This Labor Day weekend, as millions of Americans mourn the end of summer, many of us (though not this guy) will fire up our grills to sear various hunks of animal flesh for one last seasonal family gathering. (The upside, besides the meat, is that with any luck we won't have to see most of these people again until Thanksgiving.)
Much of the meat we'll grill this weekend will be store-bought. Some of it will be purchased at the farm. Some will have been fished or hunted. And some—an almost imperceptible amount—will be harvested from the animal carcasses that dot America's roadways.
Yes, I'm talking about roadkill.
Food that's been harvested from animals that died on America's roadways is hardly a staple in most kitchens. But it's nevertheless become the subject of a growing number of battles over who has the right to take and eat it.
Just last week, an Associated Press article detailed how "thieves" in Alaska have been "stealing" roadkill meant for nonprofits that feed the homeless and less fortunate, among others. A day later, a New York Times piece on Alaskan roadkill featured this unexpected quote from a woman who harvests roadkill for such groups, Laurie Speakman: "I work my life around roadkill."
As the N.Y. Times piece details, state law declares that "animals struck and killed on Alaska's highways are state property and may be handled only by authorized groups[.]" Some groups use the meat to feed those in need. But the state also harvests the meat for anyone who "like[s] moose meat" and adds his or her name to a list.
But, as both the AP and the Times detail, Alaskans who like moose meat increasingly are ignoring the law and harvesting roadkill to feed themselves. What, if anything, is wrong with that?
"Some people out there say, 'Well, it's just roadkill,' and if they're hungry, they're entitled to it," advocate Don Dyer told the Times, "but the fact of the matter is that when somebody steals a whole moose, it impacts a lot of people."
That's one view. But it's one that ignores the fact that Alaska's roadkill restrictions also impact a lot of people.
As I detail in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, which is being published on September 15 (pre-order it here!), laws like those in Alaska that restrict access to roadkill are increasingly viewed as antiquated and wrongheaded. It's easy to see why.
Roadkill is a widespread problem. Millions of animals are killed on America's roads every week. Dead animals—particularly large ones like bear or moose—can also cause human deaths and property damage when drivers hit carcasses in the roadway. Many people don't have access to cheap, sustainable protein. Harvesting roadkill helps address each of these problems.
But some states, like Alaska, restrict or ban access to roadkill. Texas bans the harvesting of roadkill. Nevada considers harvesting roadkill to be animal poaching.
But pushback against such bans is growing. Montana lifted its ban on harvesting roadkill—which Montana Public Radio dubbed "vehicle tenderized meat"—in 2013. The Montana law requires residents to obtain a free roadkill permit. In the first two years under the law, the state issued nearly 2,000 permits.
"Residents must take the whole animal—both to remove it as a potential obstacle for other drivers and to keep other animals that might eat it (and themselves fall prey to traffic) out of the roadway," I write in Biting the Hands that Feed Us. "The law has been a tremendous success. In the first year after the ban, Montanans harvested more than 700 dead deer, 100 elk, 30 moose, and 5 antelope from state roadsides."
Other states have followed suit. Michigan relaxed its roadkill laws in 2014, and Wisconsin did the same in 2015. According to the Times, another seventeen states allow the harvesting of roadkill.
Are these laws taking roadkill out of the mouths of hungry people in Montana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states? Probably not. Neither the AP nor the Times identified anyone in Alaska who'd gone hungry because someone had harvested a moose illegally.
What's more, harvesting roadkill only constitutes theft if a state declares it owns all of the dead wildlife in that state, and decides who may or may not take and eat an already dead animal.
No person benefits if roadkill meat spoils, goes to waste, or is eaten by other animals (which, again, can themselves pose further hazards in roadways). As Montana's smart law demonstrates, more states should encourage the expedient harvesting of roadkill.