By Gregory B. Hladky
1:05 PM EDT, May 29, 2013
Connecticut's roadkill body count is mind boggling.
Start with more than 10,000 deer carcasses each year. Add to that the corpses of nearly 30 black bears, about 50 fisher cats, perhaps 36 bobcats, plus two or three moose. And those are just the big or rare creatures state experts bother to tally.
Our cars and trucks also slaughter vast, numberless legions of skunks, raccoons, possums, coyotes, squirrels, snakes, frogs, toads, turtles, rabbits, chipmunks, cats, dogs, turkeys, owls and almost every other bird that flies through Connecticut's skies.
When you have a casualty list this massive, it leads to the question of what do you do with all that dead animal flesh, bone, feathers and hair? For example, 10,000 dead white-tailed deer would add up to at least 1.1 million pounds of rotting meat needing permanent removal.
In Connecticut, roadkill disposal options include taking it home to eat, tossing it into the woods or burying it at the roadside. There's even one innovative experiment in composting roadkill for use as sort of a super-fertilized potting soil at state projects.
A very few of these animals — most often deer, aka venison — become groceries for the person who hit them. (That's all governed by a Connecticut state law, by the way, which requires a form filled out in triplicate.) But those are unusual cases.
"It's not anything anyone would be interested in consuming by the time we get to it," Kevin Nursick, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, says of most of the roadkill his agency's maintenance crews usually handle.
Little victims, like those unfortunate turtles and toads, may simply be squashed into a dark smear and eventually washed away in the rain. Nearly all the rest are buried at the roadside or tossed into the woods or brush by local and state road crews.
Fortunately, Mother Nature has its own waste disposal squad. Crows, vultures and a multitude of other carnivorous and omnivorous beasties and bugs love to dine on roadkill, finding it a highly convenient and nutritious form of protein. No tiresome hunting required — all you have to do is smell your way to the buffet.
Mark Clavette, a state wildlife biologist, says the natural route is really convenient for public works and highway dudes looking to get rid of smelly, smashed dead animals. "Their carcasses are left for scavengers to consume," he says.
"The reality is that animals die in the woods all the time," Nursick points out, "and they don't get buried... Something else [besides humans] is going to be taking care of it."
Drivers can report roadkill on the state DOT's website and many municipal sites.
Roadkill disposal can sometimes involve police, road workers, and animal control officers. "Sometimes even public health gets involved as well," says Stephen Savarese, public works director for Orange.
Almost every animal native to Connecticut has ended up as roadkill at one time.
The reason so many white-tailed deer are hit is that there are a hell of a lot of them wandering around. The state's deer population is estimated at somewhere around 126,000, Clavette says. And motorists are almost as effective in thinning out the herds as hunters, who shoot and kill more than 12,000 annually.
State wildlife experts say at least a couple of moose are hit in this state every year, which is a fairly high percentage when you consider our entire moose population may not be more than 100 of the big beasts.
One ironic moose-kill incident occurred in 2007 when a young 500-pound male was struck and badly injured by a driver on the Merritt Parkway in New Canaan. The accident resulted in injuries to the motorist and the moose having to be put out of its misery. The ironic part was the driver was from New Hampshire, a state famous for its big moose population and moose warning road signs.
The most unusual roadkill victim in state history was the mountain lion that was hit on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Milford in June 2011. Until that moment, state officials had insisted there were no truly wild cougars in Connecticut. It turned out this bad boy had wandered here all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The body of the "St. Croix Cougar," as the big cat was known from his time dallying in Wisconsin, was taken to a state facility in Burlington for examination and burial. When a bear or moose or other rare animal is hit, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection experts are called.
Our state roadkill law does allow someone who kills a bear or moose via the vehicular method to apply to take the carcass home, just like with a dead deer. The bear and moose roadkill that doesn't end up in someone's freezer is examined by wildlife experts and then buried.
Connecticut's DOT may have the most innovative program for getting rid of roadkill: composting. And part of the reason for this state experiment is the question of what to do with a roadkill corpse in wintertime when frozen ground makes burial somewhat difficult.
Nursick says the agency began its pilot program in 2009 by opening up a special composting site at its Tylerville Garage in Haddam. The state of New York has a very similar program of its own.
"It's not very glamorous, and it's different," he adds. "Not many people know about it, but yes indeed, the DOT does have a roadkill compost pile."
Roadkill, "almost exclusively deer," according to Nursick, found on state roads in the general area around Haddam are brought to the pile, and that's when the composting process begins.
Green woodchips are put down in windrows atop a gravel base, and the roadkill is laid down in between. Then corpses are covered with a two-foot layer of woodchips, and then another layer of roadkill, and finally a 12-inch topping of the chips.
"It's sort of a disgusting roadkill sandwich," Nursick explains. But DOT officials insist there's no problem with revolting smells, and the decomposition process begins within a few days. Four to six months later nearly all of the bodies have been broken down.
Any bones or hair that's left gets put back into the pile, while the roadkill compost is set aside to age for about another year. And then it has the "deep, dark, rich appearance of good topsoil," Nursick says, and is ready for use when the state needs to landscape some highway project.
The only hassle so far has been the occasional scavenger digging into the compost pile for an attempted snack. "We're pondering options," Nursick says, "and we may end up putting a fence around it."
He also points out that, in the event a member of Mother Nature's disposal squad does make a withdrawal from the DOT's compost pile, it's really just another way of recycling that roadkill.
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