Trappers are known to be a resourceful bunch - making good use of pretty much anything lying around. Occasionally, that includes what’s found while cruising the local roadways! Picking up car-struck critters, a term I’ve dubbed “roadkill salvage”, can have its benefits. It’s not just for trappers and fur handlers either - I’ve met many a non-hunting civilian who simply picked up a dead fisher or weasel for the novelty of a taxidermy piece. However, there are some considerations to think about before packing a potential asphalt critter pizza into the trunk.
Heck, road-kill has even become a business venture for local folks like Pam Paquin, who actively seeks out trappers and highway crews to acquire road-killed furbearers for use in her Boston-area clothing line Peace Furs. It makes sense - over one million animals are hit on U.S. highways each day according to reports; we should be making good use of at least a small chunk of that mortality.
But there’s certain prerequisites one must take into account before thinking there’s “gold in them there carcasses”.
I recall heading out to meet an eager new trapper at one of my locations to check on some beaver traps we’d placed the day before. On the way there, I came across an adult road-killed beaver lying just off the breakdown lane across from a swamp known for beaver activity. This was perfect - as we’d have something to skin even if I struck out at my beaver traps! I checked the carcass for any blood and hastily chucked the hefty bugger into the back of the truck.
Luckily we had plenty to skin. I spent the afternoon showing Ryan how to skin the pelt, remove the castor glands, and flesh the hide’s fat to get ready for stretching. I showed him choice cuts of meat off each healthy beaver as well. After processing a few of the fresh-caught fare, I figured I’d let Ryan handle the skinning on the roadkill specimen - after all, it was a warmer day, so I was unsure what kind of shape this critter was in. I figure it’s better to train the new folks on the roadkills, that way if they cut the hide to ribbons by mistake, it’s no big loss.
(Fair warning for any readers who just ate lunch, it gets a bit graphic from here.)
Ryan started by giving that beaver a slice right up the center to split the pelt. Typically when skinning an animal that’s been humanely trapped, there’s very little blood, and rarely any guts. In this case, it was clear the vehicular “predator” that forced this beaver to meet his maker managed a tire strike right across the midsection - as there was really little internal matter that remained intact. Ryan was determined to see this project through and not let this critter go to waste. As he continued skinning, the trauma and the gore got worse. It reached a point where it became difficult to visually determine hide from all the internal intestinal “minced meat”. About 3/4’s of the way through - I convinced Ryan to throw in the towel (and the pelt) and donate the beaver’s remnants to the local bobcat population.
Usually when I pick up roadkill, I’m searching for blood or signs of trauma. I learned early on in my fur handling career that friends will bring you just about anything they find on the roads when they know you’re a fur processor. The mess, and the stink, is seldom worth it with pelt prices the way they currently are.
It’s a large gamble when picking up roadkill, but if the conditions are right - utilization of roadkill can be excellent use of an animal that will otherwise go to waste. It can also make you a little money depending on the species.
Heres some pointers when trying to figure out whether a roadkill critter is worth the time in the fur shed.
The first thing I look for when considering picking up roadkill is the overall appearance of the critter in question. Is there any blood? Blood, especially a moderate amount, tends to signal signs of trauma. Trauma tends to signal signs of mashed up innards that I want nothing to do with. As mentioned above, I’ve been fooled before of course! Obviously the signs of whether a road killed animal is salvageable can be observed from a distance. If there’s any signs of flesh, this is typically warning sign number two that tells me to keep my foot on the gas pedal.
You’d be surprised how many animals are “hit clean” by speeding vehicles. Keep in mind, you’re only removing the hide, so as long as the mortal trauma has taken place under the skin, internally, you should be in good shape to skin the animal with minimal gore-factor involved. No blood, rubbing of fur, or clear signs of compound injury means it’s probably worth me taking home and investigating further.
Time, Temperature and Season
Even if the animal appears to be intact and “in good shape”, there’s unseen factors that need to be taken into account. Typically, I pick up roadkill from areas I drive regularly. This ensures that I know (roughly) how long the animal’s remains have been lying there. Here in New Hampshire, the old Yankee ingenuity still runs strong, so it’s common for roadkill “in good shape” to be quickly picked up by curious motorists, highway crews, and other trappers - meaning those critters don’t hang around long.
With that said, a majority of the animals I acquire are tanned and kept for personal use, or donated for education purposes later on. If the road-killed specimen has been dead and baking in the sun for too long on the asphalt, it’s likely the internal decomposition process has taken place - resulting in slippage of the hair after tanning. Slippage results when the decomposition process has already started before removal of the hide. You may not notice during skinning, but once that pelt is tanned, the hair and fur will fall out in patchy areas. This process is heightened by the temperature - an animal killed in 13 degree weather has a slightly longer shelf life than one killed in 90 degrees. Insects are also prevalent at higher temps, speeding up decomposition.
Fur is considered “prime” based on daylight length. Meaning the pelt from an animal taken in December is going to be more useful and thicker than that of one taken in, say, April or June. Pelts from mid-July are seldom worth the hassle - or the stink!
You don’t want to end up with the same fate as your prized roadkill. The most important factor to take into account is obviously your own safety. Determining the safety and retrieval of said carcass is pretty self explanatory - either you determine the risk is low, or you determine the risk isn’t worth it. I always lean on the side of letting sleeping roadkill lie - no critter is worth risking your life, someone else’s life, or a freeway pileup. Period.
I recall discovering a beautiful large male fisher dead on the side of New Hampshire’s busiest highway years ago. I quickly made note of the nearest mile marker, took the next exit, turned around and went back to the scene to resurvey. Upon driving by again, I realized several factors - the animal was dead in the left lane shoulder (usually the faster traveling lane), on a sharp bend (which would explain why the animal was hit), and at a transition zone where the speed increases to 70mph. Needless to say, that fisher could have had $100 bills sticking out of its backside - I still wasn’t going to risk joining it in the asphalt afterlife. I’ve come across two dead fisher this year on New Hampshire’s highways - both “left lane” strikes, and both not worth the safety risk.
I’ve hopped guardrails and tumbled down highway shoulders in the past to retrieve discarded fare from highway departments, but never, and I mean never, would I ever risk a left lane shoulder retrieval for an animal hide. I suggest curious readers heed my advice.
In these instances, it’s best to befriend some folks on the local highway DOT crew to do your scouting and retrieval for you.
Of course, if safety isn’t you major concern, there’s laws put in place to prohibit your stupidity either way. Most highways have warning signs posting “emergency stopping only”. Good luck trying to convince the local state trooper that your $3 raccoon carcass was an emergency.
Keep in mind just because it’s dead doesn’t mean it’s yours. Many states dictate that road-killed wildlife (technically taken out of season), are considered “property of the state” once succumbing to their injuries. In New Hampshire, for example, it is illegal to pick up roadkill according to state agencies. Exceptions include the holding of a valid trapping license for use of fur.
Any hides that require tagging still need to be called into local Fish and Game law enforcement. This is especially true with CITES tags for otter and bobcat. Deer and other big game also require the proper reporting before removal.
Its always a good idea to read up on your local laws before picking up roadkill.
Sadly, the “growing pains” of human progression and traffic is our gain. Usage of wasted wildlife is a good alternative to leaving a potentially good fur pelt to bloat and degrade on the side of the road. While I’m wary of the activity, it certainly has its place, when circumstances arise, in the sustainable use category of good conservation.