MISSOULA, Montana -- Times are so lean this winter that the state and its citizens are fighting over road kills.
For as long as anyone can remember, Montana has donated road-killed deer, elk, moose and even sometimes bears to the needy. But the director of the food bank that receives the most wildlife killed by vehicles says he suddenly has illegal competition.
"This fall, since it turned cold in October, I'd say at least 40 percent show up missing" when food bank crews arrive to scoop up the corpse, said Bill Davison, who operates the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell, 150 miles north of Missoula. The culprits, he suspects, are eavesdropping on road-kill reports over police radio scanners.
State law prohibits the taking of road-killed animals without permission. "Otherwise, how would we know it wasn't poached?" said Dale Graff, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks administrator in Helena.
"Most Montanans look at it and say, 'Gee, that's a good piece of meat and shouldn't go to waste,' " said wildlife officer Ed Kelly, who believes that a couple of hundred pounds of meat lying by the roadside may be all the more appealing during the recession.
"What we want them to do is call in so that it can go to the people who are most needy."
Despite the competition, the Kalispell food bank processed 4 1/2 tons of hamburger from road-killed animals this year. Everything goes into the grinder, said Mr. Davison, "because we can't give one person a steak, another a rump roast and another person ribs." It costs the food bank only 15 cents a pound for the processing -- a lot cheaper than the 60-cent cans of tuna most food banks distribute.
The road-kill business has its quirks: Montana suspends the meat-retrieval operation in the summer because the meat spoils too quickly by the roadside. It lays down guidelines about how long an animal can lie on the road before being taken for food.
The state doesn't bother with raccoons, rabbits and other small fare. Bears were recently struck from the edible road-kill list because they are more likely than other wildlife to be infected with bacteria.
Mr. Davison, who doesn't like the word "road kill," labels his burger "game," regardless of mammal or cut. He says his program has been copied by food banks in Michigan and is under consideration in other states.
Montana has long been an innovator in the fight against hunger; after game wardens take the roe from salmon for use in fish hatcheries, for example, they donate the fish, which would otherwise be wasted, to the needy.
Meanwhile, poachers of road kill, beware. Those involved in the Kalispell meat-donation program plan to ask the local sheriff to set up a sting operation to catch the body-snatchers.