Hot off the grille

State lawmaker’s bill to legalize roadkill cuisine stirs ‘freeway-to-fork’ jokes, debate is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Let’s get the jokes out of the way first.

“Meals under wheels.”

“Bumper crop.”

“Gravel-tenderized meat.”

Chances are state Sen. Bob Archuleta has heard most of them. The Los Angeles County Democrat has a bill advancing through the Legislature that would allow Californians to “salvage” recently deceased wildlife from the sides of the state’s roads and highways. The eyebrow-raising (and for the squeamish, stomach-churning) effort has been the butt of “many jokes here in the Capitol and even in my own hometown” of Pico Rivera, he acknowledged.

But jokes aside, he insisted, “This bill is dealing with very serious issues.”

It would allow outdoorsy and culinarily courageous Californians to engage in a very particular form of roadside dining, so long as they apply for a state permit after-the-fact. Proponents say that wildlife and highway regulators could then use the data to identify roadkill hotspots and help reduce human-wildlife collisions.

It would make California the most populous of a string of states—including Western ones such as Montana, Idaho and Oregon—to permit such highway harvesting.

For progressives, there’s the added selling point of not letting good meat go to waste—an argument that has won over many environmentalists and even one of the most zealous of animal protectors, PETA.

While roadkill cuisine may not yet be mainstream, it appears to have joined the ranks of bug eating and dumpster diving as a counter-cultural dietary choice once associated with extreme poverty—but now earning the respect of eco-conscious foodies.

Plus, roadkill is nothing if not free range—to tragic excess.

While the bill has no formal opposition and has unanimously cleared the Senate’s Natural Resources and Water Committee, not everyone in the room was won over.

Judie Mancuso, founder of the animal rights advocacy group Social Compassion In Legislation, argued we “should be protecting the animals, not worried about hitting and eating them.”

“It seems insane, I’m sorry,” she said.

Other groups have raised concerns that the bill could enable poaching, jeopardize traffic safety and lead to food-borne illness.

For decades California law has banned hungry drivers from pulling over to gather bumper-battered wildlife. That’s for safety reasons, but it’s also an artifact of the state’s strict hunting laws. If you want to take a deer out of the wild (or off a highway shoulder), you need a deer tag. No exceptions.

Under state law, “unlawful possession of wildlife” carries a fine of up to $1,000 and a six-month jail term. But California Fish and Wildlife officials say roadkill reapers aren’t likely to receive that maximum sentence and that it’s a “very uncommon” citation.

No “freeway to fork”

Even so, Archuleta and a coalition of wildlife conservationists and hunting advocates want to make that exception for only a handful of big, meaty animals including deer, elk and wild pigs. (With apologies to squirrel connoisseurs, all other critters are off the menu.)

Under the proposal, the state would launch a pilot program in 2022 that would allow people who accidentally hit one of those animals, or come across one on the side of the road, to cart the animal home as long as they apply for a free permit within 24 hours. Applicants could file their permit on an app that would also include information on how to properly dress the carcass and avoid foodborne illness. They would also be allowed to “dispatch” animals that have been wounded, but not killed.

At the request of California Highway Patrol, interstates are exempt.

Archuleta was born and raised in the swath of east Los Angeles County he now represents, where the vast majority of roadkill wear collars. If he seems an unlikely legislator to rally to the cause highway foraging on his own accord, that’s because he didn’t.

Instead, the proposal arrived on his desk thanks in part to Rennie Cleland, a retired game warden with California Department of Fish and Game. Cleland teamed up with the California Deer Association, a hunting and conservation group, and the California Rifle and Pistol Association, the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate, to find a legislator open to the idea. Cleland, more than most, has a passion for roadkill salvage.

As a state worker, he said he helped start a program to deliver a “perfectly good meat source” to local churches and families in need, first in Sonoma County, then in his native Siskiyou. By his own accounting, he helped distribute 37,000 pounds of meat in total—though not without the occasional intervention of public health officials, who forced him to stop delivering the meat to charities. State officials shuttered the program entirely after Cleland retired.

Removing hazards, or creating new ones?

He said he is motivated by principle: A hunter who shoots an animal is required to make an effort to retrieve it.

“It’s against the law to wantonly allow an animal like that to go to waste,” he said. By the same token, seeing large game animals being left to rot alongside the side of the road “always stuck in my craw as a game warden,” he said.

But in appealing to Archuleta, a former reserve police officer with the city of Montebello, the bill’s supporters primary focused on safety. At least 20,000 deer a year are hit by cars in California, a figure that could be as high as 80,000, according to UC Davis researchers. These accidents are dangerous and occasionally lethal for drivers too.

In Idaho, 10,000 roadkill reports have been logged since the state implemented a similar program in 2012, according to Gregg Servheen of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He said the department has used that information to decide where to erect warning signs, fencing, and in a handful of cases, highway underpasses to allow wildlife to cross without harm.

But some groups, including the California Fish and Game Wardens’ Association, have raised concerns about the bill’s unintended consequences. By allowing salvagers to apply for a permit after collecting the animal, the law could give the poachers a ready-made excuse when caught with a contraband carcass: “I swear, officer, I just found it on the side of the road!” Proponents insist wildlife law enforcement will be able to tell if an animal has been hit by a car. And there are simpler methods of poaching that don’t involve reporting an illegal kill to the state.

A legislative analysis of the bill notes that while the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has rarely exercised its authority for wild game, “if the consumption of road kill becomes widespread, there may well be an important assessment role for it to protect public health.”

Another concern: that the law will incentivize some drivers to … take aim.

Supporters say any grocery savings would almost certainly be offset by the cost of replacing a windshield or removing dents from a car hood. Plus, there’s the question of synchronizing roadkill and reaper. As Servheen from Idaho, says, “That’s going to be quite a meeting of the minds, so to speak.”

At the Senate committee’s hearing last month, chairman Henry Stern called it his “favorite bill of the day”—but later warned colleagues to “ease up on the quips.” Easier said than done.

When Tim Burchett, a Tennessee state senator introduced one of the first laws to legalize the harvesting of roadkill in the continental U.S. in 1999, it drew national attention. Members of the public gleefully sent him gag recipes, song books and (nevermind that felines and dogs are exempt) a bumper sticker that read “Cat—The Other White Meat.”