News of the roadkill incinerator spread gradually across this wooded region of rural Anoka County, winding from house to house like smoke from a chimney.

One by one this fall, neighbors caught word that the county planned to dispose of deer killed on county roads by burning them in a small rectangular structure down the road from their homes.

The rumors, they found out, are true. The county is purchasing an incinerator that will turn roadkill into white ash inside a fenced area at a county highway department maintenance facility in Columbus.

The site sits near Coon Lake — an area ringed by trees, houses and a firm belief from some residents that such a device belongs elsewhere.

“There was no notice of this thing happening,” said Grant Friberg, a semiretired firefighter who lives nearby. “We stumbled upon it because a neighbor knew somebody who knew somebody who thought this might be happening.”

For years, Anoka County solved the problem of deer carcasses by donating them to feed wolves at the Wildlife Science Center in Linwood Township, home to the largest population of captive wolves in North America. Some carcasses, however, are too far gone for wolves, and the county has been taking them to a private crematorium at a cost of about $150 per carcass, adding up to $15,000 a year.

County officials say buying their own incinerator for about $13,000 will cut costs substantially.

“This is a good opportunity for county taxpayers to save money,” said Joe MacPherson, assistant county engineer.

The incinerator insurrection is just the latest chapter in Anoka County’s epic struggle with dead deer. The county is also locked in a breach-of-contract lawsuit that could result in a payout of more than $400,000 to its longtime carcass courier.

Anoka County disposes of more dead deer from county roads than any of its neighbors in the seven-county metro area. By the county’s tally, workers haul away more than 700 deer per year — more than double the next-highest total among its peers, neighboring Washington County.

One explanation could be the combination of road density and the amount of open land suitable for deer, said Steve Merchant, wildlife populations program manager at the Department of Natural Resources.

“It could be that somehow that is optimized in Anoka County,” Merchant said.

Residents like Friberg, whose house is near the Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area, bear witness to the blend of woods, animals and active roads. Friberg said an incinerator raises worries about property values, among other concerns: “It’s also a matter of our ambience. It goes right to that.”

Ongoing dispute

Across the metro area, counties use different methods to pick up deer felled on county roads. Most — including Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Washington and Scott counties — farm the work out to contractors.

Others, like Anoka and Carver counties, rely on county staff. But Anoka County hasn’t always taken this approach, which explains why dead deer fall at the heart of a heated legal dispute.

Until 2016, the county paid an outside contractor to drag away battered deer, paying a base sum for the first 10 carcasses each month and then a fee for each additional deer. The contractor, Ricky Johnson of Rick Johnson’s Deer and Beaver Inc., had even become something of a local roadkill legend.

A district court ruled earlier this year that the county breached its contract with Johnson by siphoning off some of the work to inmates from the county workhouse to cut costs.

Johnson’s contract allowed him to dispose of “all deer carcasses located on or near Anoka County highways,” language that remained the same even after the county began using workhouse labor in 2003, court documents show. A judge found the county liable for $420,418 in damages.

The county appealed, but an appellate court opinion handed down last week upheld the lower court’s findings. Anoka County can still petition the Minnesota Supreme Court for review.

After Johnson’s contract ended in January 2016, the county turned to employee Chad Kostecka. “In our county, nobody wanted anything to do with that job,” said Kostecka, who left the county several months ago for a higher-paying position as a laborer in the St. Paul School District. “They asked me to do it, and I did it.”

The county also paid $26,000 for a specialized trailer with a device to help retrieve deer.

“It was a really nice thought,” Kostecka said, “but it was way too big.”

So far this year, the county reports spending $26,000 on deer disposal. That doesn’t include the trailer or private incinerator services.

When word spread of the plan to buy an incinerator, a few neighbors called to object, prompting the county to send a letter about the project. County officials say they want to quell fears about smell and smoke. The unit will be about the size of a large deep freezer and will incinerate about 100 deer a year, according to the letter. No special permit or approval was needed from the city of Columbus, which was chosen because it’s near the wildlife center.

“Proximity-wise, it makes sense,” Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah said.

But residents like John Brill, a retired truck driver, remain skeptical.

“All it’s going to do is drop our house values,” Brill said. “They need to put it somewhere where it isn’t going to bother anybody.”