Roadkill is the crude term for animals hit by vehicles and left on the sides of highways to decompose. For residents of Eastern Oregon, seeing squished carcasses of deer, skunks, squirrels, opossums and birds is common on rural highways. Even porcupines, cats, dogs, cows and horses can be seen decomposing on roadsides from time to time.
However, for the crushed creatures that litter the roadside, the highways and winding roads are a final resting place.
"Mostly because we don't have a place that renders dead animals, we have to drag them to where driving public can't see them," said Robin Berheim, transportation maintenance manager for Oregon Department of Transportation in District 12.
District 12 covers most of Umatilla and Morrow counties, as well as parts of Gilliam, Wheeler, Grant and Union counties.
Berheim said roadkill is picked up by ODOT maintenance when it is spotted by workers or reported by drivers. Otherwise, she said, the carcasses are left to nature. Rural roads, then, are patrolled less often and are less likely to be roadkill-free.
Berheim said most often it is deer that are found scattered on Eastern Oregon highways and roadsides, with numbers depending on migration of the animals. She said animals cross roads for simple needs of survival - such as to find drinking water or a place to give birth.
Between 2001 and 2006 there were 2,400 vehicle accidents involving wildlife, which resulted in 666 injured people and 10 deaths, according to ODOT.
Safety and conservation
Audrey Hatch, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife strategy monitoring coordinator, said her agency has identified deer and elk movement as a priority. Hatch is co-leading the wildlife movement strategy team, which aims to answer the question of why these animals move when they do.
"ODOT is concerned because elk and deer collisions can be expensive," she said. "We have found a common ground of safety and conservation, and now ... we are coming together to find solutions."
Hatch said the team has just started its comprehensive data collection stage and is beginning to get a handle on what is happening. A number of other states are pursuing similar projects, she said.
Hatch said their studies and data collection could lead to installing precautions such as lighted signage in certain high-risk areas.
An animal mortality composting facility has been in the works in Morrow County for over a year now, planning department Director Carla McLane said. The facility, located near Heppner on Highway 74, has yet to be put to use.
"It is my understanding that construction has started," McLane said. "They are ready to pour asphalt and could probably put it together in less than a week."
She said the facility will consist of containers inside a concrete area, in which the carcasses will be placed. Wood chips, soils and other compost matter will surround the animals to speed up the decomposition process.
Tom Strandberg, ODOT Region 5 public information officer, said the final permits for the compost facility were just received by ODOT last week from the Department of Environmental Quality. He said the facility is not operational yet.
The only other animal mortality compost facility in Oregon is located in Lakeview, east of Klamath Falls, and run by the forest service, Strandberg said.
McLane said the outcome of this composting facility could have implications for other ODOT maintenance facilities in the state. If the compost center is successful, she said, the state might consider creating more facilities of this kind.
Until more facilities to depose of the carcasses are created, ODOT still needs the help of drivers.
Maintenance woman Berheim said if a dead animal is in a lane of travel, it would be helpful if drivers could pull the carcass to the roadside to prevent further road blockage.
However, drivers who remove roadkill could be convicted for unlawful possession of wildlife, Oregon State Police Lt. Andy Heider said. He said the only exception is for licensed fur-bearers during trapping season.
Hatch also encourages drivers to call the ODOT reporting line if they hit, or just see, roadkill.
"I think sometimes people are hesitant to call because they don't want to create a problem, but it's helpful for the state to know," Hatch said.
The ODOT reporting line for District 12 is 541-276-1241, and to report roadkill in the rest of northeastern Oregon call 541-963-3177.
ODOT roadkill reporting line 541-276-1241.