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How PennDOT deals with the carnage

Sunday, July 23, 2000

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The advent of the professional carcass picker-upper -- deer removal contractor, in PennDOT parlance -- was perhaps inevitable.

At last tally, two years ago, motor vehicles bumped off 32,471 deer on Pennsylvania highways. And that's counting only the ones that anyone bothered to report. "Two tractor-trailers ... and sometimes, there's just a smear on the highway," said Mark Osborn, PennDOT roadway programs manager for Clearfield-based District 2.

Statewide, for every dozen deer that hunters felled on purpose, motorists nailed one by mistake. Drivers in Allegheny County often bag more deer -- a state high 2,282 in 1997 --- than hunters in Lawrence County.

But the same motoring public that mows down deer never revels at watching them in various states of declination. So the state Game Commission was sent to tidy up. Then PennDOT joined the cleanup crew.

"But, simply put, we don't have the resources to have crews going around, removing deer all day," department spokesman Steven Chizmar said.

Three years ago, PennDOT decided to hire backup, worried only about deer, letting nature take care of smaller road kill. That, in turn, gave birth to a patchwork in which some county maintenance bosses recruit help just for expressways while others sign up contractors to cover anything from interstate highways to back roads.

But the help-wanted ads didn't have fast money scrawled all over them.

Get paid by the deer. No benefits. Bring your own truck. No gas money. Buy $1 million in injury and property insurance. Come only when called but be there within 24 hours. Find an approved landfill, incinerator or rendering plant to take the deer. Pay the tab yourself. If, in the course of doing your job, you end up as road kill, well, that's your headache.

And the low bidder does the honors.

"I don't know how you'd make any money at it," PennDOT's Osborn said.

Would-be deer collectors started elbowing each other for position, though, bidding for a couple counties at a time. Winning offers ranged from $50 a deer in suburban Philadelphia's Montgomery County to Marianna resident William Beck's $13 a head for Washington County.

In Lawrence County, Busy B's of Darlington Inc. already had trucks and manpower for their tree service and landscaping business. At $44 a head, they added deer collection to their specialties.

Two years ago, suburban Washington, Pa., contractor Scott Hatfield figured he could use something for the slow times and built himself a full-fledged deer collection industry.

For $14 a deer, he clears Allegheny County stretches of Interstates 79, 279 and 376 as well as Routes 22, 30, 28 and 60. For the same rate, he won the rights to all the state roads in Fayette and Greene counties and brought Beaver County into the fold at $25 a pickup.

"You can do better than 1,000 deer a month in those counties," said Hatfield, who put on a full-time employee to keep things moving.

The road-kill business gets so good that some PennDOT contractors buckle under demand.

"The ordinary guy who works at the mill wouldn't want this job because he wouldn't have a life," Hatfield said.

Still, they come.

Across the state, in the Pocono Mountains, Monroe County logs about 1,000 road-killed deer a year, raising a revolting stench from tourism types.

"Kids would come driving in with their parents and see Bambi dead on the road," said Bob Uguccioni, head of the Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau. "We've had people check into resorts, the children crying."

Last month, the county created a full-time position called roadway sanitation technician, declared that the holder would clean up all creatures great and small, slapped on a $9.85-an-hour salary -- and promptly had 56 applicants.

"I don't know if that's a record number of applicants for one job, but it's a lot, especially for a position most people don't find that glamorous," county Personnel Director Dan Hite said.

It doesn't have to be distasteful, Hatfield said.

When he's cruising for deer in Allegheny County and the rest of his Western Pennsylvania territory, Hatfield's in a comfy, air-conditioned, one-ton dump truck. He winches deer in, dumps them out. "I never even have to touch them," he said.

It's all in the approach.

Take one lower-budget counterpart Hatfield runs across.

"To lift the deer up onto his truck," Hatfield said, "he has to bear hug it."

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