For roadkilled native animals, the problem is the solution.

It’s an iconic Australian sight – the solid dark mass of a dead wombat on the side of a dusty country road, one stout leg thrown up as if in warning to other animals.

One every now and then, sure, but the sheer number of roadkill deaths hit me as we drove from Canberra to my parents’ place with my brother last week – kangaroos and wombats in various stages of decay were clustered along the roadside in groups of four, five, six.

My family and I have just moved back to my hometown of Bega, NSW from Montana, a US state which has a strong culture of hunting [and has had a hunting season in effect since 1872!] a fact which means the native animal populations of common animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep there are kept in check.

There are, of course, roadkill deaths in Montana but a new scavenging law introduced a few years ago means that those who are hit are quickly moved off roadways – and eaten.

When we left Montana, the contents of our freezer included white wrapped packages labeled “roadkill buck,” meat that was gifted to us by a friend who saw a deer hit and salvaged it.

[Thanks to our friend Ben’s humor, we also had packages of meat in our freezer labeled “tender meat snake” (instead of the more conventional “backstrap” and “tenderloin”)]

“Were there always this many roadkill animals?” I asked my brother, wondering if three years away had caused me to gloss over the reality of the situation.

“Nah, it’s just really bad at the moment because of the drought,” Laurie answered.

It is dry. It’s not the driest I’ve seen this land, but the grass is shorn down to brown stubble and the creek makes a narrow path through its bed.

The dry is causing animals to roam further to find food and water, crossing more roads in the process.

Looking out the car window at the carnage, I can’t help but wonder: could Australia learn from Montana’s long history of managing its native animal populations?

On the same road we were traveling – the Snowy Mountains Highway – our mate Zac counted 200 dead roos one night this winter driving the 20 minutes between Canberra and Michalago.

“It was the combination of it being a Friday night and there being lots of snow traffic,” Zac said, “I stopped counting when I got to 200.”

Zac also told me that the owner of the Tathra caravan park had mentioned that her international visitors had been distraught at seeing so many roadkilled animals – the very animals they had come to see and hoped to see hopping and fluffy, not smeared on the highway.

Australia’s success as a tourism destination relies, at least in part, on healthy populations of native animals. But historically, white settlers have not been good stewards to native animals – the Tasmanian tiger was declared extinct in the early 1930’s, the result of overzealous hunting and koalas were taken to the brink of extinction, shot for their thick fur.

Australia protects by law the majority of native plants and animals. In my state, NSW, native animals are currently protected under the biodiversity conservation act of 2016.

But have we taken it too far?

Australians eat vast quantities of meat every year, more than any developed country in the world, according to the world economic forum website. Reading this, a gem from a permaculture course I took years ago in New Zealand floats to the top of my mind: the problem is the solution.

Although Aussies have come to terms with the idea of eating native animals [kangaroos are now hunted commercially and roo meat is commonly available in supermarkets and restaurants] the mainstream has yet to embrace the idea of harvesting the meat ourselves.

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Roo meat is very similar to venison – lean and dark – but in recent years, I’ve not heard of anyone eating other Aussie animals.

Wombat, by folklore, is tough and chewy [there’s a song about wombat stew: “ewey gooey yummy chewy wombat stew”] and tales of early white settlers include despondent descriptions of living on nothing but pumpkin and bear [koala].

While we may not be able to do anything to make wombat taste good, a roadkill salvage culture and the associated laws or indeed, a huntings season similar to Montana’s would at least save some kangaroo meat from being wasted.

Meanwhile, good people ease the suffering of animals by doing clean up on our roads, rescuing infant kangaroos and wombats from the pouches of their road killed mothers and euthanizing where necessary.

This morning we went to see an old family friend, Pauline, who is 76 and a very busy volunteer with WIRES, a wildlife rescue organization.

Pauline has five babies in her care, four kangaroos and one wombat, which she keeps in woolly shoulder bags to mimic a pouch.

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Pauline’s orphans were rescued out of their mother’s pouches or found wandering on their own but still needing milk to survive. Once they hit the magic weight of six kilos, they will be weaned and released onto the bush property of another WIRES volunteer and eventually into the wild.

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The work that Pauline and her fellow volunteers do is pressing right now [she said WIRES takes in several new animals every day in this region] and her access to these cuddly animals delighted my American tourist children, who, two weeks into our time in Australia, still shriek every time they see a kangaroo or wombat.

 

 

But the work of WIRES doesn’t address the overall problem – which is that the populations of these animals continue to grow in good seasons unchecked, leaving a large population to die slowly when the drought inevitably returns [Australia has a shortage of native predators, with birds of prey and the dingo at the top of the chain].

Native animals are officially protected in Australia, but the way I see it, we’re not doing everything we can to protect them.

But we can – we have hardworking scientists at our disposal who could come up with a sustainable solution for kangaroo and wombat populations which would thrill animal lovers, meat lovers and your car insurance company in equal parts.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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Hunting culture, guns and the rural Montana town I love.

When Americans think about increased gun regulation, probably what they don’t think about is this – my Australian dad, strolling through a paddock with his 22 rifle. My Dad’s name is Ian and he is likely wearing short shorts and a worn wide brimmed hat. There is a herd of kangaroos under a big eucalyptus tree on the hill and he is heading straight for them.

My dad had the rifle before the notorious 1996 gun laws passed after the Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre which killed 35 Australians.

And he has it still.

Right now Americans can easily purchase the kind of gun used at Port Arthur, but most, like my dad, need only one gun.

Here in Troy, Montana, where I live with my American husband and our two kids, September brings hunting season and our tiny supermarket is packed with people wearing camouflage, toting rifles and buying fried chicken under the watchful eyes of taxidermied deer and elk.

Even after 12 years of living in Montana, the visibility of gun culture is a shock. I’d never directly asked my 900 fellow townspeople about the guns they own, but with a son in kindergarten and the frequency of school shootings, it was time.

I chose to talk to people I don’t know well.

There was a feeling of breaking social barriers when I asked how many, and what kind of guns people owned – one of the reasons gun violence often comes as a surprise, especially in small communities like ours, is because like sex, money and politics, guns are a taboo subject in American culture.

We don’t know who has an AR-15 in their closet next to the yellow umbrella, because it would be impolite to ask.

But according to our chief of police Katie Davis: “almost everyone [in this town] has a gun.”

A gun – yes – but how many own just one?

According to a 2015 study, three per cent of American adults own half of the civilian guns, an average of 17 each, to hunt, defend their homes, or protect themselves from government takeover.

Just two blocks away from me lives Mike Peterson. Peterson is in his early 50’s and has the average 17 guns in his collection, including some assault rifles.

Peterson and his wife have a strong Democratic lean, and support gun control, but Peterson said he loves how easily he can buy and trade guns now.

Jennifer Meyer is 34, and not your average gun owner – she was shot when she was 12 by a peer and shows me the mottled white scar above her right hip.

Despite her shooting, Meyer is a passionate advocate for gun rights and is currently petitioning our school district to arm teachers.

I have a rifle in my truck,” Meyer said, “and a pistol in my purse. It’s not loaded but I have the clip in there with it.”

Meyer, like so many in our town, uses her weapons to hunt. When I ran into Meyer last fall, she told me she had shot a deer from her car while on the school run.

I saw this nice buck in a field and I knew I could take the shot,” she said, “so I did and then I thought: ‘what now?’.”

Mayer laughs as she tells me she hauled her baby, strapped in her car seat, into the field where she gutted the animal and called her brother to help lift the animal into her truck. And then this badass mom picked her kids up from school on time. 

Gary Britton, a retired military man, will not disclose how many, or what kind of guns he owns, but said he owns “multiple” weapons which would be sufficient to exercise his second amendment right to hold off the government.

But for now, his gun collection is used only for putting meat in the freezer, and on any weeknight, he and I, and hunters everywhere open our freezers and take out packages of meat to thaw.

I could tell you what it’s like to live where it is inconceivable that my kids would experience what Meyer did as a 12-year-old: “I woke up on the ground, and my ears were ringing. That sound is so loud when it’s coming right at you,” Meyer said of her shooting.

But how do I explain the absence of fear?

Let’s legislate for what people use guns for every day, not for that faraway hero scene – hiding from the military with a cache of guns. This image is used in Hollywood but nowhere else. Hunting culture, on the other hand, is something to cherish.

On the hill, my dad lifts the rifle and brings down a kangaroo. The meat is lean and dark like venison and he needed only one gun to provide for his family.