Photo by Marcy Stamper

Don McIvor salvaged this doe for meat after it was killed by a vehicle on the highway near his house.

Thousands have taken advantage of state’s roadkill harvest program since 2016

By Marcy Stamper

Don McIvor’s interactions with deer have been wide-ranging. Beyond waging the familiar struggle to keep them out of his garden, McIvor has enjoyed watching a recurring game of chase between his dog and a fawn that befriended it.

And, though he’s been hunting for a dozen years, McIvor didn’t get any venison until he heard a dull “thunk” on the highway above his house between Twisp and Winthrop last month. “I never shot one — I’m very picky,” said McIvor.

But after that thunk, Don’s wife, Mary, suggested he check it out. He quickly found a white-tail doe that had died instantly from the impact. One shoulder and all the ribs on one side of her body were broken.

After a passerby helped him hoist the deer into his truck, McIvor gutted the animal and hung it in his root cellar. In a snowstorm a week later, he and Mary hauled the doe out of the cellar to skin it and cut up the meat.

It’s only since July 2016 that Washington has allowed people to “harvest” deer and elk hit by cars. Since then, more than 3,000 people have filled out a roadkill salvage permit on the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), documenting species, sex, location, time and date. The salvager is supposed to keep a printout with the meat until it’s all been consumed.

Although they were pleased to get the meat, McIvor called the situation “kind of this weird paradox.” While part of his impetus for hunting is to reduce problem interactions in his garden, he also got to know the twin fawns that took an interest in his dog, Molly.

“They were both very curious about Molly and about me,” said McIvor. The doe and Molly devised a harmless game of chase and the doe stopped by regularly to play. He even has videos of their interactions.

Supporting salvage

There are many reasons — other than food — to remove dead and injured animals from the roadway, said Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow. Pet dogs and cats get into the deer and get hit by cars themselves. In the winter, snowplows hit them. “It does help a lot, getting carcasses off the road. The salvage program works well — it’s not just a waste of meat,” said Budrow.

Budrow regularly gets calls about roadkilled animals and has “dispatched” a wounded animal some two-dozen times. In fact, while the state allows people to salvage a dead animal for meat, it’s illegal for anyone but a law-enforcement to kill one.

Budrow also gets calls from people disturbed by the sight of a dead deer. “Lots of people call to say it’s gross, especially when it’s decaying or the innards are out. Kids get upset. I get a lot of complaints,” he said.

When his son hit a deer the day after he got his driver’s license, Budrow’s family benefited from a salvaged deer. “As a hunter, I don’t like hunting anything I can’t eat. An animal is such a precious thing — this is good meat,” said Budrow.

High collision rate in Methow

“The Methow Valley was one of the earliest recognized areas for problems with chronic deer-vehicle collisions — one of the worst in the state,” said Kelly McAllister, fish and wildlife program manager for Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). But the Methow has recently been surpassed by Highway 97 between Omak and Okanogan.

WSDOT road crews pick up deer and report the location and species to the department’s wildlife division, which tracks roadkill to improve road safety, said McAllister. He studies interventions like signs and fencing to see what’s most effective in minimizing wildlife-vehicle collisions.

While posting warning signs is a common intervention, research shows these signs tend to be ignored — particularly by local drivers who see them all the time, said McAllister. Fences, on the other hand, can be quite effective. Fencing installed about 9 miles north of Wenatchee has reduced collisions with mule deer and bighorn sheep, he said.

But fences are a relatively rare and expensive solution — in the state’s 7,000 miles of highways, there aren’t even 50 miles of fencing.

Declining population?

There’s been a wide range in the number of carcass removals and salvaged animals reported between Pateros to Mazama from 2000 through 2017. Although reporting has sometimes been incomplete, the high was in 2009, with 167 deer killed. Overall, there were more animals killed between Mazama and Twisp in the early 2000s, but more between Twisp and Pateros starting in 2010.

Despite the inconsistencies in reporting, the numbers suggest a decline in the number of deer killed by vehicles in the Methow. The decline appears to have been well underway before salvage became legal, said McAllister.

McAllister speculated that the reduction could be caused by fewer animals overall, changes in driver behavior, or patterns of land use that alter animal routes.

But Jim Mountjoy, who managed the Methow Wildlife Area for WDFW for 35 years, has a theory. Mountjoy believes the deer population — particularly mule deer — has dropped by half since the Carlton Complex and Twisp River fires in 2014 and 2015 burned so much of their winter range.

Mountjoy updates four highway signs on a 140-mile circuit — in Mazama, south of Twisp, on the Loup, and near Pateros — that tally the number of deer killed. It’s a volunteer effort through the Mule Deer Foundation that he’s continued since he retired 13 years ago.

While Mountjoy once got numbers for the signs from highway crews, today, they’re basically just a guess, he said. “It’s more of a warning sign,” he said. “After 47 years of living in the Methow Valley, and knowing what goes on with the deer,” Mountjoy believes he has a good sense for the local deer population. Preliminary numbers from recent WDFW survey show a slight reduction in the herd.

Mountjoy goes out every month or two to change the numbers. He recalls some years when the total reached 250 or 300 deer, but his last update, in December, was just 86.

Because the totals never included county or U.S. Forest Service roads, Mountjoy figures the number has always been too low. The damage estimates are also probably low, since he allows for $3,500 of body work, he said

“People still drive fast. They drive right by the sign and then go hit a deer,” said Mountjoy.

Deer can be trained

For anyone who’s wondered why some deer stray directly onto the highway while others seem to wait on the shoulder until a car passes, it turns out deer can learn to avoid traffic.

Some studies show that deer change their behavior depending on traffic volume, said Kelly McAllister, fish and wildlife program manager for Washington State Department of Transportation. The danger zone for vehicle-deer collisions is between 2,000 and 8,000 vehicles per day, with most collisions occurring where there are 4,000 to 5,000 vehicles, said McAllister.

Researchers say that deer appear to learn to avoid traffic when there are more than 5,000 vehicles, but where there are fewer than 4,000, the sense of danger from a speeding hunk of metal and glass doesn’t happen often enough to change the animals’ behavior.