Tips for proper disposal of deer carcasses and parts to minimize spread of chronic wasting disease
Properly disposing of carcasses will help slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.
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, 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 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 2022, deer heads for testing are being requested from Bay, Berrien, Branch, Cass, Genesee, Huron, Isabella, Hillsdale, Kalamazoo, Lapeer, Lenawee, Livingston, Macomb, Midland, Monroe, Muskegon, Oakland, Oceana, Ottawa, Saginaw, Sanilac, St. Clair, St. Joseph, Tuscola, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, and from the core CWD surveillance area including Dickenson, Menominee, and Delta counties in the upper peninsula. Deer heads from these counties can be submitted at any disease sample submission sites.
Deer harvested in Clinton, Dickinson, Eaton, Gratiot, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kent and Montcalm counties can be tested for CWD for free by picking up a free hunter CWD self-sample kits which are available at the county Conservation District office, or by dropping your deer’s head off in a drop box. Deer harvested in other counties can still be tested for a fee through the Michigan State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory or the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.
Hunters play a very important role in reducing the spread of CWD by human behaviors. Some strategies hunters can use to reduce their risk of spreading CWD are by following proper field dressing procedures and using best practices for carcass handling and disposal. Hunters can also help in disease surveillance by submitting their harvested deer’s lymph nodes for testing if harvesting deer in an area where CWD has been detected. Movement restrictions apply to animals harvested in Montcalm County in its entirety, or Otisco, Orleans, Ronald and North Plains Townships 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,
- 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 RAP line that is available 24/7 at 1-800-292-7800. Reports of a sick deer can also be submitted online at secure1.state.mi.us/ORS/Home.
Don’t forget that beginning this year, deer hunters are required to report a successful harvest within 72 hours or before transferring possession of the deer to another person, processor, or taxidermist. Harvest reporting will allow the DNR to obtain real time data on the number of deer harvested which helps the department make decisions about deer herd management, better assess hunter activity, and will help in determining disease prevalence rates, such a s CWD, more accurately. Information that is collected from the harvest survey is not public and would only be utilized when specifically required by law. Hunters can receive technical assistance to report their harvest over the phone by identifying their closest DNR customer service center location and calling the phone number listed for that location.
For more information about chronic wasting disease, tips and tools for hunters and venison consumers, and other deer related topics, visit Michigan State University Extension’s chronic wasting disease website.