Last July, the state fish and wildlife commission changed state code to allow the salvage of elk and deer accidentally killed by vehicles.
The steaks, almost beet red when placed over the coals, sizzled and began to take on an earthy brown color, which was familiar and comforting.
Meat had never looked so raw and so organ-like to me. Then again, most of my meat had come slapped to Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic.
I’d never eaten roadkill.
“Oh, baby! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” said Tim Bento, 52, as he pulled the venison steak off the grill and placed it on a log slice he was using as a cutting board.
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He carved into a piece of backstrap, choice meat from along the deer’s spine, and with a steel survival knife held it up for inspection, revealing a narrow band of rosy pink.
“You’re gonna like that, brother.”
Indeed. It looked, and tasted, like a tender sirloin seasoned lightly with salt and olive oil. The tender meat carried just a hint of musky flavor and a smidgen of sweet smoke from the cherrywood puffing among the grill’s red-hot coals.
You’d never have known the creature had been run down by a vehicle months ago near Bento’s home in Lynden, Whatcom County.
Bento has collected four deer this year. For a hunter who has toiled season after season and come away empty-handed, it’s manna from heaven.
“I can’t frickin’ believe it … The amount of time I put in hunting these things and I get four on the side of the road,” Bento said. “God says you reap what you sow …”
And what the Lord giveth, state law now allows people to taketh — legally. Last July, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission changed state code to allow the salvage of elk and deer accidentally killed by vehicles.
In the program’s first year of existence, people plucked nearly 1,600 deer and elk off Washington roadways, according to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) database of permits required for salvage.
Months ago, Bento implored his Facebook friends to add his contact info to their phones under “Deer Tim” and text immediately if they came across fresh roadkill.
“I’m trying to become the go-to guy for salvage,” Bento said. “I’m like a fireman when it comes to roadkill. I got a text the other day and I was 13 minutes to the deer.”
Plastic bags of Landjaeger deer sausage, pepperoni and backstrap filets — months of meals for his family — now burst from his freezer.
It all started during a conversation among hunting buddies during a trip to Utah, said Jay Kehne, a WDFW commissioner from Omak.
“It’s a long drive and we get to talk about everything under the sun,” Kehne said. “One of the guys said, ‘You know in Montana, it’s legal to pick up roadkill.’?”
Then, the hunters passed a cow elk struck dead on the side of the road.
“We thought, ‘Wow, we could pick that up,’?” Kehne said. “My hunting buddy says, ‘You’re on the commission, why don’t you do something about that?’?”
When he got home, Kehne started researching road kill salvage and found that about 20 states allowed it in some form. Montana had just set up a salvage program and officials reported few problems when Kehne called.
“It’s just a no-brainer … you don’t have to send people on road crews to clear the highways so much, that meat doesn’t go to waste,” Kehne said. “If you hit a deer and you’ve got a car with $5,000 damage, the least you could do is get a little meat in your refrigerator.”
After a few tweaks to the legislative language, the commission voted unanimously in favor of allowing salvage.
“My hunting buddies were pretty pleased,” Kehne said. “They said, ‘Goddarn, you did get something done on that committee thing you’re on.’”
The process is simple. Scavengers must collect the entire dead animal and print a free salvage permit within 24 hours that shows where the animal was found and where the meat is stored. Salvagers must display the permit until all meat has been consumed. Dispatching wounded animals is prohibited. Deer cannot be salvaged in Clark, Cowlitz or Wahkiakum counties, areas that are habitat for federally protected Columbian White-Tailed deer.
“He’s a MacGyver”
It takes an enterprising sort to chase roadkill.
Looking for a career change about a decade ago, Bento taught himself how to fell trees. He now owns a residential tree service.
On the five acre plot of land where Bento lives, hardly a square foot of earth is left without purpose. A blueberry patch bursts with beautiful, nickel-sized berries. Nearby, a radio and mannequin head guard Bento’s cherry trees from hungry crows. A few feet away, a tangle of pumpkin vines are sprouting from a pile of old vegetation.
Massive logs have been sliced and arranged into lawn furniture. He plans to build an aquarium into a 4,000-pound stump. A Jerry-rigged tractor-trailer is filled with supplies for the tree service. That’s his man cave, he explains, where he can contain his boundless energy on rainy days.
“He’s a MacGyver. He’s fixing things and getting ideas,” said Alexis Bento, his 20-year-old daughter. “Everything can be used for something.”
Bento grew up chasing wild pigs in his childhood home of Hawaii and has fished his entire life. A walk around his property was accompanied by a cacophony of farm sounds: Goats bleating their eerily human cries, “Mr. Piggy” huffing around his pen and chickens clucking in their coop.
With livestock, “I don’t have any pets,” Bento explained, when asked how he became a proficient butcher.
Even for an expert, salvaging wildlife can be a tricky business. If trauma doesn’t spoil the meat, time certainly can.
“If you hit the deer and you can immediately harvest it, I wouldn’t have very many concerns,” said Julie Garden-Robinson, a professor and food safety expert at North Dakota State University. “If you’re not sure how long ago the animal was killed, it’s pretty hard to gauge the safety, because temperature is the worst enemy to any protein food.”
Bloating, rancid smells and rigor mortis indicate meat might not be safe, Bento and experts said.
Trauma to the stomach or intestines can spread bacteria from the gut into the meat.
That’s what happened to Bento’s most recent find. Not a morsel of the animal made it to his dinner table.
“Everything was crunched,” Bento said. “The pressure of the impact pushed right through the meat up through the spine and the meat was filled with this stomach juice.”
Salvaging spikes in late fall and early winter, according to WDFW’s permit database. That’s no coincidence. It’s mating season, and deer are active.
It’s also cold enough to prevent spoilage.
In winter, Bento said he’d be comfortable waiting as long as 10 hours to harvest a roadkill victim. In summer, he wants a firsthand account of how the deer met its maker.
“No one’s vouching for that meat. No one’s going to say it’s safe,” Kehne said. “It’s up to the public to figure out it’s edible. The colder weather is a good safety net.”
Piles of fruit found
So far, WDFW reports few problems with salvage.
“We were initially wary of the new law,” said Chris Anderson, the acting chief of the agency’s law-enforcement branch.
He said officers were concerned “that people would poach animals and bring them home and cover them under a salvage permit. But we haven’t made any cases.”
One odd development: Anderson said officers have found piles of fresh fruit on remote roads in Pierce and Thurston counties.
“I think they’re trying to attract animals to the roadside and have animals hit and increase the number of animals for salvage,” Anderson said. “But, we have no proof and we haven’t caught anybody doing it.”
The program has been a boon for meat processors like Todd Crabtree, who made Bento’s sausages.
Since the state allowed salvage, he’s processed about two dozen scavenged deer, he said.
Although nearly 1,600 scavenged deer and elk picked off Washington roads sounds substantial, citizen roadkill pickup has yet to make much of a dent for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
State Farm Insurance estimates that 17,612 insurance claims were made for deer, elk and moose collisions in Washington state from July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016.
WSDOT maintenance crews pick up between 5,000 and 6,000 deer and elk a year from state-maintained roadways, said Kelly McAllister, a wildlife biologist who tracks where animals are hit by vehicles. .
So far, the numbers haven’t fluctuated much, he said.
“I have to believe some that’s picked up by citizens is saving work by WSDOT maintenance staff, but I have no idea what the magnitude is,” McAllister said.
It’s hard to determine how much scavenging went on in the past.
“I have a feeling that there were citizen removals of freshly killed deer and elk from highways even when it wasn’t legal,” McAllister said. “People would report they saw somebody load a carcass into the back of the pickup … we don’t know how much more it’s happening now that it’s legal.”
Anecdotally, most state maintenance said there had been little change in their workloads, though Snoqualmie Pass crews reported an increase in carcasses removed and missing when they arrived to collect an animal.
When WSDOT crews find an animal, they drag it off the roadway for animals to scavenge, take it to a composting facilities or dump (and sometimes bury) it at gravel pits away from population centers.
Kehne said deer carcasses sometimes pile up by the dozens at a gut pile off Highway 97, near a stretch of road notorious for wildlife collisions.
For Bento, who prays to express appreciation before each meal, salvage is a more dignified end.
“It grieves your spirit … to see it go to waste.”