Michigan is scrambling to protect its herd of 1.8 million deer from the deadly and mysterious chronic wasting disease, already discovered in parts of 11 states.

As more than 750,000 hunters trudge into the woods for Friday’s opening of the firearms deer season, experts say the fatal illness, similar to mad cow disease, hasn’t yet been found here.

But it’s moving closer, with confirmation this month that it’s reached Illinois.

And the brain disease is a scientific puzzle, making it difficult for experts to help hunters and the folks at their dinner tables know the real risks.

“I know the public would like some common answers from science, but unfortunately … there is too much still open to question,” said Dan O’Brien, a veterinary specialist with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources based at Rose Lake Wildlife Disease Lab in Bath Township.

Chronic wasting disease – found so far in both deer and elk – is related to mad cow disease in Britain and sheep wasting disease, commonly called scrapie.

“This disease is not a virus or a bacteria,” said Tom Mullaney, professor of veterinary pathology at Michigan State University.

“This is a mutant protein.”

In February, Wisconsin announced that three white-tail bucks killed in November 2001 tested positive for the disease. That marked the first time the illness – recognized in Western states since 1967 – was detected east of the Mississippi River.

As a result, Michigan has banned out-of-state imports of deer and elk. And to prepare for a possible outbreak, the state is:

**Urging – but not requiring – hunters to have this year’s deer tested.

**Increasing the number of deer it tests for the disease in 2003 – especially in counties bordering Wisconsin.

**Requiring that if chronic wasting disease is detected within 50 miles of any Michigan state line, all feeding and baiting immediately will be banned in the bordering peninsula.

**Banning feeding statewide beginning in May 2003. The ban wouldn’t affect people who plant crops for deer to graze on.

**Educating people online and with printed information on the disease and its status.

Most states with confirmed chronic wasting disease are warning people not to come into contact with an animal that looks sick and to call local DNR officials to report animals with obvious symptoms.

Wildlife watchers and hunters here also are asked to look for deer and elk showing symptoms, which include extreme weight loss, behavioral changes, disorientation, drooling and isolation.

“It used to be you only looked for antlers, but now you find yourself looking at other things and wondering if this is a deer I should harvest or not,” said Tim Lyon of Lansing, who has hunted for 13 years.

While he considers the disease a minimal risk in Michigan, he’s still cautious.

“If I knew a deer was infected I wouldn’t eat it,” Lyon said. “There are too many unknowns right now. … Why risk it?”

One key question for scientists is one they can’t yet answer: Can the disease be passed on to people who eat infected meat?

Some say there’s no evidence to support it. Others aren’t so sure.

“It depends on who you ask right now,” O’Brien said. “All aspects of the spread of the disease and the agents causing it are being studied. This is a very complicated disease.”

Researchers told consumers in Europe 20 years ago that mad cow disease would not affect those who ate contaminated beef. Today, 130 people have died from eating mad cow meat.

The DNR plans to test 50 deer from 40 counties this year. About 500 deer from across Michigan already have been tested with no signs of the illness. Every Michigan county will have been tested within the next three years.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture also will increase testing and monitoring private herds of deer and elk.

Under that plan, owners of captive herds will be required to report their animal inventories.

The department also will conduct mandatory fence inspections and bolster standards for fence construction to prevent animals from escaping and having contact with outside animals.

The lack of information is causing some states, such as Colorado and Wisconsin, to take aggressive action, using government sharpshooters and local landowners to kill deer and elk herds in affected areas.

Game farms nationwide where the disease has turned up have been quarantined and the animals killed, then incinerated.

“We are learning right now by watching Wisconsin and other states as to what the impact might be here should CWD show up,” said Brian Frawley, a wildlife research biologist for the DNR based in Lansing.

Mullaney, the MSU professor, said chronic wasting disease is one of the most complex diseases he’s dealt with.

“This is an unbelievably difficult scientific dilemma,” he said.