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Friday, February 23, 2024

Bill Would Change Procedure for Reporting, Collecting Roadkill

In some areas, it's called "speed beef"

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

Have you ever wondered what happens to roadkill, like deer, after it’s been struck by a vehicle? 

Under a proposed bill from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, you might be able to take it home with you for dinner.

Lawmakers are weighing a pair of bills that would modify the state’s hunting laws and how it manages the local deer population. The first bill, H7358, would empower DEM to revise its wildlife salvage procedures and collect data on other large species of wildlife, like turkeys, that are often victims of collisions with vehicles.

Under state law, any driver who strikes a deer with a vehicle is required to report it to a conservation officer — a relic of when the law was written, according to DEM; these days claims are handled by the department’s environmental police officers — before they can legally take possession of it.

“Let’s say I hit a deer with my pickup truck, I threw it in the back and I got stopped driving home,” said Mike Woods, chair of the New England Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, on the current procedure.

“An environmental police officer would really have no way to know whether I had gone through the current legal process, or whether I had poached the deer. That’s a serious wildlife issue when somebody takes wildlife illegally.”

The current process can be onerous and time-consuming, both for the environmental police and anyone who hits a deer, and could result in a serious amount of wasted food that could otherwise be safely consumed.

But enforcement and compliance with current environmental regulations, and obtaining the necessary staffing and funding for those actions, has been a struggle for DEM for decades. The department’s legislative liaison, Ryan Mulcahey, told lawmakers in a House Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing this month that the current process was too restrictive for the department, and saddled the environmental police unit with work only they could perform.

“We’d like to take the burden off our law enforcement team,” Mulcahey said. “By changing the law so the report has to go to DEM, that covers us. If, for example, the Division of Fish and Wildlife wants to take reports, we would be covered to do so under state law.”

Deer strikes happen more than people think, Woods said. According to the latest deer harvest report from last year’s hunting season, DEM received 1,544 reports of deer strikes by automobiles, a 20% increase over the previous hunting season. That’s in addition to the 2,705 deer hunters reported harvesting in the same hunting season.

“Basically, every two deer that hunters kill in Rhode Island, one vehicle kills another deer,” Woods said. “It’s a pretty consistent ratio year-to-year.”

Rhode Island’s number of deer strikes is almost on par with Massachusetts. In the same time frame, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife reported 1,806 deer strikes with automobiles. That’s compared with about 15,000 total deer harvested statewide.

Another bill being weighed by lawmakers would also have big potential impacts for the state’s deer population. A ban on captive hunting (H7294), the process of importing different species of wildlife to hunt in enclosed areas for sport.

It’s not really a common practice in Rhode Island. The prohibition bill, which has been reintroduced almost annually into the General Assembly since the COVID-19 pandemic, is aimed at proactively squashing the practice before it starts.

There was some movement in 2018 to legalize the practice. ecoRI News reported in 2019 that the bill was introduced at the behest of The Preserve at Boulder Hills Club and Residences, a private sporting club occupying hundreds of acres in Richmond that bills itself as “Rhode Island’s most exclusive residential community.”

But bills to legalize captive hunting failed to pass the General Assembly in both 2018 and 2019, while bills banning the practice have been gaining ground. Last year the legislation was approved by a full vote of the House, but failed to get out of the Senate’s Environment Committee.

For supporters of the ban, it’s a wildlife disease issue. Despite the name, there’s no real guarantee that any captive wildlife imported into the state stays in captivity, and an escaped animal could spread an illness, such as chronic wasting disease (CWD), that has no presence in the state.

While the threat to humans from CWD is minimal, once introduced into Rhode Island’s deer population it could have a significant environmental and economic impact. DEM obtains the necessary financial resources to monitor and manage state wildlife by selling hunting licenses. Local businesses rely on selling tags and other goods to hunters. Hunters have little interest in pursuing diseased game.

CWD was first detected in the United States in the mid-1980s in free-ranging deer and elk in Colorado and Wyoming. Today, the disease has been detected in 21 states, but has yet to be found in New England.

Meanwhile, Woods, who has been the chief advocate on the captive hunting ban, said he’s “very optimistic” about the legislation’s chances this year. The bill has not received real public testimony opposing it since 2021. For Woods, it now comes down to changing the hearts and minds of legislators about something they may not know anything about.

“Generally speaking, hunting issues are something that most legislators may be unfamiliar with,” he said. “For them to put their stamp of approval on something, I think they want to be familiar with the need for the bill and what its effects are.”

Both bills have been held for further study.