One day this past fall, Matt Gubanich was standing on a friend’s porch – conveniently enough, “messing with the barbeque grill,” he said – when the dinner bell rang in a rather unexpected manner.
“I just heard this smack, this large ‘crack!’ as a deer was struck by a vehicle,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I poked my head inside the house and said, ‘Hey, I think somebody just hit a deer on the highway.’”
Thanks to a recent Wyoming law that allows people to collect roadkill big game for food, fresh whitetail deer was on the menu.
Scene Of The Accident
Gubanich and his wife, Kahla, live just a few miles from their friends Jess Johnson and Jaden Bales along a highway near Lander in west-central Wyoming.
Johnson and Bales live in an area that is a “busy migration route for deer, especially in the fall,” Gubanich said, so roadkill is, sadly, not uncommon there.
The couples are avid hunters and had already been in the process of butchering the meat from some of that season’s kills when Gubanich heard the whitetail get walloped.
Johnson also is highly knowledgeable about a law that took effect Jan. 1, 2022, allowing people to claim roadkill big game carcasses.
They ran to the highway to see what had happened, prepared to see anything – including possibly helping people who had been hurt in the collision.
They discovered a locals’ pickup had broadsided the deer. And fortunately, no people had been hurt.
“The driver had hit the deer broadside. It had died instantly,” Gubanich said. “It was just laying there dead on the highway.”
“It was a nice, not really bad-sized whitetail buck,” he said. “The side of the deer that had been struck was unsalvageable, completely pulverized. But the off-side was in great shape.”
The first order of business was to get the carcass off the road, then help the driver evaluate and document the damage to the truck for insurance purposes.
Gubanich said the let the driver and his passengers know about the carcass collection law and asked them if they wanted to claim it.
“They were just like, ‘Nope, we’re not interested,’” he said. “So we asked them, ‘Do you mind if we do?’”
Gubanich admit that got them some weird looks, but since they had already been butchering game carcasses, half a deer more didn’t seem like any big deal.
A Little Too Fresh
They dragged the carcass back to the house and immediately began butchering and packaging the meat from the good side. And, they set aside a few cuts to eat right away.
“We were eating that meat literally an hour after the animal had been alive,” Gubanich said.
It’s general practice to let meat hang and “cure” before butchering it, or eating it, he said. So carving up and consuming meat so fresh was a different experience.
“As I was carving up those backstraps, they were still moving and twitching. I was afraid I was going to cut my fingers,” he said.
As for the meat, yes, it turns out there’s such a thing as too fresh.
“It was every bit as tough as we’d been worried it would be,” Gubanich said.
So, they wisely opted to let the rest of the hapless highway buck age for a while before eating more.
“The rest of it is still in packages in Jess and Jaden’s freezer,” Gubanich said.
He added that it’s his usual practice to hang quarters from big game animals, sometimes for weeks, in a refrigerator he has for that purpose “at 35-30 degrees, unsalted” before butchering or eating the meat.
Allowing meat to cure like that makes it far more tender and helps get rid of the “gamey” taste, he said.
The odd looks from the pickup’s occupants reflects a social stigma against eating roadkill, but Gubanich said in an instance like that – when they knew exactly when the animal had died – there was no sense in letting the undamaged meat go to waste.
And he’s apparently far from alone in that view. Hundreds of people across the Cowboy State have apparently partaken of roadside bounty.
As of this January, roughly a year since the law took effect, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department had logged 412 requests to collect roadkill deer, according to figures provided to Cowboy State Daily by the agency. There were also requests to claim the carcasses of 115 antelope, 69 elk, 31 moose and one bison.
Provided that people are safe in how they go about it, there shouldn’t be a stigma against eating roadkill, Gubanich said.
“I think roadkill, just as a genre, has a pretty high stigma against it. When people here ‘roadkill’, they aren’t thinking freshly killed, taken home and properly processed,” he said. “They are thinking about animals that have just been obliterated, sitting for weeks, picked over by crows – bloated and laying by the side of the road.”
Do It Right
Gubanich said those who might be considering claiming carcasses should keep some things in mind.
“I wouldn’t take anything that I didn’t see die or knew had just been killed,” he said. “And I would strongly discourage anybody from eating things they didn’t see die. Even if it’s been sitting there for just a little while, you don’t know what else has been there, another animal could have been in there.”
There’s also chemical contamination to consider, he said.
“If it’s been on the roadside for any amount of time there could have been contaminants coming off the roadway, it could have bee exposed to lots of vehicle exhaust and who knows what else,” he said.
And when claiming a carcass, people still need to be mindful of traffic, he added.
“Get it off and away from the highway. Get your vehicle off the highway and turn on your hazard lights,” he said. “I wouldn’t be out there trying to do anything at night either.”
Reporting or claiming roadkill is a quick and easy process, Gubanich said. People can do either by downloading the Wyoming 511 app to their smartphones.
“It’s, like, three button hits (to report and possible claim roadkill),” he said. “There’s no typing, no filling out of reports, nothing like that. It takes less than 30 seconds.”
Even people who don’t wish to make dinner out of animals struck by vehicles should use the app to report kills, Gubanich said.
“It’s important to know the numbers” so agencies can track and take steps to mitigate roadkill, he said “The roadkill numbers aren’t overcounted in Wyoming, they are probably way under-counted because not enough people report it when an animal gets hit.”
And indeed, 2023 appears to be a bad year for roadkill in Wyoming, with numbers spiking right around New Year’s Day, and more spikes in January, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
Meanwhile, WYDOT, Game and Fish and other agencies are taking steps to cut down on roadkill – several wildlife crossings are planned in Wyoming, in addition to wildlife overpasses and underpasses that already exist here.