It can happen in a second, just as the deer’s eyes flare green or a flank gleams in the headlights: The sickening thud of impact.
Deer- and elk-related car accidents can be disastrous for both sides. A dent in the car is usually the least of anyone’s concern. But now there is a silver lining. Oregon’s new roadkill regulations allow people to salvage deer or elk accidentally struck by vehicles.
Anyone who decides to take roadkill home is doing it at their own risk, though, said Oregon State Police Lt. Andrew Merila. State troopers or fish and wildlife officers will not inspect the meat beforehand.
“The danger to the person picking it up cannot be overstated,” said Phil Johnson, manager for Shy Ann Meats, a meat processor based in Oregon City.
Johnson has processed meat for the state when game has been poached or seized, but he said Shy Ann Meats, which butchers locally raised animals as well as wild game, has decided it will not handle roadkill.
There is a reason hunters try to drop a deer or elk by aiming for the heart or lungs, rather than ramming them with a truck.
When an animal is hit by a vehicle, the impact “vaporizes internal organs,” Johnson said. “The amount of damage done is absolutely mind-boggling.”
With smaller animals like deer, unless a motorist hits the deer on the tail end or somehow directly on the head, destruction of organs is certain to happen, almost guaranteeing the meat will be ruined by a release of toxins.
Elk — larger and heavier than deer — are a slightly different story.
“You hit an elk with a car and you’re probably going to the hospital, not the butcher shop,” Johnson said. But still, “the shock of being hit by a car will pop the gut bag like a water balloon.”
With all roadkill, there is a potential for a high amount of bacterial infection.
Processing these carcasses is an insurance risk for Shy Ann Meats. Besides, the extra work it would take to piece out salvageable meat means the business would probably have to charge more than usual.
If someone is set on taking home roadkill, Johnson recommends caution.
“Take absolutely all the possible time you can,” he said. “Go over it with a fine-tooth comb and smell it.”
You may not be able to see contamination in the meat, Johnson said, but you will definitely be able to smell it.
Under Oregon’s rules, which went into effect on Tuesday, it remains illegal to intentionally hit a deer or elk.
Anyone who hits a deer or elk and wants to save the meat must notify law enforcement, surrender the antlers and head to the state and submit a permit application within 24 hours providing information about where and when the animal was hit. They get to keep the hide.
Washington state has allowed drivers to salvage road-struck deer and elk since 2016.
It’s too early to say what impact the new law will have across Oregon, but Lou Torres, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said it may help reduce the number of elk or deer carcasses on the side of the state’s roads. If this proves to be the case, the law could address both the potential roadside hazard created by carcasses, as well as the statewide hassle of what to do with large roadkill.
As of Wednesday, four people have taken advantage of the option.
October and November tend to be the busiest months of the year for “vehicle versus elk or deer” calls, according to Merila. There are fewer hours of daylight and, with hunting seasons in full swing, the animals seem to be on the move.
State road crews remove dead animals from state roads, but the state does not maintain any rendering plants to dispose of roadkill.
“That’s a big challenge for us,” Torres said. “We currently have to be pretty creative in how we get rid of the carcass. If we can reduce that somewhere, somehow, that’s probably good from ODOT’s standpoint, for sure.”