Given the chance, would you eat roadkill?
Given the chance, would you eat roadkill?
Given the chance, would you eat roadkill? (Photo: Latasha Dunston)

Consider the Roadkill

There are myriad arguments for and against eating roadkill. Can they all be true at the same time?

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In 2016, Tim Bento logged on to Facebook to post in Britslist, a public buy-and-sell group for Whatcom County, Washington, that has more than 58,000 members. But Bento wasn’t buying or selling. He was publicly listing his cell-phone number and asking for roadkill.

“I told people to put me under their contacts as Deer Tim, and that if they saw one deer hit, I would go and get it, process it, and share some of the meat with them,” says Bento. “That would be an easy way for them to remember me.”

Since then, Bento has received texts from around 50 people letting him know what they’ve seen and where. He’s after deer and elk, but so far he’s only had luck with deer. Usually, he’ll get around two or three a month, resulting in about 50 pounds of meat. Sometimes miscommunication means someone has hit a domestic cow instead of an elk cow, or sometimes Bento is just unavailable—out to dinner, out of town. But if he is around, and there’s meat within a manageable radius, he will drive to it.

Initially, if he couldn’t get to an animal, Bento felt a pang of disappointment, protective over what he saw as a meat source. But that feeling quickly faded, he says, as he soon realized the obvious: in a state where more than 5,000 deer and elk are hit every year, there’s more than enough for everyone.

Despite some public skepticism, Bento, who grew up hunting wild pigs with his stepdad in Kaneohe, Hawaii, is proud to be resourceful—to glean something from nature and call it good. Especially when you remember that livestock makes up between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. “A lot of people don’t want to use a plastic straw or have this sentimentality when it comes to the environment,” he says. “It’s kind of ironic. Because roadkill salvaging is putting something to good use.” 

When Bento does get a deer, he cuts the meat into chunks and steaks that he, bags, labels, and stacks in his freezer. He’s also had pepperoni and landjäger sausage made. Most often he cubes the venison, roasting it in an Instant Pot or putting it into a stew. What he doesn’t use—namely, the animal’s head, hide, and limbs—he loads into the rectangular mouth of a blue 4,500-pound incinerator on his five-acre property. “Ashes to ashes,” he says, “dust to dust.”

Three and a half million years ago, the earliest meat-eating humans were more than likely not spearing their prey. They were three feet tall, after all, and had no hunting tools. Instead, to get animal protein, they improvised, cracking open bones left behind by saber-toothed tigers for marrow (the big cats’ teeth weren’t strong enough to crush skeletons) or running in a group to scatter lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and jackals away from slumped carcasses, which they would then pick clean with small, nimble fingers or simple, sharp tools made from rocks. Sometimes they’d feast on animals that were victims of too much water or a lack of it: a drowned gazelle after a flood, maybe, or an antelope felled from drought that scorched the cracked savanna. We were not hunters but scavengers first.

How we eat meat has changed significantly in the millennia since our shorter ancestors roamed the earth, says Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, whose research centers around the evolution of the human diet, with a focus on meat eating. But like the earliest carnivorous humans all those years ago, some of us are still scavenging, improvising with what’s left, making something out of anything that would otherwise go to waste: roadkill. 

In the past decade, laws allowing roadkill salvaging have snowballed. Montana legalized the practice in 2013, Washington in 2016. Oregon began allowing it in January 2019. In October 2019, California became the 29th state to sign off on roadkill salvaging, with a pilot program—featuring an app for requesting the necessary permit that allows motorists to pick up deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, and wild pig—that will go into effect in 2021. “It is the intent of this act to make available to Californians tens of thousands of pounds of a healthy, wild, big game food source that currently is wasted each year following wildlife-vehicle collisions,” the bill reads.

As urban sprawl and a warming planet continue to displace animal populations, accounting for that impact on nature matters.

That deer, elk, and moose are the most commonly salvaged animals across states is of little surprise. All are members of the Cervidae family and have similar behavioral patterns and pockets of peak activity. With running speeds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, they can bound in front of moving cars faster than you can hit the brakes. Thanks to their build—long legs and a substantial body mass—they are also likely to bounce off the side of a car or over it and not get caught beneath its wheels.

Perhaps predictably, states with large hunting populations often have the most robust roadkill programs. Idaho has an easy-to-use model for documenting roadkill, allowing self-reported salvaging. Claimants have 72 hours to obtain a permit, which requires information about the animal species and estimated age, as well as where and when it was hit—a wild turkey at milepost 16.10 on Route 6, a coyote at milepost 25 on U.S. 12, a black bear farther down U.S. 12 at milepost 32.70. Most of the self-filed accident reports seem rushed if not remorseful, tapped out mere minutes after seeing or experiencing a collision:

I know for certain it is a Red Fox. It ran oit across the the road at a very bad time, unavoidable.

Deer ran across road had my eyes on the first one when the second came running out.

Hit by white pick up on Teton Creek bridge south of Driggs, I called Teton County sherrifs Dept. Asked if I could salvage the animal. Approximately 3-4 year cow moose.

There is no federal statute on roadkill. Whether an animal carcass is salvageable depends on the individual, the species, and the season. The multitude of determining factors not only make it difficult to assign a standard regulatory framework, but they give scientists pause, too. 

“There are just all these big holes of uncertainty,” says Ben Chapman, a professor and food-safety specialist at North Carolina State University. “If we’re raising animals for food consumption, we’re looking at the health of those animals throughout the entire process. When it comes to roadkill, we literally don’t know.”

Chapman likens eating meat from roadkill to eating meat from hunting, with similar risks around diseases like brucellosis, which can cause fevers, sweating, body aches, and joint pain in humans, and trichinosis, which has symptoms ranging from diarrhea to pink eye. Chapman also says that the infections animals get in the wild can increase the likelihood that they’ll shed foodborne pathogens and have other illnesses humans can get when eating that meat. Put plainly, sick animals are likely to lead to sick humans. 

Sick animals are also hard to identify when they’re dead. Still, though there are no hard-and-fast rules, there are some ways to mitigate risk when picking up roadkill, with processes similar to—but not exactly the same as—those used by hunters. Avoiding animals that have suffered intestinal trauma, and only taking animals whose time of death is known, are both key. (Pathogens live in the gut, and if the intestines have ruptured, this can greatly increase the probability of illness. Processing the animal quickly will also reduce the likelihood of the spread of bacteria.) One man told me that when he comes upon roadkill, he checks for clear, glossy eyes and blood that hasn’t coagulated. Another said they have a by-the-numbers rule and won’t take anything they know has been dead longer than ten minutes. For others, anything in the summer, when temperatures are warmer and meat is quicker to spoil, is a no-no. 

Chapman, for his part, recommends that anyone salvaging roadkill contact game officials in their respective geographic areas to learn about how illnesses like chronic wasting disease, a contagious neurological disorder now found in nearly 30 states, affects certain populations of deer, elk, and moose. Though no cases of CWD transmission to humans have been reported, research shows that its proteins can infect monkeys and mice that carry human genes. (Despite other theories about contaminated meat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there is “no evidence that you can get infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 by eating food, including wild hunted game meat.”)

It’s hard to persuade advocates of eating roadkill that what they’re doing is risky and unhealthy. “Isn’t eating meat that’s been pumped full of hormones just as damaging? Aren’t wild animals that consume wild foods the real organic meat?” they’ll counter. (They may have a point: game meat is traditionally lower in calories and fat than livestock meat, and it’s high in polyunsaturated fats and conjugated linoleic acids, which promote the loss of body fat.) Even PETA is on their side, writing about roadkill in a FAQ, “If people must eat animal carcasses, roadkill is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket. Eating roadkill is healthier for the consumer than meat laden with antibiotics, hormones, and growth stimulants, as most meat is today.” 

But at some point, says Chapman, the debate can become irrelevant. “A lot of the food-safety discussions we have are, ‘I have enough food, and now I want to make that food safe.’ But if I don’t have enough food, whether it’s safe or not becomes a whole other question on risk reduction for that individual,” he says. “All the stuff I’m talking about changes, I think, when someone says, ‘But I don’t have any food. And there’s food right there.’”

Each year in the U.S., there are more than a million accident claims involving animals. There are also millions of undocumented accidents, and some statisticians suggest that the actual figure could be up to six times as high. But even by estimating conservatively and putting the number of accidents at slightly more than two million a year, what one professor found when he crunched the numbers is staggering: 2.1 million deer struck by cars annually would yield more than 41 million pounds of meat—equivalent to 80,124 cows or 8,268,750 five-pound chickens. Given that the average cost of ground beef is $4.46 per pound and a whole chicken retails for around $1.57 a pound, this free and ready protein source is, for many, hard to overlook. 

Others don’t have as much choice. In 2018 in this country, 11.1 percent of households were food insecure, for a total of 37.2 million people without enough to eat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And though food insecurity has declined steadily since 2012, serving roadkill meat is one way food banks and charities across the nation are meeting the need. 

North Valley Food Bank in Whitefish, Montana, served 2,335 households in the first quarter of 2020 and 3,012 in the second. Among food shelves in Montana, North Valley is unique in that it has an in-house processing facility, which allows it to directly accept meat from a variety of sources—roadkill included.

One man told me that when he comes upon roadkill, he checks for clear, glossy eyes and blood that hasn’t coagulated. Another said they have a by-the-numbers rule and won’t take anything they know has been dead longer than ten minutes.

On average, North Valley Food Bank receives ten deer a year from the local game warden, who contacts the nonprofit when he has an animal to deliver. (North Valley only accepts roadkill between October and May, when temperatures are cooler and the threat of meat spoiling is reduced.) Once it arrives at the back of the food bank, the deer is hoisted up on metal hooks, skinned, and gutted. It’s then broken down by a team of volunteer butchers, who grind the venison before portioning, packaging, and placing it in boxes of food to be picked up once a week. 

Despite criticism of the practice from food-safety lawyers, who allege that charitable organizations serving roadkill is “highly discriminatory,” health experts counter that the greatest risk of illness from wild game is often the result of how it’s prepared, not the actual meat. 

And to food-box recipients in Whitefish, venison isn’t just accepted reluctantly as a substitute for a different protein—it’s actually requested, says Jessy Lee, North Valley’s executive director. “We have quite a number of customers who ask for game meat specifically, so we’re fortunate to be able to have some consistent avenues for making sure that we have it available,” she says. “Roadkill increases our ability to provide organic meat to people experiencing poverty. I think this community feels a lot of pride toward our ability to use meat that would otherwise be wasted potentially.”

In Alaska, where state troopers have lists of charities and families signed up for roadkill meat, volunteers like Laurie Speakman drive trucks for the Alaska Moose Federation. Speakman has worked with the AMF since March 2012, covering a 60-mile radius on the Kenai Peninsula. She is on call 24/7 to retrieve and deliver the animals, which can weigh about half as much as a sedan. (Think of the AMF, Speakman quips, as a tow truck for your moose.)

When she gets to a site, Speakman snaps photos of the animal on her phone, jots down the location and GPS coordinates, weather, road conditions, and its age and sex, all of which will go in a collision report available to the Department of Transportation, Department of Fish and Game, and Department of Public Safety. She then pulls out a metal ramp, placing one end on the edge of the Ford F-250 flatbed truck and another on the ground so it’s perpendicular, wraps a winch around the moose’s neck, and drags the animal onto the bed. Usually, she is in and out of the scene in less than eight minutes. 

In the past eight years, Speakman has picked up more than 900 moose and delivered them to charities. “I do love what I do,” she says. “I do not like the fact that the moose are getting hit and killed on our roads, but the end result is families are being fed.”

The idea of hitting an animal intentionally to salvage the meat—hunting with a car, if you will—is one trotted out widely by those opposed to roadkill salvaging, who worry that legalization will create loopholes for meat-hungry hunters. 

It’s a point with little statistical evidence. Although studies show small subsets of drivers do swerve to smash slow-moving animals like snakes and turtles, more accidents are caused by drivers trying to avoid large mammals like deer, elk, or moose, which can severely damage a vehicle and cause the loss of human life when colliding with a car traveling at 70 miles per hour. Such accidents are also blights in strictly financial terms: according to State Farm, the national claim cost per claim average for deer collisions from 2016 through 2017 was $4,179. In other words, there are certainly cheaper ways to get deer than to hit them with a car.

In his 13 years as a Vermont game warden, Sergeant Chad Barrett says he has only heard of one instance of someone intentionally hitting an animal. “I don’t think it happens very often,” he says. Instead, Barrett finds, most animals are clipped in error—a case of brakes tapped too late, eyes taken off the road for a split second, a tricky curve where the sight line is diminished. 

Much like hunting in Vermont, taking roadkill is highly regulated. After colliding with an animal or finding one on the road, would-be salvagers first have to notify a local warden, who will give them a tag before “releasing” the animal. If there’s no one to claim the salvage, wardens are responsible for recording and disposing of the roadkill themselves. But before depositing an animal in the woods or transporting it to a dumping site, wardens decide whether or not its meat can be saved. 

Barrett, who works in the state’s northwestern district, keeps three roadkill lists: one for people who want bear, one for those who want moose, and another for those who want deer. The deer list is the longest (with around 25 people), followed by moose (15) and bear (10). Barrett is just one of Vermont’s 35 wardens, though, and guesses each of his counterparts has a list with about as many names. 

“Our standing policy is that if something is salvageable, to get it somewhere, to someone,” he says.

On the day I reach Daniel Vitalis by phone, he’s out harvesting wild rice near his home in the Lakes Region of Maine; at intervals, it’s easy to hear the water lapping against the side of his canoe. Vitalis, a forager, hunter, and gatherer, subsists off what he sources from the land around him. He taps scarred maples for syrup, clambers along rocky, snow-glazed coastlines for black sea ducks, and packs bear meat out of the backcountry on his shoulders. Stop by his home and you’re likely to catch him pulling a batch of shelled acorns out of the oven or brewing dried yaupon tea leaves. 

Vitalis got on a roadkill list a few years ago after calling his county sheriff’s office. Since then he’s picked up around 15 deer. He has few qualms about taking a damaged animal and culls what he can. After carving away the meat and carefully snipping out the organs, he drags the carcass into the woods on his property to bury or let animals scavenge. 

For Vitalis, it’s not just that it’s good meat—it’s a philosophically driven decision, an application of the idea that he wants to be part of his ecology. That by living off of what’s in the wild, he’s a stakeholder in protecting the environment. A steward, in some small way, of its success and at the mercy of its seasons and strife. 

“You hear people say they care about the environment, and I’m like, What environment and how?” he says. “I don’t see how people are ever going to become stewards of an ecosystem when they don’t actually have any resources that they extract from that ecosystem.” 

He continues, “You get into these things like carbon-offset credits, where it’s, ‘OK, you can wreck that forest as long as you pay for this forest over here.’ But if my deer come from that forest, or my mushrooms come from that forest, I have incentive to say, ‘Wait, you can’t just destroy that because you’re going to offset it somewhere else. That’s my kitchen.’”

Despite criticism of the practice from food-safety lawyers, who allege that charitable organizations serving roadkill is “highly discriminatory,” health experts counter that the greatest risk of illness from wild game is often the result of how it’s prepared, not the actual meat.

But picking up roadkill results in more than just food for humans. Some use the meat to set their traps for animals like coyotes, who kill their livestock, while many feed their dogs with it. Others say that by clearing roadkill from the road, they’re helping officials who would otherwise have to fill out a report themselves before dragging the animal into a ditch, dumping it into a landfill, or coordinating a donation.

Take the long view, and salvaging roadkill is helping solve the roadkill problem in the first place. After all, the reporting component of roadkill salvaging generates more comprehensive maps of animal crossings and migration patterns, serving as what Fraser Shilling, a research scientist and the codirector of the Road Ecology Center at the University of California at Davis, calls “constant ecological monitoring tools.” 

“If we ignore wildlife and wildlife movement, we ignore the gradual degradation of these ecosystems,” says Shilling, whose team is currently working to measure the total effect of roadkill on wildlife populations in California. “It’s not a trivial activity, the recording. Doing it systematically is really a way of accounting for our impact on nature.” 

And as urban sprawl and a warming planet continue to displace animal populations, accounting for that impact matters. With the records, transportation agencies can identify habitat-linkage zones, upgrade roads and update road speeds, build underpass and overpass tunnels, and try and eliminate wildlife-vehicle collisions.

A better system of reported roadkill, then, doesn’t just mean people are putting to use protein that has long been a punchline. It means they are helping build a database of information that will minimize the number of roadkill. It means, somehow, a world safer for animals and for humans.