As vegetarians go, Keaton Buell is unusually skilled at butchering deer.
The 27-year-old sliced a hind leg off a mangled carcass on a cold January morning outside of St. Maries before diving into the deer’s body. The eyeballs had been eaten out by scavengers, but there was still plenty of edible meat waiting to be freed from the deer’s hide.
“It’s a bit of a hack job,” Buell said, taking a bloody knife to the deer’s backstrap.
Buell is one of thousands of Idaho residents who make use of ungulates run over on the Gem State’s highways.
Unlike many, he’s not using the roadkill to feed himself. Instead, he turns it into meals for the raptors living at Birds of Prey Northwest, where he’s been an intern for the past two years.
“This is our bread and butter,” he said.
Idaho and Washington have passed laws allowing people to salvage roadkill, provided they fill out a short form with the state wildlife agency to get a permit.
Washington’s law, which took effect July 1, 2016, allows for deer and elk only. Between then and the end of 2017, 3,099 animals were salvaged off the Evergreen State’s roads, according to data from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Idaho’s 6-year-old law is much broader, listing nearly 50 species of mammals and birds as salvageable. Most animals are fair game, provided they’re not endangered, threatened or otherwise protected by federal or state law.
As one might expect, deer and elk top the list. But Idahoans have also hauled away 419 moose, 55 black bears, 51 wild turkeys and 39 beavers since the law went into effect.
Salvagers don’t have to say what they intend to do with the animal, which sometimes leaves wildlife officials guessing. In addition to eating, Gregg Servheen, the wildlife program coordinator at Idaho Fish and Game, said salvagers may be practicing taxidermy, looking for hides to display, gathering items for crafts or regalia or making their own fishing lures.
Nineteen species have been salvaged once or twice, including two skunks, two mallards, a sandhill crane, a mountain goat, and – oddly – one domestic cat in downtown Boise.
Servheen laughed when asked if he could explain that report, and said he wasn’t quite sure what someone might be doing with a salvaged cat carcass.
“That’s certainly not in the spirit of where we were going in terms of wildlife management,” he said.
But Fish and Game would rather have people over-reporting than the reverse.
Gray wolves are also salvaged, 16 statewide since 2012. Describing the carnivore’s presence in Idaho as “controversial” would be an understatement. But Servheen said he didn’t think anyone was deliberately running down wolves, or any other species of animal, just to get a trophy. That would require sacrificing a car to make a point, rather than simply shooting an animal.
“There’s easier ways to do it than using your car,” he said.
Idaho’s roadkill data is more detailed than Washington’s, with a greater variety of species and occasional notes from the salvager. The species is often a best guess from the salvager, who can select how sure they are of their identification on a five-point scale.
“3 POINT BUCK SHOT AND WOUNDED BY A UNKOWN HUNTER,” reads one report from October 16, 2016, just off the Salmon River near White Bird, Idaho. “THE WOUNDS WOULD HAVE RESULTED IN A SLOW DEATH BY STARVATION FROM THE JAW DAMAGE. I CALLED FISH AND GAME FIRST AND WAS GIVEN PERMISSION … TO PUT THE ANIMAL OUT OF ITS MISERY, WHICH I DID … I ALSO FIELD DRESSED AND BUTCHERED THE MEAT FOR MY DOG.”
At Birds of Prey Northwest, Buell was having a bountiful morning. The Idaho Transportation Department had dropped off an elk carcass along with the deer, and he waited for some friends to drive from town and help him butcher the larger animal.
The sanctuary houses about 40 raptors at any one time. A slight majority are permanent residents: birds that have been disabled by poachers, vehicle collisions or other circumstances and can no longer survive in the wild.
A whiteboard inside the large shed on the premises lists acceptable meat for each type of bird, and nine large freezers collect the quail, mice and other animals the center purchases for its residents, as well as donated red meat.
Golden eagles only eat raw meat, so they’re the main benefactors of roadkill meat. Bald eagles can also eat fish, which is easier to come by.
But the morning’s deer backstrap would be a special treat for Liberty, one of the center’s resident bald eagles, who’s been there since 1994, when she was caught in a bear trap that damaged her feet. She’s now Buell’s age.
“She’s the loudest on the property,” Buell said.
He entered her enclosure, meat in hand, calling to the eagle in a singsong.
“Liiii-berty! Hey, baby girl,” he cooed, before placing the meat on her perch.
The raptor eyed the meal, seeming skeptical, then slowly stepped over, clacking her claws as she inched closer. Then, she grabbed the deer in her beak.
“She has trouble holding her food sometimes because of her injuries,” Buell said.
In Washington and Idaho, the locations of salvaged animals are reported by the people who take them home. People fill out the permit form online and have the option of clicking a point on a map or listing a highway and milepost.
Most of the animals end up where you’d expect on a map: along highways and major roads, as well as along smaller roads traveling through national forest land. But a handful of people seem confused about where they live. Mapping Idaho’s roadkill produces a scattering of dots across Montana, Alberta and Oregon. Washington’s extend into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Aberdeen.
The data, although imperfect, forms a sort of ghost map, a rough outline of the Gem State’s highways.
Washington’s map is more a ring surrounding the Seattle metro area, with pockets of deer and elk scattered along state highways. Much of Interstate 5 is barren, and dots are scattered sporadically across Interstate 90. Outside of western Washington, carcasses are in abundance on Highway 395 north of Spokane, Highway 2 and 97 from Wenatchee to Ellensberg, and along Highway 20 through the Methow Valley.
Idaho Fish and Game wants to use the map to help understand roadkill hotspots and plan interventions to reduce vehicle-wildlife collisions.
“When roads and high-speed auto traffic came into being, nobody really thought about the wildlife in that context. It was more of an afterthought,” Servheen said.
Roadkill salvage peaks in the fall, when deer and elk migrate. Servheen said there’s a mule deer migration corridor that crosses Highway 30 in southeastern Idaho, a route frequented by truckers. The result is, predictably, a deer buffet.
The bald and golden eagles come then “because they know there’s good food to be had,” Servheen said.
Some are hit by trucks while feasting on carcasses. Others eat so much they can’t fly off the road.
Wildlife officials in both states say they haven’t seen negative impacts from the law on other wildlife populations. Health districts haven’t complained, either.
Their hope is that having fewer carcasses sitting alongside the road will prompt raptors and scavengers to stay away. That might mean people see fewer eagles in the wild, but it doesn’t mean they’re not there.
“If they are spending less time on the road, that’s a good thing. We don’t want them to become roadkill as well,” said Craig Bartlett, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Buell said Birds of Prey Northwest has received significantly less roadkill from the Idaho Transportation Department since the salvage law went into effect. More people are picking up their own carcasses, rather than leaving them to be removed by transportation workers, especially in rural areas where butchering your own meat is typical.
“People are hunters anyway and they’re used to it,” Buell said.
He’d like Idahoans to know the birds on-site are happy to take meat people don’t want any more, whether that’s cuts of roadkill not suited for human consumption, or freezer-burned elk from last fall that’s just taking up space in a hunter’s kitchen.
“It’s perfectly fine. The birds will eat it,” he said.