The Upper Big Hole carcass compost facility was opened spring 2017 and is a cooperative effort by a number of partners. The project is managed by BHWC and was put in place to provide an effective, efficient means of livestock disposal for local ranchers. Mortality is an unfortunate but normal part of ranching, and historically carcasses have been thrown in pits, buried, hauled to the dump, or even blown up as methods of disposal. The presence of carcasses on ranches can attract predators, including wolves, bears, and mountain lions, which are often dealt with lethally once they develop the problem behavior of feeding on carcasses or predating on livestock. Carcass composting provides an alternative that is acceptable to wildlife, water quality, and people.
Our compost site is managed by our Wildlife Programs Technician, John Costa. John drives the carcass removal dump truck during the spring carcass removal service (which coincides with calving season) and transports carcasses to the compost site where he covers them with wood chips, adds water, and waits for the “magic” to happen! Within a few month, carcasses break down into small amounts of compost. The process is easy, efficient, and not nearly as smelly as you would think! In fact, employees at the neighboring MDT site state that they rarely smell the carcasses, and when they do (when it’s windy) they get a faint whiff of decay at worst. The carcass removal dump truck is on loan from the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Here are a few facts about carcass composting:
- Carcass management programs like our compost site benefit not only ranchers, they also allow wildlife and livestock operations to coexist while helping ranchers maintain their ranches, provide migration corridors, habitat, and open spaces necessary for many species of wildlife, like elk and sage grouse.
- Water quality: Sites where road kill are brought as “drag and hide” and dead piles on ranches can affect ground water and stream water quality. Central permitted facilities are approved based on impact to water quality.
- Reduce secondary accidents when scavenging on road-kill occurs (human safety as well as secondary road kills of listed or sensitive species: grizzly, wolves, eagles, wolverine etc.).
- Reduce consistent food source (road kills) to all predators (including ravens, coyotes, foxes etc.) that may result in predator pulse that could impact sage grouse survival as well as livestock loss.
- Help reduce risk of livestock/carnivore conflict but not a guarantee. Carcass removal can break the cycle of predators in close proximity to livestock via a dead pile especially in calving season.
- Ease of livestock disposal.
- Can reduce taxpayer costs when there are hauling and/or tipping fees to landfills.
- Relatively low labor and management costs.
- Can be done anytime of the year even when ground is frozen.
- Saves landfill space by breaking down in compost better than the “mummify effect” of landfills.
- Less odor and flies for the volume of carcasses than uncovered dead piles.
- Greatly reduces or kills most pathogens from the temperatures and microbial processes achieved during composting.
- Blackfoot Challenge seen a lasting reduction in conflicts with grizzlies after establishing co-existence programs including: livestock carcass pick-up and composting, electric fencing, and range riders.
- Creates a usable product for daily cover for landfills (takes several years to gain several hundred cubic yards).
People & Organizations Involved
- Montana Department of Transportation
- People and Carnivores
- Wildlife Conservation Society Community Partnerships Program
- Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
- Defenders of Wildlife
- Montana Livestock Loss Board
- Cinnabar Foundation
- United States Fish and Wildlife Service - Red Rock Lakes NWR
- Montana Partners for Fish and Wildlife