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Deer carcass

A dead deer lies on the left shoulder of westbound Interstate 94 last week in Waukesha County near the Pewaukee exit. 

The bodies are piling up on Interstate 94.

As rutting season hits high gear among a swelling Wisconsin deer herd, an escalating number of road-kill carcasses aren’t getting picked up as quickly as they’re getting run down.

“We’ve had a lot of them this year,” said Gary Wolf, state highway maintenance coordinator for Waukesha County. “It’s non-stop.”

But in part because of complications with the state’s carcass pickup system, he said, “Some of them end up sitting there for a long time.”

The carcass pick-up has been hampered by both a robust deer population and a provision in the state budget that transferred the responsibility for picking up killed deer from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Transportation. That change went into effect in September.

And it’s not just along the I-94 corridor.

“It’s pretty much statewide that it’s a problem,” Wolf said.

But it might be especially bad in the urbanized southeast corner of the state. While the statewide deer population has been boosted by back-to-back mild winters, there are few areas along the interstate for hunting or natural predators to keep that population in check. 

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Becky Kikkert said vendors contracted by her department are supposed to remove deer carcasses within two business days of being reported. Yet during a drive last week from Madison to the Milwaukee-Waukesha county border, 22 dead deer could be seen on the I-94 corridor. A few lay near the road, either in the scrub off to the right or in the median ditch on the left. But the vast majority of the mangled deer were on the shoulder, presenting a grisly display for passing motorists.

Kikkert maintains the system is working. She said the DNR cancelled its contracts with dead animal collection contractors on Sept. 22, after Gov. Scott Walker signed the budget. Her agency, she said, executed a new round of contracts and restored service within a week.

“The contractors have been picking up carcasses as late as Wednesday and Thursday of (last) week,” she said in an email last Friday.

But while some of the carcasses on I-94 appeared to be recently killed, others, judging from their advanced stage of decay, have been there for several days, if not longer.

Some officials said they weren’t informed of the switch of responsibility for carcass removal from the DNR to the DOT, raising the question of whether some dispatchers have been reporting carcasses to the wrong agency.

"Maybe signals were crossed someplace,” said Jefferson County Sheriff’s Capt. Jerry Haferman. When the issue was raised, Haferman said he reviewed the procedure with county dispatchers, who told him they were calling the DNR rather than the DOT.

Asked if someone at the DNR could be getting calls for carcass removal without the DOT being notified, DNR spokesman James Dick, in an email, said: “The program now belongs to DOT. You’ll have to ask them how their process works.”

It’s not the first time the state has considered making changes to the carcass collection program. In the 2015-17 budget, Walker proposed ending the state’s role and putting county governments — which arrange for carcass removal on county roads — on the hook for state roads and interstates. But the Legislature’s budget committee shot down the idea after the Legislative Fiscal Bureau warned, “Dead and decaying deer on the roadside are unsightly and can dampen Wisconsin’s reputation as a tourist destination.”

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In the wake of the DNR terminating its contracts in September, Wolf said that there have been challenges in getting the service back up to speed.

“It’s kind of been a work in progress,” he said. “There was probably about a three-week stretch before it became official, and we were scrambling to get that in place.”

Allison Bussler, Waukesha County director of public works, said the change was rocky.  

"I would say it was an awkward transition from the DNR contract to the DOT contract," she said. "The DNR abruptly ended their contract without a lot of notice and it could have — of course in hindsight — gone a little smoother. But I think everybody's worked through that now."

Thankfully, Wolf said, the deer-vehicle accidents that have littered the highway with carcasses have not caused injuries. 

"Most of it's semis," he said. "They don’t damage much. I gotta say, knock on wood, we haven’t had any serious accidents caused by it."

Brian Udovich, highway operations manager for Jefferson County, where 11 of the dead deer were spotted, said he doesn’t think his department has gotten any more complaints this year about the dead deer than last year.

But he’s worried about the slow pace of removal as winter approaches.

“With snow season upon us, we don’t need all those carcasses getting frozen to the road,” he said. “You hate to say it, but is that what people are thinking now? It’s too late, let the plows take care of it, throw them off into the abyss in the next few weeks? That’s not the right approach.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.