102413 Deer crossing

Deer Crossing

Roadkill. Now it’s for dinner.

Next month, Montanans join the residents of at least 18 other states in the legal right to eat what’s in the ditch. If that concept freaks you out, stop reading now. But if you consider yourself a know-your-farmer, do-it-yourself kind of foodie, get your apron and rubber gloves.

“With roadkill, anything you do is an act of respect to the animal,” said Steven Rinella, hunter and author of “Meat Eater” a chronicle of consuming wild game. “Any meat you can salvage off that animal, you’re doing a good thing.”

The 2013 Legislature’s roadkill bill took effect Oct. 1, but the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks needs several more weeks to work out the details of a permitting system. It turns out there are lots of complications in the aftermath of a split-second accident.

For example, what do you do if the animal you hit isn’t quite dead yet? (Answer: Nothing.) How do you know if it’s safe to eat? (We’ll get to that.) Is the government involved? (Yes.)

In 2012, Montana motorists hit 4,754 whitetail deer, 1,977 mule deer, 220 elk, 72 antelope and 28 moose. The new law allows anyone to salvage those animals in the future if they wish. We also hit 39 black bears, five grizzly bears, six mountain lions, 15 bighorn sheep, an uncertain number of wolves, and uncounted birds of prey and furbearing mammals. Those critters must stay in the barrow pit.

And those are just the incidents we know about. Montana Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lori Ryan said road maintenance crews and Montana Highway Patrol officers report animal-vehicle collisions, but the record-keeping isn’t comprehensive. Many motorists don’t inform anyone besides their insurance agent after a crash. Hit animals that die outside the road right-of-way don’t get counted. Law enforcement report forms have a data field for “animal impact” but not one for type of animal.

“The Highway Patrol reports dead animals, but they don’t pick them up,” Ryan said. “The (Transportation) Department picks up deer, but if you have a bighorn sheep or something of that nature, only the FWP can pick it up.”

One-third of the nation allows some use of roadkill by the public, although the rules vary widely state to state. Florida requires no permit or check-in: You hit it, you keep it. Georgia wants you to report a bear but not a deer. In Vermont, beavers are free, but you’ve got to get a permit to keep a deer. West Virginia has an annual Roadkill Cook-off, but actually discourages participants from really bringing meat grill-to-grill.

Texas, Washington, Tennessee and California prohibit taking roadkill.

Claiming roadkill is not hunting, FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim warns. There’s no season and no advance-purchase license. The agency requires after-the-fact permits to keep track of how often dead wildlife get salvaged. Anyone who seems to be making a habit of harvesting the highway’s bounty may have to prove they’re not adding to the problem.

“We will spot-check some for sure,” Aasheim said. “The law says all animal parts shall be made available for inspection by a peace officer. If we suspect something, we can follow up.”

Contrary to earlier reports, FWP doesn’t have an app for getting permission to salvage roadkill. Someone with a smartphone and cell service can call up the fwp.mt.us website and fill out the online form. They should also be able to get permission from any law enforcement officer or station.


So you hit a deer or find one in the ditch. Here’s where things get squishy. You’ve been warned, dear reader.

“The safest bet in my mind, you would utilize animals you hit or saw someone hit,” Rinella said. “Say you’re taking the kids to drop off at school, and there’s no deer on road, but 20 minutes later there’s a dead deer as you’re driving back. It’s a simple bit of deduction that animal’s pretty fresh.”

Fresh blood, a warm body temperature, eyes that haven’t turned milky all indicate a recent death. Odd smells, a bloated stomach and swarming insects hint that time is running out.

“Grab a pinch of hair and yank on it,” Rinella suggested. “If it’s spoiling, the hair will come out quite easily in tufts. That’s a good way to determine freshness.”

If it passes the sniff-and-tug test, you must make a commitment. The law prohibits you from processing roadkill on the side of the road. You’ve got to take that carcass home.

That means no grabbing the antlers and leaving the body. No ditching the guts in the ditch.

“The reason is they don’t want to create a hazard with predators by leaving it there,” Aasheim said of the all-or-nothing rule. A partially dismembered carcass will draw everything from house pets to grizzly bears to the kill site, potentially increasing the roadkill tally. It also makes it really nasty for the poor road crew guy who eventually has to finish the job.

Superior Meats owner Jerry Stroot said on a warm fall day, roadkill would need to be gutted and cooled within four or five hours of death for the meat to be salvageable. The guts should be removed within the first half-hour for best quality.

“In the summer, you’d have to be really on them quick,” he said. “You’d have to get them in a cooler in a couple of hours or you’ll lose the meat.”

Another part of your decision depends on the circumstances of death. If the deer died of a glancing blow to the head by a side-view mirror, perfect. If it pulled a full Hollywood stunt-death over your front-bumper roo bar and smashed your windshield, chances are you won’t want to add home meat processing to your to-do list.

“Bloodshot” describes what happens when what the medical folks call “blunt force trauma” occurs in muscle tissue. Get hit in the arm with a baseball, and you get a bruise. Get hit by a bullet, and lots of muscle around the entry and exit wounds become bruised and bloodshot. None of that muscle tissue, also known as “meat” will be edible.

An archer’s arrow, incidentally, hits with much less force and leaves much less damage. The front-end of a car, on the other hand, packs about as much blunt force as the average non-military citizen can legally command.

“You really can’t tell until you skin them out and see what’s bloodshot and what isn’t,” Stroot said. “If someone hits them in the front end (of the deer), and the hindquarters and back haven’t been hit, we can usually save that meat. If they hit them in the rump, that’s the bigger portion of meat on the deer.”

If tire tread marks are involved, forget about it. That almost certainly means the animal’s gastric cavity has been ruptured. So the digestive juices and bacteria in its stomach and intestines have gone to work decaying the surrounding meat. Call the insurance company and ask for home-delivery dinner recommendations.

Assuming you’ve got this far, any competent hunter can show you how to skin, gut and butcher the good meat from the carcass. The really talented ones might show you how to debone the animal without gutting it – a technique that could have lots to recommend it when dealing with partially damaged remains.

“Good meat should have a nice sweet smell,” Rinella said. “It should be appetizing, like something you want to eat. If it’s borderline already, I’d use it sooner to make jerky or some heavily seasoned dish like chili.”

Admitting he has a stronger stomach than many, Rinella noted that hunters face the same problems with game taken in the field. A mis-shot animal or one that’s old and gamey may not yield the tender, tasty steaks you’d like to serve to company. Well-treated and processed meat will taste better and should be enjoyed.

“I would forge ahead, and see what I can make do with it,” Rinella said. “When you hunt an animal, you have a moral obligation to use that animal fully. I wouldn’t treat roadkill any different Anything you do is an act of respect to the animal.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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