Dos and Don’ts of Deer Carcass Disposal in CWD Country

September 13, 2023 By: Cole Gander

Which taxidermist should I use? What recipe should I try when cooking up these backstraps tonight? How should I dispose of the carcass? These are just a few of the practical questions that go racing through our heads after the adrenaline of a successful hunt has subsided. While the last question is often an afterthought for many hunters, properly disposing of the carcass is a crucial part of every successful hunt, especially in chronic wasting disease areas.

The importance of properly disposing of a deer carcass (especially the organs, spine and brain) is magnified in CWD areas because improper disposal can contribute to the rapid spread of this fatal prion disease of deer and elk. Proper disposal of deer carcasses can help maintain low disease prevalence rates in CWD areas and prevent the spread of disease to new areas. Therefore, it is crucial to begin planning the proper method for disposal long before you step into the woods. 

Your Hunting Location is Important

What is the best way to dispose of a deer carcass? It depends! The first thing to determine is whether you’ll be hunting in or near an area where CWD has been found in deer. Local rules, regulations, available services and best courses of action will all depend on your hunting location. 

Most state wildlife agencies produce pamphlets or webpages with maps of existing CWD zones and lists of special regulations and recommendations on the proper disposal method for deer and elk carcasses in those areas. Some state agencies may even require a mandatory sample from your harvest to test for CWD before disposal of the rest of the carcass. To ensure you are following the law and protecting your local deer herd from disease, it is critical to research these recommended disposal methods prior to embarking on your next hunt. 

State wildlife agencies produce pamphlets and websites with CWD information. Visit the website or local office in the state you plan to hunt to learn more about CWD zones, carcass disposal and other regulations.

Again, the key to all this is knowing if the county or public land you’ll be hunting is a known CWD management area. To make this process easier for hunters, NDA partnered with onX Hunt to provide a free CWD layer in the onX Hunt app that highlights CWD management zones on your map and provides links to regulations, testing locations, carcass disposal sites, and more.

With the continual spread of CWD, many state and local agencies are constantly changing and updating their regulations to reflect the best-known disposal practices. Whether you are brand new to an area, or have been hunting it for your entire life, it is crucial to check the local regulations every year to ensure you are up to date on the latest disposal regulations and avoiding costly visits from your local game warden.

Deer Carcass Disposal: Do This

Are you hunting private or public land? Do you plan to process your deer at home or use a local meat processor? If you get a buck, will you be taking the head and cape to a taxidermist? While your answers to these questions may determine different local procedures, there are general steps that all hunters should take when disposing of their carcasses to help prevent the spread of CWD. Some processors and taxidermists inside CWD zones are equipped to handle carcass disposal. But if you’ll be processing your own deer at home, here are the recommended practices.

Official Dumpsters: The best option in any CWD zone is a special, approved dumpster or other container provided specifically for deer carcass disposal. Some states provide these designated dumpsters or landfills for this purpose and mark them clearly. If so, determine their location so you’ll be ready to use them after a successful harvest.

Doug Duren of Wisconsin held fundraisers to help operate several carcass disposal dumpsters in southwest Wisconsin. Operated during hunting season, they help ensure any carcasses infected with CWD are properly disposed where healthy deer cannot be exposed.

Bag It: Some states don’t provide special containers but simply direct you to use established landfills. In these cases, have a heavy-duty trash bag on hand. After processing your deer, place all remains of deer harvested in areas of CWD concern in a sealed garbage bag and haul it to the landfill. Sealing carcasses in trash bags or dumpsters and hauling them to the landfill is the best way to contain any CWD prions and remove them from the landscape. Before using these services, double check your local regulations to ensure the landfill you plan to use is approved by your state wildlife agency. 

Bury It: For some hunters, placing the remains of their harvest in a trash bag and hauling it to the landfill is not a realistic scenario. In this case, a shovel can become a man’s best friend. In the absence of a trash bag or dumpster, the carcass of your deer should be buried at the site where it was harvested. Many states have their own recommendation on the exact depth of burial, but the general consensus is to bury the carcass above water level but deep enough so that scavengers have a difficult time detecting and uncovering it. Burying the carcass will not immediately eliminate the prions that cause CWD, but it will reduce the chances of healthy deer coming into contact with them and becoming infected.

Leave It On Site: If all other options are unavailable, leave the carcass of your deer at the site of the harvest. If you are using this strategy, try playing hide and seek with the local scavengers by placing the remains out of the direct line of sight and in an area with a low volume of wildlife traffic. While one of these insightful critters will ultimately win, “hiding” the remains can reduce the number of animals that will encounter it and potentially spread the CWD prions.

Travel Light: To ensure you comply with local and state regulations, leave the CWD zone with nothing more than boned-out venison, cleaned or tanned hides, antlers attached to clean, dry skull plates, and clean teeth or jawbones with no tissue attached.

NDA’s Coulee Country Branch of Wisconsin is heavily involved with their local CWD Task Force and helping educate hunters in Wisconsin CWD zones about carcass disposal, CWD testing (like this CWD sample drop-box demonstration) and more.

All of these options have the same goal, reducing the spread of this deadly disease. Specifically, these steps focus on preventing healthy deer from coming into contact with the CWD prions in infected deer carcasses. They also prevent scavengers, such as coyotes and crows, from scattering infective prions across the landscape. Studies have shown the digestive tracts of these scavengers are not able to destroy CWD prions, and they are instead spread through defecation. Bobcats are the exception, as new research is showing that the gut of these felines can actually degrade the prions they consume. While we have an unlikely ally in this fight, preventing other critters from scavenging your deer carcasses is crucial to stopping the spread of CWD. 

Don’t Do This!

Don’t Transport and Dump: Do not dump your deer carcasses away from the areas where they were harvested, especially outside the CWD zone! Loading up your deer carcass and throwing it out near home to watch a majestic bald eagle and other scavengers “clean up” may seem like a harmless act, but it can lead to the spread of CWD. The new site where the carcass was dumped has now been contaminated with prions that can remain active in the soil for many years. Because of this, the transport and dumping of deer carcasses away from the areas where they were harvested is illegal in many areas across the country and would result in a hefty fine from your local conservation officer. 

Don’t Burn: While many hunters would like to see CWD go up in smoke, you should not try to burn your deer carcasses. Fire outside of the setting of a commercial incinerator is highly unlikely to reach the high temperatures necessary to destroy CWD prions. Thus, burning your carcasses in the field is only going to create a pile of ashes and unburnt tissue that still carries infectious prions. These piles of infectious prions can potentially wash or blow away during the next big rainstorm, increasing the odds of another deer being infected. 

Don’t Dump in Water: Water is also not a solution to stopping the spread of CWD. Deer carcasses should not be dumped in or near a water body. While washing away the infectious CWD prions may seem like a good idea, placing the carcass in water may actually facilitate the spread of the disease and degrade your local water quality. The decomposing carcass will contaminate the area, and the prions may infect any unsuspecting creatures that visit the water source for a quick drink. Doing so will also hurt your wallet in the form of a large fine, as it is illegal in many areas to dump the remains of your harvest in or near a water body. 

Help Fight CWD

Hopefully, you’ve figured out that we, as hunters and outdoorsmen, have a conservation duty to limit the spread of diseases within our deer herds. Chronic wasting disease is at the forefront of this fight, with many state agencies and legislatures creating regulations to limit its spread. However, it is us hunters who must abide by these regulations and take the necessary steps from the time we step into the woods to the moment we dispose of the carcass of a successful harvest. 

So, as you prepare for this upcoming season and begin going through all your gear, be sure to throw in a couple of garbage bags or a shovel. These items can be crucial to helping prevent the spread of CWD and can ensure a healthy deer herd for future generations.

About Cole Gander:

Cole Gander is NDA’s Deer Outreach Specialist for northern Missouri. He earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resource science and management from the University of Missouri-Columbia and formerly worked as a natural resource technician with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Cole is an avid hunter, angler and habitat manager. He and his wife Michaela live in Hannibal, Missouri.