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How Roadkill Goes From the Freeway to the Dinner Table

Salvaging roadkill feeds the hungry and ensures the animals don’t die in vain

Littered across the country — and the world — are restaurants touting their minimal-waste menus, focusing on nose-to-tail cooking and dishes like radish green salad and beet pulp burgers. But, as with any initiative focused on a widely felt problem, the solution starts at on the local level, which is why states throughout the country, namely border states across the north, are passing legislation for the use of salvaged roadkill for consumption.

Yes, that’s right. States like Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Montana are permitting their residents to collect and eat roadkill. On the surface, this might feel pretty gross. We’re conditioned to think that eating roadkill happens only in movies stereotyping the South, like Joe Dirt, or as a bizarre and theatrical celebration of riches, like the annual West Virginia Roadkill Cook-Off.

But in many snow-laden winter states, people bring animals they’ve hit to local butchers to have them processed for the next week of meals. When you consider that animals killed in a collision with a vehicle include large game like deer, moose, and caribou — animals that restaurant guests will pay to eat — the idea of eating roadkill is less like dumpster diving and more like a humane way to hunt. These laws do more than permit the use of meat; they aim to solve problems of both waste and hunger.

Salvaged roadkill gives new meaning to the animals accidentally killed — so much so that approximately 20 state legislatures have passed bills allowing for the consumption of roadkill. In Oregon, state Sen. Bill Hansell proposed and passed Senate Bill 372 in a unanimous senate vote of 29–0, which will “allow the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) to issue salvage permits for deer and elk that are accidentally killed in a vehicle collision.” The bill, passed last month, goes on to flesh out provisions that discourage poaching, and explicitly states that “salvage is allowed only for human consumption of meat and that antlers must be turned over to the ODFW.”

The bills are not legal stand-ins for hunting, which is exactly why organizations like PETA are not entirely opposed to roadkill laws. “PETA has no ethical objection to states that allow and arrange for the collection of an animal’s remains discovered at the side of the road,” they say in a statement. “Roadkill is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped packages of meat in the supermarket….” These bills specifically state that the meat salvaged cannot be sold to and by butcher shops, supermarkets, and other establishments that require a USDA seal.

The salvage process also requires a specific order, as described by Don Dyer, the executive director of the Alaska Moose Federation, a 501c3 nonprofit contracted by State Trooper Wildlife Salvage Program to collect and distribute all roadkill. “We’ve built trucks specifically for the pick up of moose off the road or down an embankment,” he says. “Once the animal is loaded, we take all kinds of data — the location, weather, temperature, and road conditions.”

The AMF then calls a dispatcher with the State Troopers office to relay the information collected to ensure the meat is stable enough for consumption — meaning that internal organs are not so severely damaged as to corrupt the meat or that the core temperature of the animal is not high enough for bacteria to begin growing.

Alaska’s salvage program is unlike those in other states in that it requires recipients to first register as a member. The membership is open to anyone and is used to streamline the process by organizing members into different delivery regions. Both individual groups (families of two or three, for instance) and more structured organizations, like church or veterans groups, soup kitchens, and food pantries, make up the membership list. Dyer notes that even though members are “supposed to be willing and able to pick up moose off the road, the inconvenience and danger that this process poses” means that not everyone is willing to do so on their own, given that many recipients are elderly.

In Washington state, the process appears less organized. After many calls to regional offices for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, no one representative could explicitly state whether meat can be donated elsewhere for consumption. The state requires that the individual picking up a salvaged animal must file for a permit, which can be completed retroactively. Permits are nontransferable: As a representative in the department’s Ephrata office explains it, “If I apply for the permit, the meat must be consumed by me.” Confiscated animals — meaning animals that were taken without a permit, animals that were poached, or animals collected by the state — will be donated to a food bank. But a representative in the department’s state office states that if a permitted individual salvages an animal, they are welcome to take it to a food bank that accepts it.

The charitable donation is important to consider within these salvage programs. A 2015 report shows that 12.7 percent of U.S. households contended with food insecurity — meaning they lack access to enough food for all household members. Salvage programs create an avenue for the hungry to use food readily available to them.

Most states with salvage programs require that all donated meat must be butchered and packaged by those who salvage it before donation. But similar to the Alaska Moose Federation, which processes all meat collected, Montana’s North Valley Food Bank invested in a meat-processing facility because of the large amount of roadkill and confiscated fish and game donated to them by the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department. In a statement on the food bank’s website, they explain that “We cut, wrap and freeze the meat for future use.”

Unfortunately, as state budgets decline, the biggest roadblock for salvage programs is money. In Michigan, state Sen. Darwin Booher, who is sponsoring the Road Kill Law, notes that in a state where there are roughly 50,000 deer-car crashes each year, the cost of disposal for some counties is $20,000 annually. Sen. Booher sponsored the bill to eliminate the sight of roadkill from the state’s landscape while feeding those in need throughout the state. The bill was also inspired by the fact that he has hit 11 deer with his vehicle.

And while the cost of disposing animals in landfills or other facilities is significant, state budgets for salvage are also falling. According to Dyer, the AMF is finding it hard to meet budget targets. “Alaska receives 92 percent of budget funds from taxes on oil extracted from the state,” he says; the state has a $2 billion deficit on a $5 billion budget. “With oil prices dropping to less than half of what they were four years ago, the state budget has been hit hard.” Aside from individuals who can transport, process, and consume salvaged animals, the AMF is the only official group contracted to complete this process for the government.

Their contribution is no small feat. The organization collects between 600 and 700 moose a year, which yields the equivalent of 1.4 million quarter-pound hamburgers annually. One moose can feed 19 people three weekly meals for 19.3 weeks.

The benefits of eating roadkill are clear. Not only does it fill an important gap for hungry populations, but it also makes use of animals that are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions while reducing the need to raise or hunt and kill them. While it doesn’t necessarily reduce the carbon footprint of wildlife, it does ensure they’re used efficiently should they be killed accidentally.

After the country’s formal departure from the Paris agreement, will more states take it upon themselves to reduce waste and combat climate change through wildlife salvage programs? With 1 million animals hit by vehicles each year, this is an expensive problem worth solving with benefits reaching well beyond a line in the state budget.

Suzanne Zupello writes about people and the problems they are trying to solve. She lives by the beach in New York, where she hangs out with clammers and not Billy Joel. Joaquin Golez is an illustrator and graphic maker based in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus