Turning deer into dirt 

A few miles north of Victor, near milepost 63 on U.S. Highway 93, is an unusual sort of burial ground. In plain view of thousands of motorists who pass by the Montana Department of Transportation’s deer composting site every day is a pile of 400 or so road-killed deer. But it’s not the grisly sight you might expect; in fact the pile looks suspiciously like a large mound of dirt.

Thanks to a new MDT program underway in the Bitterroot Valley that turns roadkill into compost, that’s pretty much what it is.

Scott Reeseman, the local MDT field supervisor, is the guy in charge of maintaining the compost site. Every day he buries three to 10 deer under a pile of compost, wood chips, sawdust and tree trimmings in one of several concrete composting bins. Last Monday he buried 11 deer killed on Bitterroot roadways over the weekend.

After about 10 days or so, the pile heats up to around 130 degrees Fahrenheit and the composting begins.

“It’s kind of like slow cooking a roast,” Reeseman says, his voice betraying a sense of pride mixed with amazement.

A few weeks later the piles cool off to around 100 degrees, and Reeseman knows it’s time to turn the piles. He repeats that process over time, and in about three months all that remains of the deer is rich compost, a few bone fragments and some hair.

“I was skeptical when we first started,” says Reeseman. “I thought, ‘this is going to be a real mess.’”

But Reeseman was soon sold on the process. Instead of hauling roadkill to remote areas to decompose, or spending the time and considerable expense to take the deer to a rendering plant or landfill in Missoula, composting has turned out to be the easiest and most effective method of disposing of the more than 500 deer killed on Bitterroot roads each year. The composting area is tidy and virtually odor free, and is expected to save MDT thousands of dollars a year.

“It’s a lot better than putting a pile of deer out in the woods somewhere to rot,” he says.

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