the meat home safely are much the same as they are when hunting.
As with hunting, harvesting roadkill is particularly tricky on warm days, which is why it is surprising that Florida and West Virginia allow the harvest of roadkill, heat being one of the main enemies of meat quality. When processing roadkill in the heat, get the useable meat off the animal as soon as possible. If it’s cold, simply gut the carcass and deal with it later. If the weather is borderline cold, and you take the animal gutted and whole, consider packing the body cavity with ice.
As with hunting, how the animal died can make a huge difference in the final meat quality, which is why it’s often preferable to harvest roadkill that you actually hit. Then at least you know the facts, and will be able to act quickly, cleaning and cooling the meat as soon as possible. But if you ran over the poor thing, causing extensive damage, a hit and run might be your best option. Just pull it off the road before driving home.
If you happen upon an animal already dead, look for clues as to when and how it died. Ideally, the animal would still be warm and loose, pre rigor mortis. Be suspicious of animals that are already stiff, because then it’s been dead for over an hour. Avoid animals that are at all bloated in the belly, an indication of systemic skank. Avoid also animals that show signs of whole body trauma, such as those run over or partially obliterated by a semi.
The skank can travel, along slimy causeways between muscle groups, visible as you pull and cut the muscle groups apart while butchering. It’s a yellow slime, almost green.
As a hunter, or a consumer of game meat, you not only want your meat to be safe, you want it to be perfect. Putting perfect meat in the freezer is a bit like pitching a perfect game in baseball. With baseball, if just one opposing player gets on base the magic is lost, while with meat there is a long sequence of steps that must be completed correctly to ensure top quality. Whether the meat is acquired via hunting or car crash, the forces that create bad flavor and spoilage are virtually identical.
Despite the above tongue-in- cheek reference to vehicle-tenderized meat, the part of the animal that took the brunt of the collision is likely to be ruined—resembling a wound more than something you want to eat. Any bruised or bloodshot meat should be cut away and not used. This gets back to the benefits of knowing how it went down. If you hit it on the front shoulder, then you know that part is in rough shape, and should be cut away sooner rather than later.
Spoilage and bad flavor can emanate throughout the body from the point of impact, especially in the heat. But heat spoilage can happen even in mild weather. A dead animal that hasn’t been gutted will take a long time to cool down. A hunter will cut off the meat or open the body cavity as soon as possible to let the body heat escape, and the same should be true for roadkill.
If your plan is to cut off the quarters and backstraps but leave the carcass, you’re probably an experienced hunter, and you might want to consider opening the belly, just a little, and taking a whiff, to make sure everything smells right. If something smells wrong, don’t convince yourself otherwise.
When the bill was being debated in Helena, Sen. Kendall Van Dyk (D-Billings) raised that very concern while voicing skepticism about the roadkill bill. "Despite its good intention, it doesn't pass the smell test for me," he told the AP, citing food safety concerns.
Three lawmakers voted against the bill, all Democrats, while most Dems and all voting Republicans voted in favor. "It really is a sin to waste good meat," state Sen. Larry Jent (D-Bozeman) told the AP.
Assuming roadkill harvesters know what they’re doing, lawmakers decided it makes sense to allow the judicious eating of roadkill. But FWP needs to hear from hunters and experienced roadkill harvesters about the details. Public education on food safety should be a part of this program, even a course, or at least a pamphlet (perhaps with a recipe for Roadkill Stew on the back) to help ensure Montana meat scavengers know how to keep their families not only well-fed but safe.