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Who owns roadkill? Alaska highway robbery deprives needy

The Alaska Moose Federation is troubled by recent thefts of roadkill moose, which are owned by the state and distributed to Alaska's soup kitchens and other food pantries as food, a legal practice in some form in at least 14 states. 

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    A car stops to allow a moose to cross Westpark Drive in Anchorage, Alaska, on Nov. 1, 2013. Moose killed along the Alaska road system are salvaged and donated to people on the Alaska State Troopers' 'charity lis' but the Alaska Moose Federation says all or parts of three recently killed moose have been stolen.
    Dan Joling/AP/File
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It might be considered a useful, if somewhat stomach-turning, public service in some places: removing large animals killed by vehicles from the road to butcher the carcasses for meat.

But Alaska considers that stealing.

Alaska is one of several states that systematically turns the animals killed on its highways – particularly moose – into a food source for its hungry citizens.

An adult moose can weigh as much as 1,650 pounds and produce 560 pounds of fresh meat for soup kitchens and others who need the extra protein. If a moose has the misfortune of colliding with a fast-moving semi, Alaska's fridge-cold climate tends to naturally preserve the meat before it is picked up by state troopers, processed, and then delivered to vetted recipients.

"In Arizona, something like this might not work because of the spoilage factor," Alaska Moose Federation director Don Dyer told the Associated Press. "Here, where the climate is cooler, we're able to salvage the meat quickly enough so that it's not spoiled."

Alaska state troopers received a federal grant for their moose reclamation program in 2012. The troopers have pick-up trucks with large ramp systems to help them collect the massive animals and get them to the butchers quickly. They receive $200 a moose for retrieval, which they say can actually save them time in the long-run.

"At 3 o'clock in the morning at 30 below [F.] in February, you might have a group of grandmothers out there cutting up a moose on the side of the road in a snow storm with kitchen knives, and the officer would have to sit there for an hour or two hours while they're cutting up this moose, protecting them from traffic," Trooper Dyer told the AP.

Roadkill thieves who stole two reported moose last winter and absconded with two more before troopers arrived this summer not only waste the troopers' time but also deprive those who could benefit from the nourishment.  

"Sometimes there will be 10 people waiting for this moose to be delivered," Dyer told the AP. "Then we have to call them up and say, 'Sorry, this moose has been stolen.' "

Alaska is not the only state to try and put its roadkill to good use. Wisconsin, New York, Florida, West Virginia, and Illinois have salvage laws similar to Alaska's, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and eight other states have some other variation of roadkill legislation.

In Montana, for example, legislators decided that giving motorists a license to roadkill was the best way to clean up highways and ensure the fresh meat isn't wasted, Patrik Jonsson wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. People who accidentally hit and kill an animal on the road have 24 hours to apply for a free "salvage permit" and the bacon – or jerky, perhaps? – is theirs to take home. They call the diet "freeganism."

"It really is a sin to waste a good meat," state Sen. Larry Jent, a Bozeman Democrat, told the AP.

Even Arizona and New Mexico, lacking the natural freezer effect of the Last Frontier, do not waste their roadkill. Both states' wildlife officers collect roadside deer and elk to feed the reintroduced Mexican wolf population. 

With an estimated 1.5 million deer alone killed annually in accidental collisions, even states without laws designed to move animals from pavement to pantry may have de facto salvage practices, especially in rural areas. Although the enterprising bipartisan cohort behind Tennessee's "roadkill bill" lost their case to gales of laughter, law officers assured hungry Tennesseans that they would not file charges for "possession of roadkill with intent to eat."

This report contains material for the Associated Press.

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