Tips for proper disposal of deer carcasses and parts to minimize CWD spread

Properly disposing of deer carcasses will help slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.

Woman with deer
Photo by Nikki Hersch, MSU Extension.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is neurological system disease that affects members of the deer or cervid family, such as deer, elk and moose. CWD is caused by a prion, or misfolded protein. Prions are mostly found in the brain.

Cervids that contract CWD may take months or even years before they show symptoms of having the disease. Symptoms can include extreme weight loss, lack of coordination, drooping head and/or ears, excessive drooling, excessive drinking, and excessive urination. CWD is always fatal to infected cervids. It is very unlikely that you would see a deer who has reached the end stages of CWD; the only definitive way for a deer to be diagnosed is through obtaining a CWD test from an accredited laboratory.

CWD spreads by both direct contact between animals and indirect contact with saliva, urine, feces, blood, carcass parts of an infected animal, and contaminated soil or plants. Once the prions are on the landscape, they can remain infectious for years. Unlike viruses, bacteria or fungus, there is no antidote or cure for a prion disease.

The disease is not known to affect humans, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both recommend not eating infected cervid meat. Beyond the potential human health risks, CWD poses a threat to deer population health and management. Hunting of deer is an important wildlife management tool and has substantial direct (licensing) and indirect (travel, gear, venison processing) impacts on Michigan’s economy.

If you are a Michigan hunter it is important to know how to properly dispose of a deer carcass. Proper disposal of carcasses from harvested deer will help combat the spread of CWD.

First, hunters may opt to remove the whole deer from the field or quarter the deer and pack it out of the woods. Either method is acceptable.

When field dressing your deer, always wear disposable or rubber gloves, have a plastic sheet or tarp on hand to lay under the carcass while field dressing, and have non-porous garbage bags on hand. These steps will prevent direct contact with the soil, which avoids soil contamination and ultimately, disease spread. After the viscera have been removed, place them in a non-porous garbage bag and pack them out of the woods. You may dispose of them in a landfill or bury them where your deer was harvested at least two feet beneath the natural surface of the ground, and in accordance with local ordinances.  

If quartering the deer in the field, be sure to avoid cutting through the spine and the brain tissue; these are the areas that have been found to contain the largest amount of prion material. Carefully remove meat quarters from the bone and place them into the bag of your choice to pack out. When leaving the carcass behind, the best practice is to bury the remaining bones and body parts at least two feet beneath the natural surface of the ground, and in accordance with local ordinances. Place the carcass and all remains including the viscera into the ground.

Any harvested deer parts such as bone or meat trimmings should be double bagged in a non-porous garbage bag and disposed of in a landfill.

If you are planning to get your deer tested for CWD, remove the head or extract the medial retropharyngeal lymph nodes and place them in a sealed plastic bag. If removing the head, properly wrap it in plastic for safe transportation.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has an interactive web tool that uses photos and allows you to test your ability to identify sick deer. While it is best to observe deer over time, that may not be an option for hunters. If possible, observe deer to see whether they put on more weight or remain in poor condition and start exhibiting additional signs of illness.

CWD testing is recommended, but not required. In 2021, deer heads for testing are being requested from Allegan, Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Eaton, Gratiot, southern Isabella, Hillsdale, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Joseph, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, and also from the core CWD surveillance area in the Upper Peninsula (portions of Dickinson, Menominee and Delta counties). Deer heads from these counties can be submitted at any open Michigan DNR deer check station from October through January.

Deer harvested in Clinton, Dickinson, Ingham, Ionia, Kent and Montcalm counties can be tested for CWD through the DNR from Nov. 15-18 only. CWD testing is available outside of these time frames for a fee through the Michigan State University (MSU) Veterinary Diagnostic Lab or the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.  Samples can be dropped off every Monday from November 22 through December 27 at the Montcalm County MSU Extension office or the Ionia County MSU Extension office by 4 p.m. for transport to the MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that hunters play a very important role in controlling the spread of CWD by (1) using proper field dressing procedures, (2) following best practices for carcass handling and disposal, and (3) submitting deer lymph nodes for testing if harvesting deer in a CWD targeted surveillance area (Southern Jackson, Southern Isabella, Western Gratiot and the CWD Core surveillance area in the UP).

Movement restrictions apply to animals harvested in Montcalm County in its entirety, or Otisco, Orleans, Ronald and North Plains Township in Ionia County, and Nelson, Spencer, Courtland, Oakfield, Grattan and Cannon Townships in Kent County, unless:

  • It is deboned meat, quarters or other parts of a cervid that do not have any part of the spinal column or head attached, antlers, antlers attached to a skull cap cleaned of all brain and muscle tissue, hides, upper canine teeth, or a finished taxidermist mount may be moved out of the area

OR

  • The deer carcass is taken directly to a registered processor; and/or
  • The intact deer head detached from the carcass is taken directly to a licensed taxidermist.

Although it is highly unlikely that you will see a free ranging deer that has CWD, it is important to know the signs of sick deer. If you do encounter one, contact the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division at 517-284-9453, or the afterhours Report All Poaching (RAP) line that is available 24/7 at 1-800-292-7800. Reports of a sick deer can also be submitted online at https://secure1.state.mi.us/ORS/Home.

For more information about chronic wasting disease, tips and tools for hunters and venison consumers, and other deer related topics, visit MSU Extension’s chronic wasting disease website.

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