Viewed from several yards away, the fragments of fur and bone woven through the pile of woodchips gave it an oddly debonair appearance, like some sort of macabre tweed. We didn't detect a whiff of anything nasty -- until we walked downwind of a recently disturbed mound.
"That must be the five deer we picked up Monday after rodeo weekend. When I saw all those trucks and trailers coming through here, I knew it would be bad," said Shawn King, Oregon Department of Transportation, or ODOT, District 12 transportation maintenance manager, scrunching up her nose.
On a sweltering August afternoon, we stood inside a fenced area north of Heppner, where King's department runs a roadkill compost center. On an asphalt slab, a grid of concrete barriers formed four bays. Two were posted CLOSED, indicating the compost was ready: no visible flesh present, the mixture having reached at least 130 degrees Farenheit on three consecutive readings to kill off any germs.
Dead animals wind up here through various channels -- hauled in by the highway crew, as well as by state Fish and Wildlife, the state police and two nearby cities. "We get all sorts of critters," King said. "Deer, porcupine, skunks … If someone brings in a dog, we try to get to its owner so they can come pick it up."
The pilot project, initiated in 2010, has been successful enough to become eastern Oregon's official method of roadkill disposal. In the old days, crews just dragged carcasses off the road to "let the magpies and coyotes have them" or dumped them in an open pit at the quarry -- much to the delight of local dogs, though not necessarily their owners.
Roadkill disposal is a serious problem nationally, as stricter environmental regulations close burial pits, landfills run out of space, and many rendering plants shut down. But composting is becoming a popular alternative -- Montana, Washington and New York now have sites. It cost ODOT $11,600 to develop its site and acquire permits, and it takes $6,500 a year to keep it going. So far, roughly 500 deer and hundreds of other miscellaneous animals have been transformed into nutrient-rich soil conditioner. Eventually, the process might yield enough compost for highway crews to use for roadside planting. So far, however, it produces just enough to sustain the compost starter, like keeping a jar of sourdough going for future batches of pancakes.
An enormous yellow truck stopped outside the gate. A stocky fellow in a red ODOT cap and a neon safety vest jumped out. "This works just like a regular compost at home. You put the carcass on a pile, keep it moist and aerated (for several months), and it cooks and decomposes," explained Michael Bennett, transportation maintenance specialist. "It's good for the environment, there's a place to get rid of dead animals. It would be a huge asset for bigger cities if they all worked together."
Once a wildlife casualty arrives, workers use a bucket loader to place it on a thick layer of woodchips, preferably close to another rotting carcass to generate more heat. Then they sprinkle it with a layer of starter and more woodchips, and turn the whole mess occasionally until it's done decomposing, which can take several months. "It cooks better if we hose it down as we turn it," Bennett said. "That way the water saturates the pile instead of running off."
At one of the closed piles, he cleared away a couple of inches of the dull, dry surface. Underneath, the stuff looked like fertile loam and smelled vaguely fecund. He thrust in a moisture probe and sank a thermometer next to it. The meter hit 100 percent and the thermometer read 140 degrees -- just perfect. "Everything breaks down eventually." He whacked a leg bone on the concrete barrier, breaking it apart. "See that? Like a dry, hollow squash in your garden."
Tour over, I climbed into the truck cabin and Bennett pulled onto the road. A magpie flew in and perched atop the largest pile. His scavenging mission foiled, he tilted his head back and screeched indignantly.