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Legislators file bills to force MoDOT to clear deer carcasses

by Ryan Pivoney | January 27, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

The presence of dead deer along Missouri's roads has become an increasingly noticeable issue.

"They're an eyesore. They are a public nuisance because they are rotting. They stink, they're rotting, they're decaying," said Rep. Kent Haden, R-Mexico, adding that he passed five Thursday morning on his way to Jefferson City. "They have the potential to be a health hazard -- or they are -- and they certainly have the potential of being road hazards."

Haden is one of two members in the Missouri House sponsoring legislation that would require the Missouri Department of Transportation to remove and bury large wildlife found dead on highways, roads, shoulders and right-of-ways. The other bill is sponsored by Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood.

The two bills -- HB 404 and HB 501 -- are identical and received a hearing Thursday morning in the House Transportation Accountability Committee.

Under the proposals, MoDOT would be responsible for removing animals large enough to impede traffic and be required to bury the carcass at least 3 feet deep at a state conservation site. The Missouri Department of Conservation, responsible for managing deer and wildlife in the state, would pay MoDOT for the associated costs at an estimated rate of $305 per head.

MoDOT would clear large animals like deer, elk and bear. Dogs and foxes would not be included, Haden said. The bills don't stipulate how long the department would have to clear deer carcasses. Haden noted, however, that state law for farmers with, say, a dead cow on the road is 24 hours.

Rep. Don Mayhew, a Crocker Republican and chair of the Transportation Accountability Committee, asked about burying the dead animals in landfills or superfund sites or allowing local jurisdictions to be contracted for the work.

"I wouldn't be upset," Haden responded. "I just want them gone."

Jay Wunderlich, MoDOT's director of governmental relations, testified on the bills Thursday and said loss of manpower and the prevalence of chronic wasting disease are to blame for MoDOT no longer removing roadkill.

"The dead deer is probably the perfect storm," he said.

Wunderlich said the department picks up dead deer as it can, particularly if the carcass presents a health or safety issue. If it's along the road, he said crews will leave the carcass on the right-of-way to decompose naturally. The Conservation Department doesn't want MoDOT to move carcasses too far so it can better manage chronic wasting disease, he said.

Chronic wasting disease is a deadly disease for deer and elk. There haven't been any cases in humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but precautions should be taken to prevent infected animals from entering the human food chain.

Haden, a former epidemiologist for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said the potential spread of the disease is not enough of a reason to stop clearing deer from roadways.

Haden and Brown said they were spurred to sponsor legislation by the urging of constituents.

Brown, the ranking Democrat on the House committee overseeing conservation, said she frequently gets calls reporting dead deer along highways. One constituent reported hitting a buzzard with their car because it was eating a deer on the side of the road, she said.

Haden said he recently heard from constituents at church.

"Suddenly, a quiet, normally 25-person Sunday school class turned into a pitchfork and torches meeting," he said. "And their question was: 'Why don't we do something about these dead deer on the road?'"

Mayhew said the number of constituent calls he gets about dead deer on highways is fast approaching the number of calls he gets about the Department of Revenue, which is in charge of taxes.

Rep. Michael Johnson, a Kansas City Democrat and the ranking minority member of the Transportation Accountability Committee, said he had at least three voicemails about dead deer during the past couple days.

"This is truly a constituent bill," Brown said. "When constituents call you and tell you how disgusted they are, and they're from all over the state, it's time for us to do something."

Haden said lawmakers tried to pass similar legislation about four years ago. It was discussed in a hearing and the Legislature was assured by the two departments that the issue would be taken care of, he recalled.

Mayhew, who was also present during that hearing, said the issue is worse than it was four years ago, when a former lawmaker counted 75 dead deer from Moberly to Columbia.

Wunderlich said MoDOT is down about 300 maintenance workers and 800 incarcerated workers who were used to pick up dead animals and trash along highways. MoDOT still has about 150 incarcerated crews signed up for the work, he said.

Wunderlich said the number of incarcerated crews is down because of prison releases amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Life's all about choices and this is what this is -- a choice," Wunderlich said, adding the department has to choose between clearing dead deer and fixing potholes. He said it's not a good use of taxpayer dollars to focus on dead deer all day.

Rep. Michael Burton, D-Lakeshire, expressed concern about adding responsibilities to MoDOT amid its staffing crisis.

The bill sponsors suggested the department could contract the work out, and likely for cheaper than $305 per deer.

A fiscal note attached to the bills estimates it would cost the Conservation Commission approximately $915,000 per year, with funds going to MoDOT as reimbursement.

Since 2014, MoDOT has tracked a peak of 3,000 deer disposals per year, with disposal costing around $250 per deer. The fiscal note was based on a 4 percent inflationary increase, raising the cost per disposal to $305, applied to 3,000 deer per year.

The cost primarily comes from the two or three employees it takes to set up a safety zone along the highway to remove the deer, Wunderlich said.

Brown said the commissions, which are supported by state tax dollars, have the funding, based on budget amounts carried over from year to year. The Conservation Commission had a surplus of about $43 million carried over from last year, she added.

Haden said the presence of dead deer on roadways presents an economic issue as tourists and businesses visiting Missouri may be "turned off."

Brown noted high-profile sporting events will be located in Missouri this year and said she doesn't want them to be scared away by the dead deer.

"How many of them want to look at a decaying, rotten carcass with odor?" Haden asked. "What does that damage the state of Missouri? In my opinion, it's very damaging."

Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, sits on the committee and said dead deer shouldn't be an issue lawmakers craft legislation around.

"Both the conservation and the highway departments have some highly skilled employees -- they have accountants, they have lawyers, they even have people with common sense," Veit said. "It seems to me this is a fairly simple problem that they ought to be able to get together and settle between the two of them without us spending time here."

Haden opened his remarks Thursday recognizing lawmakers "shouldn't be needing to have this hearing," but said it was necessary because of "territorialism among two commission groups."

"It's a food fight and somebody's going to have to say what's good for the state of Missouri and who's going to do it," he said.

Mayhew said he understands MoDOT has a staffing shortage, but "we've spent more time talking about dead deer and feral hogs in this building than it would have took to pick the dead deer up."

"Sooner or later, the talk's got to quit," he said.

The Missouri Farm Bureau testified in favor of the bills. No one testified in opposition Thursday.

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