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Know the West

Montana’s roadkill bill


I remember when a doe collided with my mom’s tank-like 1973 Chrysler Newport, an earwax gold car we eventually dubbed the “the deer slayer.” Mom trudged to a neighbor’s and called my dad, who came out to dispatch the unfortunate animal, and take it home to eat. It became a family joke to tease Dad about the origins of our venison dinners, but no one seemed to mind dining at our roadkill café.

Those childhood memories of how my family put the car in carnivore returned when I read that Montana’s legislature passed a bill aimed to legalize scavenging the elk, deer, antelope and moose people cream with their vehicles. It’s now awaiting the governor’s signature, and Wyoming is considering a similar law.

I was surprised that my adopted state of Montana didn’t already allow roadkill salvaging. After all, it’s long been okay to scrape up dead deer in big-government Maryland, where I was raised. Not so long ago you could even do a little drinking and driving in Montana, so why not let people do something so harmless as grill what they kill? Plus, as I learned as a kid, eating roadkill is a great expression of self-determination: with a little skill (and minimal government oversight), you can turn an unfortunate death into a free meal (minus the cost of vehicle damage).

But some Montana lawmakers, like state Senator Kendall Van Dyk, questioned eating roadside cuisine from a food safety standpoint. “Despite it’s good intention, it doesn’t pass the smell test for me,” he said in an AP story. Har. Har. Representative Bill Lavin, the bill’s sponsor, countered with the point that Montanans have good common sense. It doesn’t take USDA training to know what fresh meat looks and smells like. Then there’s the question of people trying to use their Dodge Rams to take out bambi, or trying to mow down animals for which hunting tags are expensive and rare, like bison. Hitting those could be deadly for the driver too. I can almost see the cartoon thought bubble over Senator Larry Jent’s head reading, “How dumb to you think we are?” What he said instead: “We don’t have very many suicidal drivers.”

Meanwhile, some reports make it sound like eating roadkill is a shocking idea invented in Montana, with Fox News headlining the AP’s story with “Montana Wants to Eat Roadkill.” At least a Bloomberg article and a blogger at the Atlantic recognized that it’s not novel for states to permit salvaging animals—there are at least 14 that allow it. But the Atlantic writer couldn’t resist comparing residents of those states, like Alaska and Colorado, to the Georgia beauty-pageant family from the reality television show Honey Boo-Boo. You’d think with all the attention lavished on locavorism and freeganism, the roadkill crowd would be as popular with the mainstream media as urban chicken owners.  But instead of seeing roadkill as good meat gone to waste, like Montana Rep. Steve Lavin does, they imply that roadkill dining is vile and low class. The Christian Science Monitor began their story on the Montana bill with “It sounds gross but….”

At risk of being on the receiving end of some “You Might Be a Redneck” jokes, I think it’s nice that Montana’s state government could allow us to eat what we hit. After all, it’s a rare example of state legislators aligning the law with their stated values of government staying out of our business. But if the state is serious about making Montana as free its Big Sky motto says, they need to begin by jettisoning another outdated, and much more hurtful law before the legislature this session. As the Supreme Court hears cases on Proposition 8 (the California gay marriage ban) and the Defense of Marriage Act, and Montana Senator John Tester has voiced his support for gay marriage, the state legislature is deciding if it should strike down its 1973 law that makes same-sex sexual contact a felony. Repealing the “deviate sex act” law has failed before in Helena.  State representatives are also trying to make up their minds about whether or not to support an LGBT anti-discrimination bill in the state.

To truly live and let live, Montana should join its senator and nine other states in supporting marriage equality. That includes my birth state, Maryland, where taxes are high and public land is scant, but at least you have the freedom to legally dine on rigor mortise tortoise with your same-sex spouse. If the national media is going to poke fun at rural and Western states, it should be over hateful and bigoted laws that really do make us look like backwoods ignoramuses—not eating road kill.

Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.

1950’s roadkill photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.