Messy, stinky road kill makes clean up tough duty for road crews
COLUMBIA - Mike Rutter did not seem thrilled. In the year he's been with the Missouri Department of Transportation, he usually works on road signs - Boone County alone has about 10,000 signs that need to be maintained, updated and repaired, he said.
But that morning he was to discharge one of MODOT's most vile, yet least appreciated duties: disposing of the road kill that inevitably accumulates along the nearly 34,000 miles of Missouri roadway. Rutter needed to retrieve the deer from the Jefferson City area and bring them up to MODOT's maintenance shed in Columbia, where the incinerator was waiting.
Every year, between 5,000 and 6,000 deer deaths caused by vehicle collisions are reported in Missouri, according to Jason Sumners, resource scientist at the Missouri Department of Conservation. Those collisions kill only a small fraction of the total herd, which is estimated to be a little more than a million deer. The herd has diminished somewhat over the past five years, and fewer deer mean fewer deer-vehicle collisions. But accidents still occur and still produce plenty of carcasses that need to be dealt with.
The peak period for deer-vehicle collisions is October and November. Those months encompass deer breeding season, when bucks in rut are more active and likely to travel long distances in search of does. Shorter days also mean more drivers commute at dawn and dusk, when deer are most active.
The conservation department has supplied funding for MODOT to buy about 15 deer incinerators, used to dispose of animal carcasses. Using those funds, they've already purchased nine, including one now kept at the Columbia shed. A squat, somewhat sinister black box lined in firebrick, the incinerator burns diesel and can torch up to 100 pounds of carrion per hour. It is an efficient and effective way to dispose of deer, Sumners said.
Other methods of handling road kill have limitations: Dumping a deer at the landfill costs about $20; their bodies can be composted, but the composted remains can spread diseases; and leaving the bodies on site could cause additional accidents even if the remains are off the road.
Kelly Straka, conservation department wildlife veterinarian, said the presence of a dead animal along a roadway can produce a domino effect: Dogs, hawks, owls and other scavengers attracted to the remains could themselves be hit by passing vehicles. If the animal remains on the roadway, beetles and other small carrion-eaters could have trouble reaching the body, slowing the process of decomposition and prolonging passersby's exposure to unsavory odors.
The incinerator offers a swift, sanitary alternative.
At the maintenance shed on Paris Road, Rutter hitched a bright yellow trailer to one of MODOT's white Ford trucks and pulled onto Highway 63 toward Jefferson City.
It was a fine morning for a drive - hawks on round bales soaked in the sun's warmth; sprinklers pirouetted across vast acres of sod. But idyllic though the morning was, somewhere ahead waited the mangled bodies of two dead deer.
"I'm going to get my hands dirty today," Rutter said.
Before joining MODOT, he ran a mobile car-crushing service. He'd set up shop at junkyards around the state and flatten cars that had been stripped of their usable parts.
It was a blast, he said, but the days and weeks away from his family wore on him, and he longed for a more stationary, stable job. When the gig with MODOT came along, he took it and hasn't looked back since. Mostly.
"I'm just hoping these deer are all in one piece," he said. "I can kill a deer, and I can gut a deer, but this is different."
MODOT runs another maintenance facility near Jefferson City, but because Columbia has the closest incinerator, the capital crew sends its deer north for disposal. That day, MODOT had arranged for the Jefferson City crew to collect the bodies and leave them for Rutter at their shed.
But when he arrived, the place was completely vacant. Rutter drove around the compound looking for corpses among the road equipment and construction supplies.
After about 10 minutes, a van pulled up hauling a long flatbed trailer equipped with an outhouse, several tanks and the swollen body of a doe. Rutter had arrived before his cargo.
More surprises awaited. He'd been promised two deer, but the second had vanished before the crew picked it up. It's not unusual for people to abscond with road-killed deer, Rutter said, especially the bucks. Sometimes the crew will find deer with their heads cut off or their antlers sawn away. Road kill makes for easy trophies.
Rutter and a man from the van donned gloves and dragged the deer from the flatbed into the Columbia-bound trailer.
Her left hind leg was shattered, her abdomen distended. She left a smear of blood from her muzzle on the weathered boards of the flatbed. She smelled.
After the doe was loaded, Rutter washed his hands and rinsed off his shoes with a hose. He climbed into the cab and headed north, back toward the shed and the incinerator.
"It's definitely pungent," he said.
Rich Skelton, a maintenance crew leader in Columbia, said their shed disposes of nearly 100 deer a year. This fall is the first time they've used the incinerator during the peak season for deer-vehicle collisions.
To prevent more deer winding up in the incinerator, Sumners suggests using high beams when possible and keeping an eye on the ditches on both sides of the road. Should a deer appear, don't swerve to avoid it: Most injuries occur when drivers lose control trying to dodge deer, not when they hit them.
Back in Columbia, Rutter drove up to the incinerator, and he and a coworker, Brian Hulett, opened the twin doors.
Inside lay a small heap of carbon and bones that turned to powder at a touch. The incinerator can accommodate two deer at once, and when it's running, the contents need to be stirred every 30 to 60 minutes.
Rutter and Hulett used a front-end loader to dump the doe into the incinerator. They pulled her to one end, closed the doors and lit the burner. Smoke and ash billowed briefly from under the doors, then nothing, save for the heat rippling the air around the box.
Rutter watched for a few minutes, and then he walked away.