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DNR explains why there are headless deer carcasses on roadsides

Four deer carcasses with their heads removed are seen on Heimbach Road, north of Three Rivers, on April 7, 2022. (Ray Hole/WWMT)
Four deer carcasses with their heads removed are seen on Heimbach Road, north of Three Rivers, on April 7, 2022. (Ray Hole/WWMT)
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The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said its Wildlife Division is testing local deer populations for chronic wasting disease, which is likely why headless deer carcasses can be seen on the sides of some roads.

People have been reporting that they've seen decapitated deer carcasses in Vicksburg, Three Rivers and other areas. On Thursday, News Channel 3 saw four headless deer carcasses along Heimbach Road, just north of Three Rivers. The carcasses were all within a few hundred feet of each other.

“So with those ones being on the side of the roads, it’s generally a strong possibility that our Wildlife Division is doing some kind of chronic wasting disease or tuberculosis disease testing in the free-ranging wild deer herd," said Sgt. Carter Woodwyk, a DNR conservation officer in Allegan County. "Sounds like currently, they have an initiative that’s focused within the area of Kalamazoo and Allegan and Branch counties, which would kind of explain the deer you were locating down there by Three River and Vicksburg. So currently, it sounds like they are taking the heads of some of those roadkill deer to have that testing done just to kind of eliminate the possibilities of that disease being around here.”

Woodwyk said so far, he's not aware of any positive cases of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the Allegan or Kalamazoo county area. However, cases were reported last fall in the northern parts of Kent and Ionia counties.

CWD is a contagious disease that degenerates the deer's brain, leading to emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death, according to the DNR. There is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to humans.

Woodwyk said there are also other possible reasons for seeing headless deer.

"If there was an antlered deer that was hit by a car, any passerby could acquire the antlers or the entire carcass of that deer through the salvage permit process," Woodwyk said. "So as long as they acquire a roadkill salvage permit from either local agency or like a local police agency or through the online salvage application, they would be able to take all of or certain parts of that deer if they wished.”

People can apply for free roadkill salvage permits by clicking here.

Poaching is another possible reason for seeing headless deer. But Woodwyk said that is unlikely during the early parts of the year.

"Obviously, this time of year, a lot of the bucks, antlered deer, won’t have antlers at this point. They lose them in the winter and start growing them back in the spring," said Woodwyk. "But in the summer, fall, early winter, when antlered deer still have their antlers on their heads, it is always a possibility that those are poached animals.”

Headless deer carcasses may be seen during the deer-hunting season as well.

“Say out in state land or sometimes, back in the woods, people could find a headless deer would be if somebody did shoot a buck, say during a deer season, and they let the deer hang too long or the deer got wet and the meat got tainted. They might take the head off that deer to keep the antlers and end up dumping the deer, which wouldn’t be legal, on somebody else’s property or out in the woods somewhere else. And that could be a reason for finding those out there," said Woodwyk.

If the DNR catches someone illegally dumping a deer carcass, that person may be charged with illegal dumping under the litter laws and pay a fine.

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Woodwyk said occasionally, the local road commission will remove carcasses on the sides of roads. But typically, they will be left to naturally decompose.

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