DENVER -- Montanans might be whipping up venison quesadillas, antelope steaks or barbecued moose if a roadkill bill being considered in the legislature becomes law.
Montana would join Colorado, Florida, Illinois, West Virginia, Georgia and a handful of other states in allowing residents to turn roadkill into dinner. The bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate's Fish and Game Committee after it passed the House Feb. 11.
"I've been a state trooper for over 20 years and have responded to hundreds of crashes involving animals," the measure's sponsor, state Rep. Steve Lavin, R, said during floor debate. "I've had people ask me if they can take these animals, but the public cannot legally take them. Unfortunately, the animal is left to rot along the highway."
Tens of thousands of animals are meeting untimely deaths at the end of fenders each year as increasing numbers of people move into rural areas. The carnage is catching the attention of lawmakers, residents and undersupplied food bank operators who view it as a cheap, readily available meal source.
Most states don't document roadkill cleanup expenses. A spokeswoman for the Montana Transportation Department said the state doesn't break out roadkill pickup costs.
It took $58,605 to clean up 1,143 animals in 15 counties in southwestern Colorado in 2009, considered a "big year for roadkill maintenance," said Nancy Shanks, a Colorado Transportation Department spokeswoman.
While savings to state budgets provided by roadkill programs are hard to quantify, residents who partake in the practice said eating animals slaughtered by vehicles can shave thousands of dollars a year off their food costs.
Viewing roadkill as food is determined largely by geography and local customs. Big-city residents tend to frown on the practice, while it is embraced by rural regions and the South, particularly in West Virginia -- which celebrates its 21st RoadKill Cook-off this year.
"People see a dead animal on the side of the road and think it's not much to look at," said Matt Kenna, a Durango, Colo., attorney who has brought roadkill home to his wife and sons for 15 years. "But it's worth quite a bit of money."
Kenna, a hunter who carries a hunting knife and bone saw in his trunk, searches for dead elk alongside rural roads in years he's unable to shoot one. He estimates his family has saved as much as $1,800 annually dining on up to 150 pounds in roadside fare including his favorite, elk steak marinated in Italian dressing.
Roadkill carries health risks, said Lawrence Goodridge, associate professor of food safety at Fort Collins-based Colorado State University. Those handling it may be exposed to bacteria or infectious diseases, and those eating it may be exposed to food-borne illnesses if the meat isn't cooked properly, Goodridge said.
"Personally, I would not support any such legislation," he said.
Some states ban collecting certain animal appendages, such as antlers or parts of black bears. In Illinois, where residents must submit a "Road Kill Deer Reporting Form" within 24 hours, animals can't be claimed by anyone delinquent in child-support payments.
In Alaska, residents can legally pick up roadkill only if state troopers invite them to do so. Troopers keep a list of families and charities they call to collect dead moose, caribou or bear found by roadsides, said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers Division.
Montana food banks respond when state troopers offer them the carcasses, even though the practice isn't yet legal, Lavin, the roadkill bill sponsor, told lawmakers.
About 6,568 animals died in vehicle collisions on Montana roads in 2011, including 6,069 deer, 171 elk, 63 antelope, 33 black bears and six mountain lions, according to statistics provided by the state transportation department. In 2010, the list included two grizzly bears.
Alaska's program hasn't prompted people to intentionally hit animals to collect the meat, Peters said.
"People don't go hunting with their car," she said. "We had a wreck recently where a 2012 KIA, a little SUV, was totaled and the moose walked away on its own accord. The driver was fine."
Some drivers don't survive collisions with animals. About 203 died after hitting wildlife and 14,000 were injured in 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Claims related to wildlife-vehicle accidents amount to about $1.1 billion a year, averaging about $3,200 each, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
Interest in roadkill and its potential as a food source is at an all-time high. More than 15,000 people flocked to Pocahontas County, W.V. last year to sample squirrel gravy, porcupine stew, mink gumbo, and other delicacies at the 20th annual RoadKill Cook-off. A cast-iron stomach and "no vegetarian tendencies," were listed as requirements for judges.
"People wait in line a long time so they can taste the food," said Gail Hyer, a marketing specialist for the Marlinton-based Pocahontas County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Cooking wild game is a real art because when you put it in your mouth and eat it you want to be able to chew it and taste it and savor it, so some of the gaminess has to be cooked out."
In Florida, where it's legal for drivers to take home any animal as long as it isn't a protected species, Tony Young took a dead fox to be stuffed.
"You are not allowed to kill foxes in Florida," said Young, a state hunting division spokesman. "If you find a roadkill fox, you can take it to a taxidermist and have them stuff it. You don't need a permit for it."
In Georgia, a 2010 law lets residents take bear killed by motorists home for dinner as long as they report it within 48 hours to the Natural Resources Department so employees can "come out and collect a tooth sample for aging purposes," said Robin Hill, a spokeswoman.
"As the population increased in the North Georgia mountains, incidents of wildlife and human interaction increased," she said. "With bears, it was illegal to shoot one and take the carcass, whether for food or parts."
At California's Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary, about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, keepers feed roadkill to the animals "under very strict guidelines due to the potential danger of diseased animals and lead poisoning," city spokeswoman Sue Ryan said.
Health concerns that the animals may not be fresh, voiced by a few Montana House lawmakers, are allayed by picking up the carcass as quickly as possible, roadkill enthusiasts said.
"It's easy to tell a fresh roadkill from one that's been there too long," said Kenna, the Colorado lawyer. "In the wintertime there is fresh snow, and if the body is still warm it means it was killed that night. I've never taken one in the summer."