SAN FRANCISCO — Memorial Day Weekend is upon us, and that means burgers and hot dogs will be sizzling on grills across this great land.
Californians may soon be able to add another item to the menu: roadkill.
Lawmakers here are considering a bill that would legalize the collection of carrion from the state’s roadways, making California the largest of a variety of states that OK the practice.
“This bill seems have gotten everyone’s attention, jokes or no jokes, because lives may be saved and accidents prevented,” says state senator Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Riviera), who is behind Senate Bill 395, otherwise known as the Wildlife Traffic Safety Act. “We’re in technology era, so we thought it was important to use that to help solve this problem.”
If made law — a vote is expected later this summer — Archuleta’s proposal would launch a 2022 pilot program anchored to an app created by the California Fish and Game Commission.
The app would allow users to log in information about road kill locations, as well as apply for a permit to haul their prey away. Major interstates would be excluded, for motorist safety reasons.
Currently, only authorized personnel such as highway clean-up crews are allowed to handle dead animals found on California roads. Among states that allow for the collection of roadkill are Oregon, Montana and Idaho.
'Waste not, want not'
Archuleta says his “waste not, want not” bill has the support of more than a dozen statewide organizations, including the California Deer Association, a hunting and conservation group that sponsored the bill.
Admittedly, the term roadkill conjures up gruesome visions of less-than-appetizing animals that have lost a battle with a car, often rendering them flattened by the side of the road.
But while skunks, raccoons, squirrels and other small creatures come to mind — and websites such as DeadFood.com will gladly share recipes for conjuring meals from such unfortunate fare — this bill is aiming bigger.
SB 395 applies only to large game animals such as deer, boar and elk, majestic creatures that are routinely hunted for their meat with permits but sometimes come to untimely ends when attempting to cross a highway.
And there is quite a bit of big game meat to take advantage of; according to an ongoing California Roadkill Observation System overseen by the University of California, Davis, some 20,000 deer alone are killed on state roads each year.
Those statistics echo across Western states where game is plentiful and people are typically scarce. Some are eager to take advantage of the free meat.
In Pony, Montana, an unincorporated community in the southwest corner of the state, Tom Elpel, 51, has made “a career out of not needing a job.”
A fourth generation Montanan, Elpel founded Green University in 2004, an alternative learning environment where adults learn in-depth survival skills and total self-sufficiency. Green University’s classes include, among others, "Meat Me in Montana," a deer-processing intensive course where students learn how to skin, butcher and can deer. It’s useful for both traditional hunters, and roadkill collectors.
“Some people like the sport of hunting, but the cheapest, fastest, easiest way to do it is just to pick up some nice roadkill along the highway,” said Elpel, whose freezer is typically stocked with some combination of deer, elk, moose and antelope. (Bears, he noted, are not legal to pick up in Montana.)
“You don’t need any fancy gear or a gun, you just need to be available when you see it,” Elpel said. “When I pick up road kill, I can process $200 worth of meat in three hours. But if I had a job, and I had to just drive past it to get to work, I’d only be making $10-15 an hour.”
Those numbers only get bigger when the game is larger. For example, some 800 moose — each packing around 300 pounds of meat — are killed each year by cars in Alaska, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Game.
Roadkill collection is heavily regulated in Alaska; it’s usually a year-long wait before you even get a call from Alaska State Troopers alerting you to some available road kill, says Joanna Young, 35, who moved to Alaska nine years ago and is a PhD candidate in geophysics.
A longtime vegetarian and former vegan, Young now eats meat if it is salvaged roadkill. She refers to herself as “strictly Alaska-tarian": She only consumes fish or meat that she herself has harvested, or that comes from friends who have harvested it.
Still, she admits she's conflicted sometimes about her diet.
"Whenever I go fishing in the summer and kill the first fish, or go to roadkill sites and start harvesting the meat, I usually have a good cry about the loss of life," she said. "I would be worried when it didn't seem a little bit strange to me, and when I didn't feel sad about the loss of life -- that's part of the experience."
Two years ago, Young found herself an hour outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, with three friends, sawing through the leg bone of a small moose. It was, to say the least, a jarring moment.
“The first time I did it, yes, I had all those thoughts: ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m doing this, who have I become?’” Young said.
Now Young is committed to educating more people about why this is actually a humane, civilized process.
“I do think of myself as a champion of this subject,” Young said. “When there’s an animal dying on the side of the road, lying in waste, and people are driving past it to get to the grocery store to buy factory-farm chicken, that’s the tragedy to me.”
But despite such sentiments, California's new bill will face determined opposition from Judie Mancuso, founder of the animal rights advocacy group Social Compassion In Legislation.
“We’ll be on full attack to kill this bill, which is just insane,” says Mancuso, who says the Legislature’s time would be better spent considering options such as compelling automakers to add small whistles to their cars that can cause deer to run from the road.
Specifically, Mancuso feels that the new bill would lead to “shenanigans and poaching, maybe people will jump in a pickup and run a deer over, or shoot one saying they just wanted to put an injured deer out of its misery.”
Roadkill is healthier, PETA says
Archuleta dismisses that concern. “Game wardens, highway patrol, they can all tell if an animal has been struck or not,” he says. “If you’re falsely reporting that, then it’s a violation of law and a false police report.”
Rennie Cleland agrees. He's a retired fish and game warden who, as a board member of the California Deer Association, brought the roadkill issue to Archuleta's attention, and he is convinced SB 395 will empower the right roadkill experts.
"For the most part, the majority of public will drive right by that dead animal," he says. "But there’s a lot of hunters who know how to process it, and I’d rather see it picked up and utilized than drug off the road by highway patrol officer. At least this way, the right people will have the option at least."
Cleland also hopes the bill fosters new programs similar to one he set up as a state worker that delivered roadkill salvage to local churches and food banks. "This is often perfectly good meat that's just going to waste," he says.
As gruesome as it may sound to eat animals found on the side of the road, many groups with an environmental bent applaud the practice.
The website for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals answers a question about eating roadkill with an endorsement, noting that if going vegan isn’t an option, “roadkill is healthier for the consumer than meat laden with antibiotics, hormones and growth stimulants, as most meat is today.”
That said, California-based PETA senior vice president Kathy Guillermo says that although the organization “has no ethical objection to the collection of an animal’s remains discovered on the side of the road,” it has at present not opted to support SB 395.
Archuleta says he is aware there will be some opposition to the bill, but he argues that making it legal for the public to collect large roadkill ultimately serves a dual purpose.
The first is salvaging valuable meat. And the second is creating better data around where big game are killed by cars, which can help state officials improve motorist safety in that area. He says at some point officials might consider strategically building overpasses for animals in particularly busy zones.
“Over the last six years in this state, around 8,000 large game animal collisions have resulted in 1,500 injuries and at least 24 deaths,” says Archuleta. “So as much as it’s easy to joke about roadkill, it really is a serious issue and more data is needed to create safe corridors for both motorists and wildlife.”
Follow USA TODAY national reporters @marcodellacava and @lindsay_schnell
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