What Happens to Roadkill?

Buck Deer walks across highway on a blind curve, an "accident waiting to happen", Twisp, Washington. Marten_House/Shutterstock

Q: I recently came back from a road trip with my family, and it was unbelievable how many carcasses we saw on the road (we actually turned it into a game — how many animals we could count, not kidding). There were raccoons, possums, squirrels, and of course, deer. It got me thinking — what happens to all that roadkill? Does it just lie there to decompose or does it get picked up? And if it does get picked up by the town or some other government agency, what do they do with it?

A: Great question. I have often wondered that myself when driving on the rural roads near my home. We have a major highway that goes right through town, flanked on both sides by miles and miles of forest. We often have lots of animals such as deer and wild turkeys roaming in our backyards, and they’re bound to end up on the interstate now and then.

Roadkill is a relatively new problem too, dating back to the invention of — you guessed it — the automobile. (Can you imagine a horse and buggy not having time to swerve to hit a raccoon in the road?) Every decade for the last century, more and more cars showed up on the roads and more roadkill resulted because of it.

So what happens to it? Well, the laws relating to roadkill are regulated by each state. In New Jersey, the Department of Transportation will remove it on interstates and highways. On county roads, the counties are responsible for the animal removal, and often, if it’s a small animal, it is just left to — gulp — decompose.

If you’d like to take the animal home to eat, you are welcome to as long as you have a permit to do so (meaning you better plan ahead), so be sure to talk to your local department of fish and wildlife first.

In New Jersey, most dead deer and other roadkill are taken to landfills. In New York, animals are sometimes buried as part of a composting process that allows the animal to decompose underneath wood chips. Within three months, all that remains is compost. Magic, eh? I’ve even heard a rumor that some zoos take roadkill to feed their animals, but Essex County’s Turtleback Zoo Director Jeremy Goodman put that one to rest. “Although I don’t know what they do with most roadkill, no reputable zoos would ever use it to feed their animals.”

Peak season for vehicle/deer collisions is the late fall and early winter in many places, which coincides with deer’s mating season. The males often charge onto the roads and accidents ensue.

In some states, such as Montana and Massachusetts, wildlife crossings have been constructed to allow animals to “get to the other side of the road” unscathed. Some of these crossings are underpasses, some are overpasses, and they are usually accompanied by fencing on each side of the road to guide animals to the crossing.

But what about in areas that don’t have such crossings? Are there any steps you can take to avoid a deer collision?

Well, it definitely helps to pay attention to warning signs. If you do see a deer crossing sign, then try to drive at a speed that will allow you to take evasive action if necessary, such as braking to a stop to avoid hitting an animal. And make sure everyone in your car is wearing seat belts, since a sudden stop without a seat belt could cause someone to be catapulted from the car.

Some people, like this woman, have made it their personal mission to nurse these animals back to health. Others look at roadkill as a way to study the environmental impact we’ve had on the world around us. Whatever your personal feelings toward roadkill, remember when you can to Give Wildlife a Brake!

— Chanie