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For venison, hunters comb woods, motorists collect from roads

| Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, 8:00 p.m.
Motorists who kill a deer with their vehicle or come upon the carcass of a whitetail hit by another can keep it as long as they secure a free permit number. Whether that’s wise comes down to several factors, experts say.
Bob Frye | Trib Total Media
Motorists who kill a deer with their vehicle or come upon the carcass of a whitetail hit by another can keep it as long as they secure a free permit number. Whether that’s wise comes down to several factors, experts say.

Cue the banjos, right?

Mention the idea of eating roadkill, and images of backwoods hillbillies, flattened carcasses and buzzing flies perhaps spring to mind.

But that's not how everyone views Pennsylvania's roadside bounty, especially when it comes to whitetails. Whether making the best of a bad situation and collecting a deer they hit themselves or being opportunistic and gathering one freshly killed by another motorist, plenty of people each year pick up and eat what might be called venison a la vehicle.

And now is prime harvest season.

Drivers who hit a deer are allowed to keep it as long as they call the Pennsylvania Game Commission and get a free permit number. It handed out 4,117 last year.

Of those, 1,186 — 29 percent —were given out in November. That was more than in any other month.

There are several reasons for that, said Tom Fazi, information and education supervisor in the commission's southwest region office.

“It's the rut, mainly,” he said, speaking of the deer breeding season that has whitetails on the move and crossing roads more often.

“And it's the colder weather. Deer are still getting killed in other months. People just aren't keeping them when they're spoiling so quickly.”

They are keeping them from all over, though. Commission records reveal roadkill permits were issued for all 10 counties in its southwest region — Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland — as well as in Butler and Lawrence.

There's good reason, said Chuck Irion of Phoenix, Ariz. Owner of a chain of RV resorts, he wrote “Roadkill Cooking for Campers” years ago after hearing “my tenants tell me stories about what they ran over and what they stopped and picked up and what they ate.”

Roadkill can be quite good, he said.

“There's a yuck factor for some,” Irion admitted. “But if you get it at the right time and get it cleaned up as soon as you can, it's just a matter of figuring out what parts you want to eat. Because pretty much all of it is edible.”

That can be true, a couple of food safety experts said. But would-be roadkill collectors need to consider several factors, they said.

“In the kitchen or at the restaurant or in the grocery store or wherever you're at, things come down to time and temperature. In a way, the same thing could be said for roadkill,” said Darin Detwiler, an adjunct professor of regulatory affairs of food at Northeastern University in Boston and senior policy coordinator for the national nonprofit health organization STOP Foodborne Illness.

Bacteria — from E. coli to salmonella — start to grow immediately when a deer dies, he said. The warmer the weather, the faster it multiplies, he added.

So when deciding whether to collect a roadkill for the table, Detwiler said drivers should try to assess how long the deer has been dead, how warm it is outside, how clean the animal is and how quickly it can be put on ice.

“It's not as simple as, ‘Is the meat good or bad?' There are a lot of possibilities there,” Detwiler said.

“You kind of have to use your senses before you get to the point of go (or) no go.”

Jonathan Campbell, a meat extension specialist in Penn State's department of animal science, said people should examine road-killed deer for pre-existing wounds, especially ones giving off yellowish, green or creamy discharges suggesting infection. Those deer, and ones showing evidence of being fed on by coyotes or other predators while along the road, should be avoided, he said.

But he wouldn't rule out taking an obviously fresh roadkill under the right circumstances. Campbell said he's never eaten roadkill, but would consider it “if I had hit the deer myself and had the time to immediately field dress the carcass and get the meat cleaned and chilled as fast as possible.

“In some ways, a freshly killed deer by a vehicle could be higher quality. You would not have to worry about shot (or) bullet (or) arrow fragments becoming a physical hazard for the meat to be consumed,” Campbell said.

“Also, if the deer versus vehicle was an instantaneous kill, the meat could be more tender when compared to a mortally wounded animal that survived for hours and ran quite a distance before finally succumbing to the fatal wound.”

Motorists will encounter a lot of deer in the weeks ahead.

The rut is in full swing, commission executive director Matt Hough said. There are more people in the woods bumping into deer now than at any other time of year. Deer are moving in an attempt to feed heavily before winter. And the end of daylight savings time has people on the roads at dusk and dawn, when deer are more active, he said.

All those things often will put deer and drivers in the same place at the same time, Hough said.

The numbers bear that out.

State Farm ranks Pennsylvania fourth nationally in terms of the likelihood a driver will strike a deer. The chances here are 1 in 70, compared to 1 in 169 nationally, it said.

For more than a few motorists, the question is not whether they'll hit a whitetail but whether to keep it afterward.

“If you know how to cook it with the right sauces, and you've got a little plan in advance, it can be quite good,” Irion said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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