Asked to help with the testing for chronic wasting disease, South Dakota big-game hunters have responded in unprecedented fashion, submitting 1,869 deer and elk heads to wildlife officials this fall and winter.

Toss in 31 road kills from Rapid City, and that’s 1,900 specimens – more than the total sample size of 1,693 animals previously collected and tested since 1997.

“We can always use more, but we are pleased with what we got. That’s excellent,” said John Wrede, the western regional wildlife manger for the Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

The testing of selected animals taken by hunters is one part of a broad strategy to combat the fatal brain disorder that strikes deer and elk and assess the disease’s presence in South Dakota.

Since testing began six years ago, only three free-roaming animals have been found to be infected – two Black Hills deer and an elk in Wind Cave National Park.

Hunter cooperation isn’t the only encouraging news for state wildlife officials. Lab results have come back on one-quarter of the samples, and no positive cases have been found.

The last positive result was in early December, when a whitetail buck killed by a car in Rapid City proved to be infected.

Testing is ongoing at a diagnostic lab at the University of Wyoming and is expected to continue at least into February.

More samples are expected as remaining deer seasons and extended elk seasons conclude this month. About 5,700 letters were mailed to big-game hunters with deer or elk licenses in selected hunting units where a diseased animal had turned up or where wildlife officials otherwise wanted to keep tabs.

Some elk hunters in Custer State Park and deer and elk hunters in the Black Hills received letters asking for their voluntary cooperation in submitting heads for testing.

So did some West River deer hunters and some hunters in McPherson County. Hunters also received test results on their animals by mail.

The 1,900 collections this fall and winter – which include both whitetail and mule deer – dwarf the 502 animals collected during last year’s big-game seasons, when a similar number of letters were also mailed.

Officials say the publicity surrounding the positive whitetail deer announced in December heightened awareness but wasn’t the lone contributing factor.

“Hunters wanted to assist the department in the investigation. That was the primary motivation,” said Wrede, who spent six days in the field at collection checkpoints.

“We heard very few comments of deep concern about handling the animal, processing the animal or eating the animal,” he said.

Ditto, said Chris Hesla, executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen advocacy group with 4,300 members.

“I didn’t know of anyone personally who said they weren’t going to go hunting or going to eat their game because of it,” he said.

He said he believed the state received such high voluntary cooperation from hunters because “sportsmen want to know if we have more of a problem of CWD in our wild herds than we know.”

The origin and transmission of CWD is not well understood, and there is no known way to test living animals. Public health officials have found no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans or even to animals besides deer and elk.

It’s business as usual at Renner Corner Meats, said Dean Sorum, owner of the locker and meat processor in Renner. The shop is busy butchering and processing 200 deer from hunters without much talk of CWD.

Sorum said wildlife officials have visited the shop to collect a few heads at hunters’ request.

“Those people who had any concern at all would let the meat sit in (in their freezer) until they got their test results back,” he said.

Ron Fowler, wildlife programs administrator for GF&P, said selected hunters will be asked again next deer and elk seasons to assist in the testing.

He said laboratory testing may transfer to South Dakota State University next fall. The university is applying for certification, which would speed up results.

Fowler said the strong participation by hunters makes them a valuable wildlife management partner.

“We need hunters to control the deer population,” he said. “Most diseases are density related, and we expect it’s the case with this disease as well.”