CASEYVILLE, Ill. — In six years of trapping, one thing has become apparent to Cody Champ: His pursuit of animal pelts isn't cheap, costing him $100 a week just for gas. So, it's little wonder the Illinois man welcomed a recent state law that allows him to get a few freebies, even if he needs a shovel and good gloves.
Among the hundreds of Illinois laws that took effect last year, the so-called "roadkill bill" got little attention despite being perhaps the quirkiest of all — allowing anyone with an Illinois furbearer license to salvage pelts or even food from the unfortunate fauna that prove no match for steel-belted radials.
Republican Rep. Norine Hammond pushed the measure straight-faced at the behest of a retired state conservation officer who thought it was a waste to allow animals' pelts to rot along the roadsides. Hammond said it was an opportunity for some people to make a little money, and could benefit the state by letting citizens carry out the task once relegated to state highway crews.
Despite snickering from some lawmakers, the bill sailed through the General Assembly — twice, because lawmakers overrode a veto by Gov. Pat Quinn, who worried that motorists might suffer the same fate as the critters. One poke came from Rep. Lou Lang, a Chicago-area Democrat who asked what to do if a critter wasn't quite dead.
"Am I required to perform mouth-to-mouth on that dead skunk?" Lang demanded.
Joking aside, at least 14 states have laws related to roadkill, including those that let motorists' keep animals they hit, though some pertain only to deer or bears, according to an informal survey for The Associated Press by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Idaho soon may join the list, after a three-year push by one legislator to allow roadside salvage of game animals. The state's fish and game agency, which once objected to the idea, is awaiting legislative review of a rule that would allow it "under some circumstances."
"You shouldn't let that stuff go to waste," said Rep. Richard Harwood, an Idaho Republican who said he took up the cause after a game warden threatened a neighbor with a $350 fine if he messed with a run-over bobcat near his home for a hide that could net $200. "To be able not to grab it was kind of stupid. Why let it go to waste?"
Since Illinois' law took effect in October, Champ, a 26-year-old who lives in Dix, about 80 miles east of St. Louis, has skinned a mink and three raccoons he found dead while driving for his job with an electrical supply company.
He hasn't sold them yet, but pelts from certain wild animals are fetching the highest prices in years, due to a strong demand in Russia, China and other countries where they are valued more for their warmth than as a fashion statement. A raccoon skin routinely gets about $9, red fox $14 and muskrat $6.50, with top dollar often twice that amount. In Illinois, furs — mostly raccoon and muskrat — brought in $1.2 million in 2010, up 95 percent from the previous year.
Even so, nobody stands to get rich off roadkill, Champ said, because animals favored by trappers — including coyotes, foxes, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, muskrats, beavers and mink — can't always be used for pelts when they meet their end on a roadway.
What's more, Champ said, the law simply legalizes what some people have been doing quietly for years.
"Is a game warden really gonna get onto you for getting a few dollars" without a license, Champ said.
The measure broadened the options under a state law that already let people collect deer killed by vehicles. The new law does stipulate that carcasses only may be salvaged if the animal is in season, to prevent people from poaching them the rest of the year and claiming they were roadkill. And people without the proper license are out of luck.
There's no way to know how many have taken advantage of the new law. The state issued 4,202 furbearer licenses during the last season — which ran from late 2010 through January 2011. That was 389 more than the year before. This year's numbers have not yet been released.
The state has offered some safety tips for those taking advantage of the law, including urging salvagers to wear gloves at all times and don protective glasses to avoid fluids splashing into eyes. Immediately washing hands and any fluid-stained clothing wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Game meat must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill any bacteria, but partake of roadkill at your own peril.
"There are some species that are eaten, particularly raccoon," said Bob Bluett, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist. "But it depends on what shape it's in and how long it's been there. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."