Hit the road: California legalizes eating roadkill

All you have to do is download an app and report you've struck and killed an animal, and the state will grant an instant "salvage permit" on your phone.

Imagine it’s the dead of winter. You’re driving on a lonely, snow-covered road in the mountains, when disaster strikes. A deer scampers in front of your car, and you slam into it. Under a new California law, if you’re enterprising enough, you can take that animal home, butcher it into free-range meat, and have venison for the rest of the year. 

Otherwise known as the roadkill bill, the new Wildlife Traffic Safety Act, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom last week, sets California on the path to legally eating thousands of pounds of wild game that’s left on roads every year. The act establishes three, to-be-determined pilot regions where motorists will be allowed to “salvage” meat from animals accidentally killed in vehicle collisions—deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, and wild pigs. 

Drivers and passers-by will use an app, developed by the state’s fish and game commission, to report accidental collisions. If the animal is dead, the motorist would automatically receive a salvage permit. If the animal is alive and injured, state authorities will be called in; if they decide to kill the animal, then it can be turned over to the public. Currently, it’s illegal for anyone except state agents to collect roadkill. 

State senator Bob Archuleta, who represents a district in Los Angeles and Orange counties, proposed the program as a pilot, set to run until 2029. If it’s successful, he hopes to expand it statewide, according to The Orange County Register. 

The meat could have bits of glass, debris, infections like E.coli, or the infamous chronic wasting disease.
Every year, between one and two million large animals are hit by vehicles in the United States, killing an estimated 200 people and costing over $8 billion in damages, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Roadkill bills are seen as a way to make roadways safer. They’ve also opened the door to a new, legal roadkill culture, marked by cookbooks and competitions. Even animal activists are on board, with PETA endorsing roadkill as an antibiotic-free, humane alternative to supermarket meat. 

More than half of U.S. states now have some version of a salvage program. In some cases, motorists are required to notify state authorities before taking home the roadkill. Hunting licenses are required for some motorists to claim the meat. Pennsylvania takes the unusual step of requiring drivers to turn over parts of the animal that aren’t edible, like antlers, within 24 hours. That’s to stop poachers.

The programs are pitched as a way to collect important data that can protect drivers and animals alike. The Register reports that California drivers kill an estimated 20,000 deer every year, but the state doesn’t officially track those accidents; the app would collect information about crashes, and share it with the transportation department. Idaho, which passed a roadkill bill in 2012, uses collision data to locate new fencing, warning signs, and wildlife tunnels and overpasses.

California has a history of eating roadkill. As we reported, in the 1990s and 2000s, Rennie Cleland, a game warden in the small town of Dorris on the Oregon border, led an effort to process and distribute 36,700 pounds of wild game meat. He said it was “worse than criminal” to waste it and issue citations to the scavengers. State officials shut down his program in 2011, amid concerns that drivers were hitting animals on purpose.

While the roadkill in Dorris was reportedly given to the needy, some charities reject donations, citing food safety concerns. Idaho Foodbank, that state’s largest food charity, accepts only professionally processed roadkill. “You just don’t know if the animal is diseased,” the food bank’s director told Matt Vasilogambros. “Depending on the impact, there might be contamination. You just don’t know.” The meat could have bits of glass, debris, infections like E.coli, or the infamous chronic wasting disease. Similarly, in California, a San Francisco-area food bank told Eater SF it would accept only USDA-certified meat. 

While the app won’t appear until 2022, drivers will be able to legally claim deer, elk, antelope and wild pigs beginning in 2020, when Senate Bill 395 goes into effect. Motorists should call the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to request their roadkill permits.

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Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.