Spokane County workers pick up a lot of dead critters along the side of the road. Skunks, porcupine, raccoons.
"We occasionally get a call for a chipmunk or ground squirrel, but we ignore those," says Wayne Storey, the county's operations and maintenance superintendent. "Even a halibut from the coast. We were one smelly bunch."
Storey has tales to tell, but the one he recounts the most deals with deer. He estimates he and his workers gather up to 500 dead deer a year, costing the county more than $50,000. That's a lot of deer, and amazingly Storey and his crew are only one of three agencies collecting the wild victims of ungulate-vehicle collisions within the county's borders.
The Washington Department of Transportation also picks up thousands of road-kill deer carcasses annually in its eastern region. The department spent almost $500,000 in the last year and a half in this endeavor. SpokAnimal, in its function as the City of Spokane's animal control, picks up about 30 deer a year.
According to a State Farm Insurance report released this month, the chances that a vehicle in Washington or Idaho will hit a deer have gone up in the last five years. In Idaho's case, way up -- 31 percent up. Now, on the roads of the Gem State, a vehicle has a 1-in-273 chance of hitting a deer. Washington drivers have a 1-in-516 chance for the same feat.
"The reason it's increased is more rubber on asphalt," says Kim Just, wildlife and habitat coordinator for the Idaho Transportation Department. "That and more development. The wildlife gets crowded in smaller and smaller areas."
Just points to the McArthur Lake area as a "hotspot." Designated as a wildlife corridor in a national forest, the area hosts more than 6,000 cars a day on a major highway and has two busy railroads. The intersection of all this traffic, human and animal, inevitably leads to some collisions. Just says there's a plan to fix the conglomeration of pathways there, involving an underpass for the moving fauna, but it's being held up by a lack of funding. He also notes that it's not the migrating animals that are getting hit. "By and large, it's generally local herds wandering around, doing what they do."
What they do has a lot to do with what we do, says Mike Petersen, executive director for the Lands Council. "Anyone will tell you that we have more white-tailed deer and that's because they thrive on things that we do," he says. "Go out to Colville and you'll see more deer and you'll definitely see more development."
In Washington, the deer population numbers about 320,000. Idaho has about 500,000 deer. Being the nature lovers they are, deer dwell in forests and are drawn to clearings. Clearing like meadows and fields. Or, say, where the forest ends and pavement begins.
OK, you might be thinking: Let's just up the number of hunters and thin the population. After all, the deer are responsible for 1.5 million accidents in the entire country, resulting in 150 fatalities and $1.1 billion in property damage. They caused 11,000 accidents last year in Washington alone. And the Idaho Transportation Department says that vehicles kill more deer than hunters do.
But it's not as easy as dispatching more gun-toting hunters. In fact, a 2006 report in the Journal of Wildlife Management suggests that hunting is a contributing factor in the large number of deer-caused accidents. "Hunting activity by humans causes an increase in daily movement activities and changes in home range for white-tailed deer," says the article. "Motorists should be informed about an increased probability of encountering deer on roadways during the first two weeks of November due to movements associated with ... opening day of deer-hunting season."
Another report, released earlier this year by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, drew a similar conclusion. "Deer may increase their movement to avoid hunters, increasing the likelihood of their being near or crossing highways," says the report, noting that almost 15,000 deer were removed from Washington highways between 2000 and 2004.
But the numbers of hunters in Idaho and Washington don't support these reports. As the numbers of collisions rose dramatically in Idaho, the amount of deer tags stayed steady. In 2002, 125,000 tags were issued. Five years later, the number of tags barely increased to 127,000. In Washington the increase was similar. In 2002, hunters were issued 207,000 licenses. It went to 209,000 in 2007.
Regardless of the cause, the dead deer have to go somewhere. Some go to the rendering plant or local landfill. Some are buried in "deer pits" out in the woods. Some of the fresher kills used to go to the mouths of the homeless or inmates through "gleaner" programs, but that's been stopped. (Almost-road kill -- the badly injured but still living -- are put down and given to the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. The meat is butchered and donated to the Union Gospel Mission.) Other dead deer head just north of Spokane.
"We put the deer in, cover them with some material, turn it in 40 days, cover them again and start the process over again," says Al Gilson, spokesman for the eastern region of the state DOT. "After 80 days, they are gone ... We're down to nothing but maybe some bone chips."
This newest practice -- cheap, quick and easy -- is catching on. It's a self-continuing cycle, a feedback loop. After the first few deer are broken down, their remains create the "material" Gilson refers to, which is made from, as he says, "the aforementioned ungulate." The Spokane road kill compost pile, built two years ago, processes more than 1,000 deer a year. It's similar to one in Montana, which took the idea from one in New York. Now Washington has two facilities and Oregon built its first this year.
The product from this process is dark, earthy and full of nutrients -- perfect for starting a garden. Gilson and his crew are using it along the sides of state roads to feed the native vegetation they plant. Who knows, someday that compost might help a little flower to grow. A scrumptious little flower bud just right for a hungry deer. Right alongside a busy road.