Highway agency composting program makes the best of a bad situation

At this time of year, it is an unfortunate fact of nature that a deer in the headlights often becomes a highway casualty.

What happens afterward is a story of renewal involving wood chips, horse manure and state workers, like Tyrone Henderson, with cast-iron constitutions.


Every day, Henderson hoists himself into a massive yellow dump truck and checks his list before rolling out of the State Highway Administration's Sykesville garage. He is a man on a mission; or, as he likes to say, it's "time to find the stinkees."

This is the busiest time of the year for the crews who remove wildlife carcasses — especially those of deer — from the state's roads. The season, known as the rut, is when a young buck's fancy turns to love, which tends to cloud his judgment and survival instinct.

The sound of hunters' guns echoing in the woods gets them moving, too. The first part of muzzleloader season began Thursday, and the Saturday after Thanksgiving will mark the start of the modern firearms season, when hunters will kill the bulk of the 100,000 deer taken each year in the state.

"During hunting season and the rut, it's nothing to pick up 18 deer in a day," said John Groomes, Henderson's boss at the Carroll County facility.

Last year, local and state officials reported 14,690 vehicle collisions with deer, up from 8,296 in 2010, said Brian Eyler, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. Those numbers fluctuate from year to year because jurisdictions are not required to report those accidents separately.

Based on claims, State Farm Insurance estimated Maryland motorists last year struck 32,675 deer, a 2 percent increase from the previous year. The company estimated that the likelihood of a driver having a collision with a deer in Maryland is about 1 in 120, and the cost in damage and cleanup was more than $107 million.

Last Thursday morning, a deer darting across Interstate 83 near Old York Road in northern Baltimore County caused a chain-reaction crash that involved three tractor-trailers and halted rush-hour traffic.

All those casualties create a problem for highway officials.

"Years ago, we used to dig a hole roadside and bury them," Groomes said. "But with all the utilities underground these days and all the development, you can't do that."

So a decade ago, SHA maintenance engineer Jim Jones came up with a formula to turn deer into compost. His process has proved so popular that the Gaithersburg SHA garage in Poolesville is working with Montgomery County to construct a deer-composting facility similar to the one in Sykesville.

Henderson, 40, is a jovial man with a warm smile who professes to love what he does. Job security is almost a given.

"A lot of guys don't like it, but it has to be done," he said of his seven years on roadkill patrol. "It doesn't bother me. I just breathe through my mouth."

Tips on where to find dead deer come from passers-by, highway department dispatchers and police, but sometimes just driving the roads of Carroll County is all he needs.

"We see 'em, we get 'em," he said.


Using a hoist or brute strength, Henderson and a partner haul each carcass into the truck. After several stops — they also pick up smaller critters, which are then buried — the big truck returns to home base, where a front-end loader scoops out the deer and places them in one of four wooden bins, each capable of holding about 40 deer. Horse manure from nearby farms and wood chips are layered on top, and nature takes over.

Every week, Henderson aerates the pile and adds more manure and wood chips. After three months, the compost is moved out into the open for a month of curing. The finished product is a deep, rich loam used by crews to restore roadside construction areas to a lush green and to fertilize wildflower beds that brighten highway medians.

The deer live on, you might say, pushing up daisies.