Driving through northern Idaho this summer? Bring a fork.
A judge in Bonners Ferry recently stood up for the right of people to eat roadkill that even other roadkill fanciers might find inedible. It sounds like one of those jokes bluegrass musicians tell: "How many banjo players does it take to eat a possum?" The answer: "Two: One to eat and one to watch for cars."
Cliff Kramer, was charged with illegal possession of a big game animal after game wardens found shredded moose in his freezers. In his 16-page ruling, District Court Judge Justin Julian scoffed at the charge: "So, does the salvage of meat no one else wanted render Kramer worthy of further prosecution? This court thinks not."
Fire up the banjos! When John McPhee wrote "Travels in Georgia" roadkill seemed to be on the menu every other page. It came across as natural and free and as American as dulcimers. Has the world changed so much that even in thinly populated Boundary County, Idaho, you have to fight the government to eat your moose?
Kramer, who runs a resort on the Moyie River, did it the other way around. He ate the moose first; then he fought undercover Fish and Game agents investigating rumors of roadkill specials. Unlike the characters in McPhee's essay, Kramer wasn't just choking down the odd squirrel or turtle. This was a moose. And he has a lunch counter.
Kramer has insisted for the last year that he only wanted to bury a big carcass on a hot weekend, but because he's North Idahoan to his core, he decided he couldn't waste meat that looked fine to him. He insists he only lit a bonfire, then hollered for friends and neighbors to join him for an impromptu Moose Festival.
But then, as Kramer's attorney Fred Gabourie says "Somehow the rumor mill cranked up," spurring undercover agents to go looking for mystery meat.
Judge Julian seemed to have a queasy moment at this point, adding a footnote to his decision: "The court expresses no opinion on the wisdom of eating meat that may have been gleaned from a carcass that was run over multiple times by large trucks and left lying on asphalt for approximately 16 hours in temperatures exceeding 80 degrees.''
Idaho State Police Trooper Brian Zimmerman says he got to the moose a few hours before Kramer did. "It was already getting tight," Zimmerman said. "Bloaty tight. It was horrible."
The carcass was largely hairless, and at first, the trooper thought the moose had died from some terrible disease. But as he tried to tug and roll the 800- to 900-pound carcass, he saw skid marks and abrasions, indicating that the moose was dragged under a truck, losing a fair amount of hide along the way.
In Idaho's northern counties, where jobs and money are scarce, people get by on pluck and stubbornness. Volunteers for gleaner programs jump out of bed at any hour and drive 40 miles in any weather to reach a road-killed game animal. They butcher it quickly and give the meat to food banks and churches.
But the moose looked so bad, Zimmerman left it for the highway crews. "I salvage whatever I can, but I wouldn't even dream of eating anything like this," he said.
Kramer did, and the judge backed him up, saying the county's prosecution smelled worse than the moose probably did. "Kramer is 'guilty' of being a good Samaritan by using his heavy equipment to scrape up a pulverized moose to bury it before it decomposed on the side of Highway 95," the judge said. "Kramer then became 'guilty' of salvaging a relatively small portion of meat that very few others would have considered edible."
After Julian tossed the charges, Kramer asked game wardens to give him back the 300 pounds of frozen, shredded, confiscated moose. He's planned a second anniversary Moose Festival with a live band.
No one could find the meat. The owner of the meat locker in Bonners Ferry thinks his workers figured the moose was spoiled, didn't see the evidence tag and tossed it into the landfill.
So now Kramer is suing the state. He filed a tort claim against the Idaho Department of Fish and Game this June, signaling his intent to seek more than $10,000.
"How do you put a value on moose meat?" Kramer's attorney Gabourie asked with a straight face. "You can't buy it." Trooper Zimmerman groaned: "He got it for free."
Thanks to a judge with an iron constitution, this is still the land of the free ... lunch. So as Independence Day approaches, come drive in northern Idaho. You never know when you'll run into a little slice of freedom. And don't forget a fork.
Kevin Taylor is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works in Coeur D'Alene for the Spokane (Washington) Spokesman-Review's north Idaho bureau.