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Roadkill: The new bumper crop

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TRAIL -- With lunch freshly out of the oven and cooling, Jeremy Smith drags his 3-year-old daughter Evangeline in her high chair closer to the kitchen table.

Smith takes a bite of the meat, then serves his wife, Georgia, a plateful before cutting little pieces for Evangeline, who chews them one piece at a time.

Evangeline wants a hamburger. Instead, she's getting a piece of road-killed deer.

"It's way better than the first time I cooked it," Georgia Smith says. "It tastes like jerky."

The Smiths are part of a new culinary subset creating legal table fare from the bumper crop of deer and elk killed annually on Oregon roads, with each salvager left to his or her own judgment on what's edible and what's not.

In the first month since it became legal in Oregon to salvage roadkill for personal consumption, 96 people statewide have received free permits to validate the roadkill deer or elk they took home.

Of those, seven are from the Rogue Valley, with the blacktail buck Jeremy Williams plucked Jan. 3 from the side of Highway 62 near Shady Cove being the first in this meals-under-wheels program created by the 2017 Oregon Legislature and crafted last fall by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Taking an animal from the grille to the grill certainly is not for everyone, and not every dead deer found by the side of the road is worth salvaging. In fact, not all of the meat in any given carcass is salvageable.

At least some of the meat is often ruined right off the bat from impact, while the rest can quickly spoil, be wrought with bacteria or otherwise bloodshot and difficult to make palatable after spending unknown lengths of time along a highway without being immediately gutted and hung like sport-hunted game.

So salvagers such as Jeremy Smith tap into their primal Rachael Ray to get through it.

“It has a really rank taste to it,” Jeremy Smith says. “It was kind of nasty at first. We have to marinate it really heavily for a couple days to get the rankness out. But we’re meat eaters. We’re not picky. If you’re really picky, you’re not going to pick up roadkill.”

Among roadkill eaters, some are pickier than others.

Of the animals collected statewide in the program’s first month, 18 people salvaged deer or elk they hit themselves, while four claimed animals struck and killed by other known drivers. The remaining 74 were deer and elk that presented themselves like dead targets of opportunities along roadsides.

And therein lies the rub, says Colin Gillin, state veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

People who find deer or elk along the road don’t necessarily know how long that carcass has been there, how much internal damage it suffered and how much of the meat is or isn’t tainted by bacteria and other factors that could render it inedible or even unhealthful.

“You just don’t know what the history is,” says Gillin, whose agency wrote the salvage rules to meet the law’s intent of allowing salvage while absolving itself of any liability from roadside dining. “A lot of these things were hit by a 2,000-pound vehicle. It’s not the same as a well-placed arrow or bullet.”

Those who salvage animals they hit at least know when the deer or elk died, Gillin says.

“But it’s not ideal,” Gillin says. “It’s definitely not ideal.”

Corby Riley of Chemult salvaged a mule deer doe that ran into the family Dodge pickup Jan. 29 on Highway 97. The Rileys picked it up, tossed it in the back and took it home.

“It was good,” Riley says. “Fried it in butter. I’m sure glad they passed that law.”

Under the law, whoever picks up roadkill must take the entire animal home and not leave a roadside gut pile that could attract scavengers that could also get hit.

Within 24 hours of picking up a carcass, salvagers must get a free permit from the ODFW website and provide their name, contact information, the species and sex of the animal, where it was hit and whether the salvager was the driver.

Also, the proposed rules don’t give the driver first dibs on the animal that’s killed, so salvage is strictly on a first-come, first-served basis.

That’s how Michelle Mann called dibs on what she thought was a fresh blacktail buck carcass she noticed in a roadside ditch near her rural Grants Pass home. Upon lugging it home, she discovered most of it was severely damaged and unsalvageable.

“It really wasn’t worth keeping,” Mann says. “What we could salvage out of him actually wasn’t bad. He’s nice and tender and not real gamey.

“We only got a good 20 to 30 pounds,” she says. “But we got to keep the backstraps, yay.”

Jeremy Smith, 41, says he doesn’t know for sure how long the buck he salvaged was dead, “but rigor mortis hadn’t set in.”

Still, he was initially concerned that the meat might not be safe for his family.

So during that first meal about a week after he picked up the deer, he cooked a piece for just the adults to taste.

“If we got sick we were going to throw the whole thing out, but we didn’t get sick,” he says.

The Smiths say they intentionally overcook the roadkill a bit just in case bacteria is present.

Smith says he sees the new law as an extension of sport-hunting seasons that he and others need in order to supply their families with meat.

“Now we have a chance to get more of it by harvesting from the side of the road,” Smith says.

Also as part of the rules, only the driver may kill an injured roadkill animal for salvage. In those cases, the driver must immediately notify law enforcement as required under a separate law enacted to reduce poaching.

Five days after a carcass is claimed, the head must be surrendered at an ODFW office to verify the species and sex of the animal as well as test for chronic wasting disease. The salvager cannot keep any antlers.

That didn’t come into play the night of Jan. 3, when Justin Williams of rural Central Point decided to take home a yearling buck with no antlers that his wife and sister discovered dead along Blackwell Road.

When he cut into the carcass, Williams discovered that the liver had ruptured, leaving most of the meat “a funky greenish color,” he says.

He ended up with about five pounds of meat, enough for two dinners for four.

“I didn’t get all the meat that I could have gotten, but he was young, he was tasty and, yeah, it was a good experience.”

Williams is even tanning the hide.

“I’m thinking about making my first granddaughter some moccasins,” he says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jeremy Smith cooks up road-killed deer at his home in Trail.
Jeremy Smith eats a roadkill deer at his home in Trail. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune