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Why isn't road kill picked up on a timely basis across Michigan?

Amy Beth Edwards posed this question to our MI Curious team:

Why doesn't road kill get picked up on a timely basis in Michigan?

Edwards says she sees dead animals so often along her commutes to Chicago that she had to know why they're all there.

Credit Lindsey Scullen/Michigan Radio
Question asker, Amy Beth Edwards

Edwards and I started looking for the answer on a five-mile stretch of M-14 where we saw seven dead animals. That seemed like a lot to me, but Edwards says that’s pretty normal.

“There’s one, ok,” she says. “Almost unidentifiable, but I think that was a raccoon.”

I looked into her question and it turns out road kill in Michigan is sort of like a game of hot potato. Most people don’t want to deal with it.

County road commissions are responsible for 75% of roads in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Transportation is responsible for the highly trafficked state roads and highways, but they pass off three quarters of those roads to road commissions too.

That leaves road commissions with a lot of ground to cover.

Riding with the Deer Sheriff

I talked to the top 20 county road commissions for car-deer crashes so far this year.

At number two, Kent County stood out among the rest. They employ one guy to pick up road kill full time. No other county I talked to does that.

I went to visit Andy Albertson. He’s a driver for the Kent County Road Commission. 

His nickname? “Deer Sheriff.”

Albertson had just started his truck when his phone started ringing.

“Yeah Murph, go ahead,” he says. “Forty two hundred of 60th? That’s in the road?”

It’s the first rush hour victim of the day.

Credit Lindsey Scullen/Michigan Radio
Albertson's "pick tickets." He makes a list of the day's pickups each morning.

“Mondays are normally a little busier in the dead deer department, especially in the fall,” Albertson says. “So I’ll go out, make my list. I put the — I call them pick tickets — on the window, like a short order cook.”

He’s talking about a couple large sticky notes he puts on his windshield. There are nine animals to grab today.

“It is, Linds, a strange way to make a living,” he says. “But I see it as a very positive public service. I mean people have issues with the road commission — you know, this, that, we’re not doing this, we should do this. My service, no one ever complains. They’re happy to see me show up.”

We turn onto 60th street.

“See it? See that big mark in the road?” he says. “Yeah, that’s us.”

We pull over.

Albertson puts on a fresh pair of gloves, and hops out of the truck.

He grabs what’s left of the animal by the leg and pulls it into the back.

One down, eight to go.

The cost of road kill pickup 

Kent County’s road commission spends about $100,000 on road kill every year.

Credit Lindsey Scullen/Michigan Radio
Albertson picks up road kill from 7 a.m. until 2 or 3 p.m. most days. After working his way around the county, he ends the day at the landfill on the south side.

This allows them to pick up around 2,000 animals.

The other road commissions I talked to don’t do that. They say they don’t have the money. In fact, five of them pass the road kill responsibility off to Animal Control or Sheriff’s Departments.

Denise Donnahue is the Director of the County Road Association of Michigan.

She says road commissions across the state are in a tight spot — they’ve lost employees and a majority of Michigan roads are not in good condition.

“So I think, as we think about our roads, certainly road kill is a nuisance, it’s important, but yet we have a large, systemic problem here: taking care of our roads and preserving our roads and so forth,” Donnahue says.

Her group wants to pass road kill off to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

But DNR officials say that’s not their job.

They say they’re focused on preserving habitat and living species.

All of the road commissions I talked to move dead animals out of traffic, to the side of the road.

When resources and time allow, some then bury the large animals or take them to landfills.

But by and large, most just leave the animals on the shoulder. They say they can't pay to do anything else.