Oregon state Sen. Bill Hansell’s rural district is the size of Maryland, and it is crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of road splayed with all manner of roadkill. While driving one of those routes a couple of years ago, Hansell spotted a dead deer and had what he called an “aha moment”: Could the carcass feed someone?
“It just struck me, you know: This is such a waste,” he said.
Chowing down on roadkill was not legal in Oregon then. But as of Tuesday, it is. With the enactment of a bill sponsored by Hansell and unanimously passed by the Legislature, Oregon became the latest of about 20 states that allow people to scoop dead animals off the road and serve them for dinner.
Among them are Washington, which issued 1,600 roadkill salvaging permits within one year of legalizing the practice in 2016; Pennsylvania, where more than 5,600 vehicle-deer crashes were reported in 2017; and Georgia, where motorists may take home struck bears. The rules vary by state, though most require timely reporting of the collection to authorities, and most absolve the state of responsibility if the meat turns out to be stomach-turning.
Oregon allows the salvaging of deer and elk and for human consumption only (sorry, Fido). People who pick up a carcass must apply online for a free permit within 24 hours, and they must turn over the animal’s head and antlers to the state wildlife agency within five business days. That is for two reasons, Hansell said: Antlers can be sold to collectors, and no one wanted to create a financial incentive for crashing into wild critters; wildlife authorities also want to test head tissue for chronic wasting disease.
Importantly, the roadkill must have been produced by accident. That is, drivers are not allowed to “hunt with their automobiles,” Hansell said. Drivers who inadvertently strike a deer or elk but only wound it may “humanely dispatch” the animal with a firearm, then salvage the meat, according to regulations published by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Oregonians are already taking advantage of this new right. Hansell, citing figures from the fish and wildlife department, said a dozen salvaging permits had been issued by Friday morning. “That’s 12 carcasses that are not strewn alongside of the road, that are being harvested and consumed,” he said. “It’s exciting.”
It also might sound a little, well, gross. But it should not, said Thomas Elpel, a Montana author and wilderness survival instructor whose how-to video on the practice is posted on YouTube.
“It’s meat. Whether you buy it in a store or pick it up on the side of the road, it’s the same thing. In the stores, it’s packaged with Styrofoam and plastic, which maybe looks pretty but is harmful to the environment,” Elpel said. “It’s a more authentic way to connect with your food supply.”
Elpel said he grew up eating roadkill harvested by his grandmother, though it was not explicitly legal when he was a kid. The state began issuing permits in 2013, and Elpel said he salvages carcasses several times a year — often enough that his freezer is full. Students at the wilderness survival school he runs, Green University, are served roadkill in their included meals.
“There’s a tremendous amount of meat out there,” Elpel said. “It’s kind of crazy, when there’s so many families that are struggling to make ends meet and kids that are not getting enough nutrition, and there it is, free on the side of the road.”
Free, yes, but not without labor. In one of his books, Elpel walks readers through his roadkill salvaging method. Among his tips: If it is green and “the smell makes you want to barf,” then pass, he writes. The choicest carcasses have been hit in the head, leaving the body intact, but broken bones and bloodied flesh can be trimmed off. Gutting and butchering is otherwise similar to the process hunters use. Roadkill jerky, he notes, is easy to make.
Elpel said young deer have been the centerpiece of some of his favorite roadkill dinners.
“We have enjoyed fawn on a number of occasions,” he said. “That’s exceptionally tender venison. Can’t go wrong with that.”
Support for the Oregon roadkill bill was strong and came from an unlikely array of groups, Hansell said. Hunters liked it, but so did animal welfare types. Road crews tasked with scraping up rotting animals were pleased by the prospect of a little less work, and nutritionists got behind the idea of free organic protein, Hansell said.
As for Hansell, he has no plan to salvage dead deer. A squeamish stomach prevented him from ever learning to hunt or dress deer, he said, and he is not a big fan of venison. But he said he would not turn down an invitation to a roadkill meal.
“To me, it’s no different from wild with regard to how it ends up on your plate,” Hansell said. “I would have no problem eating it.”