It was right around dusk, and as I was driving the winding two-lane Highway 90 (which later turns into Highway 145) between Moab and Telluride, I passed clusters of deer on the sides of the road every few minutes. I knew sunset was the classic time for deer to be out, and I had already avoided one collision with big game when I came around a corner and had to slow to a near stop until a doe stopped looking at my headlights and scampered out of the lane.
I had just passed Naturita (population 530) when a couple of cars rounded a turn and came toward me in the opposing lane, their lights beaming straight through my windshield. Suddenly, a doe came running from the opposing lane into mine in order to get out of the way of those oncoming cars. I had a second to react before colliding with it. My SUV reverberated with a bone-crunching thump, and the animal passed underneath my front carriage and right between the wheels.
I pulled over, as did a truck behind me, driven by a middle-aged guy wearing flannel and a trucker's cap. We approached the dead deer in the middle of the road and both verified that it was, in fact, very dead. “Well, at least you did ’er in clean,” the truck driver observed with a drawl.
We dragged the carcass off to the side of the road, and the man revealed that he had hit three (three!) deer this year alone along the same stretch of highway, over which he commutes for work. I noticed that his Ford F-350 had a large steel bar affixed to the front, a veritable deer-killing battering ram. “And you know the worst part of it?” the man said. “You can't even bring the meat home.”
I nodded as if this were gospel truth, but later, when I brought up the story with co-workers in Denver, some swore you could bring home roadkill and cook up whatever venison wasn't already pulverized by your car — as long as you went through some kind of permitting process.
Curious about the exact rules and statistics around roadkill in Colorado, I contacted Colorado Parks and Wildlife to find out how — and when — you can bring home animals felled by motorists. CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski was kind enough to give me a full crash course (pun intended).
Colorado is actually one of 27 states where it is legal to harvest meat from roadkill, though it's not as simple as taking the meat home after you've processed it with your bumper. According to Lewandowski, if you want to harvest meat from a deer or elk or moose carcass (or anything bigger than a raccoon or skunk — you don't have to worry about reporting those), you should call the nearest Colorado Parks and Wildlife field office within 48 hours and let them know that you took some or all of the animal carcass home. "Then we ask that, within a reasonable amount of time, like a week or two, you come in to your nearest office and get a permit," Lewandowski continues.
The permit is free, but will require you to describe where and when you picked up the roadkill, if you were responsible for hitting it, and what kind of animal and gender it was (deer vs. elk, buck vs. doe).
"That's only if you pick it up," Lewandowski qualifies. "If you hit something and drive off, you don't need to call.”
CPW requires permits because it provides the department with some data that slightly affects how many deer and elk hunting tags it issues for regions throughout the state each year. The permits also hedge against poaching.
“Some people may poach a deer and — we've had this happen — we catch wind of it and they say, 'Well, I hit it with my car,'" Lewandowski notes, then adds if that person hadn't obtained a roadkill permit, it casts doubt on the hitting-the-deer-with-a-car explanation.
Still, even though there's a legal process for taking home roadkill — which applies even if it's not an animal you ran into yourself but found after someone else hit it with their vehicle — Lewandowski advises people against harvesting meat unless they really know how to field-dress an animal.
“You hit a deer and it's devastating. You've got internal organs blowing up and stomach contents going out on the meat and edible parts,” he says. "It's okay for people who know what they're doing — and it helps to have the right tools in your car — but it's still a lot of work. You're probably better off going to buy some meat at the grocery store. Other people cut up roadkill and give it to their dogs."
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And some people will just cut off the backstrap or a hind quarter of a deer or elk that was killed by a car, and that's totally fine as long as you let CPW know when you call the agency within 48 hours and explain that the rest of the carcass is still by the road. (Remember, you'll need to visit the office within a week to fill out a permit, as well.)
Lewandowski does advise against trying to move an animal off the road that's not dead. "If you hit a deer, some people get upset and go out and think they can do something for the animal. But please don't approach an animal if it's hit and it's still alive,” he says. “It's going to die. And they're unpredictable. Adrenaline hits and they could run back across the road or kick you. So if you hit one, that's a bummer, but don't try to do anything. They're not going to live long, and they won't be suffering too bad if they're smacked pretty good. And other critters — coyotes and birds and bugs — will clean it up within a couple days."
The latest data available, from 2017, shows that deer and elk are by far the most common animals to become roadkill. In 2017, Colorado Department of Transportation road crews counted 4,117 roadkill deer and 356 elk. A full accounting (including other animals like skunks and raccoons) broken up by region can be found here.
Remember, calling CPW and then going to an office to fill out a permit is only required if you take big-game roadkill home with you. For most people who hit a large animal, Lewandowski says, “your first call is probably going to be to your insurance company."