Cliff Kramer, a resort and restaurant owner in Moyie Springs, Idaho, was recently awarded $5,250 by a North Idaho jury for road kill moose meat that was improperly seized by Idaho Fish and Game agents more than three years ago and then mysteriously vanished when a judge told the state to give it back.
After delivering the verdict, the jury -- in a bold move -- was permitted to read a statement into the court record encouraging "... Fish and Game to conduct a serious review of their policies and procedures."
The case, dubbed the "Mystery of the Missing Moose Meat" during trial, marks the first time that Idaho Fish and Game has been ordered to return seized meat, or to pay when it couldn't find the road kill. "That's absolutely true. Fish and Game has never been ordered to give back meat it's seized, to my knowledge," deputy attorney general Cheri Bush says.
Now the state must decide how much per pound it wants to pay for road kill that nobody can even find any more. The state has until mid-January to appeal the $5,250 jury award, or it can set a precedent and simply cough up the cash.
Bush represented Fish and Game agent Greg Johnson in the civil suit, which ended Nov. 30 with an 11-1 jury decision that found Johnson acted "with gross negligence and reckless conduct" in his seizure and storage of the meat.
"We felt he overstepped his bounds as an officer," Kramer says. "We did it more for the principle than the money. I wish more people would stand up if they believe the government's wrong."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he moose meat had been evidence in a criminal case in which agents were conducting an undercover probe into rumors that Kramer was serving "mystery meat" at his Feist Creek Resort. Days earlier, on June 12, 2003, Kramer used his front-end loader to scoop the remains of a young bull moose -- run over, dragged and killed by trucks -- off the side of U.S. Highway 95.
Idaho State Police trooper Brian Zimmerman examined the 800- to 900-pound carcass hours before Kramer arrived and said it appeared unfit for consumption. "It was already tight. Bloaty tight," Zimmerman said at the time.
Kramer has said he intended to bury the carcass and just wanted to get it off the highway for safety's sake. But as he was digging the pit, he noticed the hindquarters appeared to be edible. So he did what any good Boundary County resident would do: He called his neighbors down for an impromptu barbecue and Moose Festival, then butchered and wrapped all the meat he could salvage.
Fish and Game began hearing rumors that moose was on the menu at the resort and brought in undercover agents from out of the area. The agents wrote unintentionally funny reports about nervously ordering the "shredded beef" special. The meat was not moose, testing revealed, yet Johnson raided and searched Kramer's resort and residence. Packages of moose meat, variously estimated at 100 to 300 pounds, were found in two freezers at Kramer's house. None was found in the restaurant.
A judge tossed the criminal case, ruling the state had abandoned the carcass and had no right to tell others not to eat it even though, as he wrote, "This court expresses no opinion on the wisdom of eating meat that may have been gleaned from a carcass that was run over multiple times by large trucks and left lying on asphalt for approximately 16 hours in temperatures exceeding 80 degrees."
When Johnson raided Feist Creek, testimony shows he pulled the meat from the freezers and left it out, potentially allowing it to thaw and spoil, and that he failed to properly tag the meat as evidence. The owner of a Bonners Ferry meat locker testified the moose meat -- with no visible evidence tags -- was likely tossed out with other unclaimed meats.
"When you grab criminal evidence, you've got to preserve it. You can't let it degrade," says Fred Gabourie, Kramer's attorney. "Johnson made the call that he didn't think the meat was edible. That's not his call to make."
Gabourie says Kramer still holds a Moose Festival on the weekend nearest the anniversary of that first road kill barbecue. The festival has become an outdoor celebration of wild game and music -- but unlike in John McPhee's story, "Travels in Georgia," road kill is no longer free.
Road Kill and You
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f you drive around with a knife and fork in the glovebox, be aware that it is illegal to possess road kill in Idaho and Washington. This is mainly to discourage poachers, says Mark Rhodes, district conservation officer for Idaho Fish and Game in Coeur d'Alene, "or every out-of-season deer would be road kill." The law is also meant to help motorists avoid the temptation of taking aim at animals. It's not always about food or splatter. "A ram bighorn sheep's head is worth a ton of money, and sheep aren't very smart," Rhodes says.