For many, the thought of eating meat scavenged from an elk or deer killed in a collision is stomach-turning. But for a devoted group of scavengers, the response to the sight of a freshly expired animal is “Hallelujah!”
Matt Kenna is among this tribe. The Durango attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center has been a roadkill hunter for “at least” 15 years. That might make him the only lawyer in the country who eats roadkill and who has argued a case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kenna, who prefers elk meat over deer, said that a road-killed elk provides a second opportunity for him to put nutritious, low-fat meat on his family’s table when his first opportunity, hunting, is unsuccessful.
Either method to get elk meat on his family’s table is preferable to buying red meat at the store, he said.
“I’ll eat more red meat if I have elk meat in the freezer,” he said.
A road-killed cow elk can provide 150 pounds of meat, which, when compared with beef at an average cost of more than $2 a pound, translates to hundreds of dollars.
“Everybody recognizes what good meat it is, how valuable it is,” he said. “I’m just making the best of a bad situation, really.”
Danial Ciluffo and Jim Kerr, both Durango Herald employees, said they see it as an opportunity to harvest a natural resource that would otherwise go to waste.
“It’s better-quality food than what we can get at the grocery store without paying premium dollars for organic beef or something like that,” Ciluffo said.
Kerr added, “Wild meat, to me, is always going to be higher quality than domestic meat. And if I had my choice, that’s all I would eat.”
Elk and deer are on the move this time of year, migrating to wintering habitats. The migration often puts them in harm’s way, which leads to higher incidents of road-killed animals.
Harvesting meat from road-killed wildlife is legal in Colorado, as defined in Colorado Wildlife Commission Regulation No. 016 C, said Patt Dorsey, wildlife manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, who provided the regulation in an e-mail.
“The purpose of the regulation is to help get carcasses off the highways,” she said.
The law provides for the possession of “edible portions” of road-killed wildlife “from any road in the state of Colorado.”
It also states that whoever takes the meat needs to obtain a donation certificate or tag issued by the DOW within 48 hours or “any entity authorized by the Division of Wildlife.”
“There is no requirement to take the entire carcass,” said Dorsey. “I would hope that people drag the carcass off the road if they are only taking a portion.”
This gets it off the highway and provides predators a safer area to feed.
Dorsey said that inedible portions of wildlife, such as antlers or a bear hide, are covered by a different regulation: No. 107 B. It states that any inedible portion of an animal that may be determined to “have a marketable value because of potential commercial, trophy, or other use ... shall be disposed of under the direction of the regional manager.”
“So, for example,” explained Dorsey, “a person might be given the edible portions of an elk, but might not be given a permit to possess the antlers.”
It’s a good system, concurred Kenna, Ciluffo and Kerr.
“Not only do we get to salvage what’s salvageable,” said Kerr, “but they get a vital statistic of where there’s a potential problem with game crossings and what-not, where they wouldn’t otherwise get that.”
About five years ago, the Colorado Department of Transportation and other agencies launched a campaign – “Wildlife on the Move!” – to remind motorists to slow down, especially at night, when the majority of wildlife-vehicle collisions occur.
Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said claims related to wildlife-vehicle collisions peak in November.
Nationwide, the industry pays out nearly $1.1 billion a year for such claims.
“A single claim for a wildlife-vehicle collision is averaging $2,900,” she said.
According to CDOT statistics, in 2009, 1,298 deer and 94 elk were killed in Region 5, which covers Southwest Colorado and the San Luis Valley.
In wildlife zones along U.S. highways 160 and 550, about half the collisions reported in recent years involved wildlife, an agency report found.
This year, however, the problem areas are safer. New legislation (HB 1238), sponsored by state Rep. Kathleeen Curry and Sen. Gail Schwartz, lowered night-time speeds and fines doubled in designated “wildlife crossing zones.”
Locally, motorists can see the “Wildlife Corridor” signs in crossing zones on highways 550 and 160.
Despite the efforts, roadkill is unlikely to disappear.
Kenna, who frequents Durango Mountain Resort, said U.S. Highway 550 in the winter is prime hunting ground.
“I’m always pretty much able to get a roadkill up by Honeyville somewhere,” he said, which is at the north end of a wildlife-crossing zone. The sign on the Honeyville store says, coincidentally, “The Land of Elk and Honey.”
With a sharp knife, bone saw and tarp, scavengers can field dress roadkill with the same skills they use on a hunted animal.
“I’d say the only downside is maybe there’s a little more trauma to the animal,” said Kerr, “which could have an impact on the meat.”