Meals under wheels

🕔Dec 15, 2005

“Here’s how it works. There’s this list that highways or the wildlife boys have and you put your name on it and they call you at 3 a.m. when there’s some roadkill. They call you first because not everyone wants to get up at 3 a.m. when it’s 30 below and not everyone has a truck.”

Dave Ryckman is describing one of northern B.C.’s little-known culinary traditions: the roadkill list. Get on the list, and one of the hundreds of animals killed in collisions on the icy winter roads could end up in your deep freeze—a welcome occurrence when work is scarce and the pocketbook thin.

Vehicle-wildlife collisions are particularly frequent during winter months, when deep snow at high elevations forces moose and deer into valley bottoms. There, low visibility, slick conditions and speeding vehicles prove a deadly combination. Occasionally, these accidents result in human fatalities; more often, it’s just the animals that pay the price.

Ryckman lives a stone’s throw off Highway 16, just east of Dunster, B.C. He’s dubbed his place Flathead City for his collection of eponymous flathead Ford trucks from the 1940s and 50s. Ryckman is also a welder, raises rabbits, and has for several years relied on roadkill to help him through lean times.

At one point, roadkill became such a frequent staple that Ryckman welded together a device in his yard to give people a place to hang the animals they dropped off. A hand-painted sign that read, “Road Kill,” with an arrow pointing to the contraption’s two meat hooks provided a finishing touch. Over time, he gained some local renown as “the guy at Small River who takes roadkill.”

Asked if he had any good roadkill stories, Ryckman recounts one unusually serendipitous collision: “One time, I got home after sundown. I heard a crash on the highway and thought it was an accident, but it was a truck hitting a moose 20 feet from my driveway.”

“Now, that’s what you call fresh meat,” he adds.

In instances such as the one Ryckman describes, the roadkill list doesn’t come into play—it’s first come, first served. However, this is not as simple as it sounds. Retrieving and processing roadkill is labour-intensive, and if you find an animal and hope to keep it, there are steps that must be followed.

The first is to alert the authorities—in this case, the local conservation officer. He or she can give permission for the animal to be taken as food, but will make you sign a waiver releasing the government of any liability. The officer also provides a note for the local meat cutter certifying the roadkill as legitimate, a step that helps prevent poachers from having their contraband processed under false pretensions.

Once you have permission, it’s a matter of collecting, processing and storing. Ryckman describes the process as if he is reading from the Roadkill Owners Manual:

“You’ve got to check the armpits of the animal,” he says. “Cold armpits mean it’s too old. And you need a skookum winch on a tree, at least 15 feet off the ground. You need to skin it within an hour or the meat will taint.”

While some roadkill aficionados choose to process the meat themselves, Ryckman takes the skinned and gutted animal to a local meat cutter and has it cut and wrapped.

“The meat cutter weighs what you bring, and charges you by the pound,” he continues. “So you want to cut off everything you don’t need beforehand.”

If the person reporting a road-killed animal lacks Ryckman’s savvy—or doesn’t need the meat—a call goes out to the name at the top of the roadkill list.

One of the guys making the 3 a.m. calls is Kevin Nixon, a conservation officer stationed out of the Ministry of Environment’s regional office in Smithers. The roadkill list for Nixon’s region comprises some 30 families scattered among the communities of Stewart, the Hazeltons, Moricetown, Smithers, Telkwa and Houston. He estimates that each year, the Ministry of Highways, conservation officers, and CN distribute around a hundred animals to people on the list—only a fraction of the several hundred killed by vehicles each year.

“When people ask to be on the list, the first question we ask is whether or not they are able to come and get it,” he says.

Nixon says people who can’t deal with the animals themselves may find help from folks in the local church community, who butcher, wrap, and deliver road-killed meat to people on the list as a good turn to those less well off.

From bumper to freezer, roadkill is essentially free, but it wasn’t always this way. In 2000, the B.C. government tried to get the public to pay for roadkill through a permitting system. Under this system, a moose or elk cost $71, a deer or black bear $61.

At the time, Victoria Times Colonist reporter Les Leyne wrote, “Is this proud province in such reduced circumstances that government inspectors have to roam the roadside ditches looking for people who are looking for roadkill in order to levy a tax on them?”

The move also drew the ire of B.C.’s trappers, many of whom use roadkill for bait, and was subsequently rescinded in 2004 with changes to B.C.’s Wildlife Act.

“At long last the roadkill tax, if not completely snuffed out, is at least gimpy and on its last legs,” said MLA Bill Bennett, addressing B.C.’s Legislative Assembly on Oct. 4, 2004.

While roadkill provides a welcome food source for lower income families across the province, the collisions that produce it are dangerous and costly. Annual averages show vehicle-wildlife collisions in B.C. cause three human deaths, $600,000 in cleanup costs, and $20 million in vehicle damage claims. As a result, the B.C. government is working hard to reduce their occurrence. Its tactics run the gamut—from roadside reflectors and signage to changing the time of year when vegetation along the highway is cut.

In 2002, the government and ICBC even resorted to trying a prototype infrared camera, which took a continuous video of the road, detected wildlife, and automatically alerted drivers via a digital sign.

However, until roadkill is eliminated altogether, there will be a road kill list, and on it, folks happy for the meat.

“It’s better than the garbage you buy in the store,” says Ryckman.

Roadkill 101:

Avoid adding to rising roadkill statistics. Drive defensively, use your headlights, and watch for animals’ eyes shining in the ditch.

If a collision appears imminent, consider braking instead of swerving. If you have to choose between swerving and a collision, swerve.

Injured animals are extremely dangerous. If you encounter one by the roadside, don’t attempt to end its suffering unless you know exactly what you are doing.

For obvious health reasons, never eat roadkill that has been dead an unknown length of time. If you have questions, talk to your local butcher.

Always report roadkill to your local conservation officer. Even if it’s not fit for consumption, knowing its location aids cleanup and helps biologists learn more about wildlife populations.

For more information, visit www.wildlifeaccidents.ca
To contact your local conservation officer through Enquiry BC, call 1 (800) 663-7867.