Test results are negative in Oregon deer and elk samples.

So far, every sample collected from deer and elk killed during hunting seasons in Oregon has tested negative for the presence of chronic wasting disease, the head of Oregon’s testing program said Tuesday.

“It is really good news that it hasn’t been found,” said Don Whittaker, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “And the other good news is we’re getting excellent cooperation from hunters.”

So far, 566 of the total of 971 samples of brain tissue collected from hunter-killed deer and elk during the just-ended hunting seasons have shown no traces of chronic wasting disease. Tests are being done at the Colorado State Wildlife Health Lab in Fort Collins, Colo.

Another 320 Oregon samples are at the lab awaiting testing, and 88 recently collected samples are waiting shipment at the Fish and Wildlife office in Corvallis, Whittaker said.

Chronic wasting disease destroys the brains and nervous systems of deer, elk and moose.

It has decimated wild and captive herds in Wyoming, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nebraska, Montana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Canada.

Whittaker and other officials emphasized that chronic wasting disease never has been found in Oregon.

With the help of preseason mailings to hunters and education efforts by the department and hunter organizations such as the Oregon Hunters Association and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the knowledge curve and cooperation among hunters have skyrocketed, Whittaker said.

“I actually collected one sample right out of a tailgate here at headquarters, from a Washington hunter,” he said.

The Elk Foundation and Hunters Association also have contributed to the costs of the collection and testing program.

From 1996 to 2000, when the spread of chronic wasting disease first started showing up on biologists’ radar screens, Oregon was in a “target surveillance mode,” collecting samples — a total of 12 during the four years — when symptoms in deer and elk mimicked those of chronic wasting disease.

Sampling moved from monitoring to proactive when reports of the disease ballooned.

“In 2001, when it started showing up in all the other states, we ramped it up a bit, especially in central Oregon,” Whittaker said.

The emphasis on sample collection there was because of game-ranching operations, a suspected conduit for the spread of the disease because of the interstate shipment of animals.

In 2001, a total of 99 samples were collected, and all testing negative. Each of the past two years, the goal has been to collect 1,000 samples.

In 2002, the first year of the statewide collection program involving hunters, biologists collected 866 samples.

So far in 2003-04, there have been 971, with a few more still trickling in, he said.

The goal of 1,000 samples isn’t a magic number, Whittaker said. Equally important is that the samples are taken from elk and deer herds and populations from around the state.

“Eventually over a period of a few years, we’ll have a total sample where we feel comfortable saying it is or isn’t out there in the wild,” Whittaker said. “We have a few areas where we have to step back and decide where the holes are.”