The quest for whitetails during the upcoming firearms deer season in Missouri will include a wide-scale hunt for a disease that hasn’t yet been found in the state.

Jeff Beringer hopes testing brain stems from 6,000 deer for chronic wasting disease will show the disease isn’t present in Missouri’s deer herd.

Beringer, who has been studying CWD for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said he doesn’t know whether the effort he’s helping set up is the most intensive testing of wildlife in the department’s history, but it will involve a lot of work.

“I’m just calling it a surveillance effort; we’re looking for it,” Beringer said.

A less intensive testing program last year in Missouri detected no CWD.

It has showed up elsewhere.

Wisconsin began testing deer for CWD in 1999, and no one expected deer heads sent in for testing in 2001 would reveal any problem, said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Laurel Steffes.

“We were frankly surprised and shocked when the USDA informed us we had three positives,” she said of results returned this past February.

In response, the state has declared a a 360-square-mile “eradica-tion zone” to kill all the deer within it. And this year, the Wisconsin department wants to test 50,000 deer heads.

Researchers say chronic wasting disease hasn’t been shown to infect people who eat venison.

While there is no indication CWD is in Missouri’s million-head whitetail deer herd, it has been around for 30 years in Colorado and several other states.

Researchers have determined CWD is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion, but don’t yet know how the disease spreads among deer, elk and related animals.

But an outbreak in Wisconsin has prompted a full-scale eradication effort in part of the state and a sampling program that dwarfs Missouri’s. That’s an indication of what the discovery of CWD can prompt.

CWD is classed as one of the spongiform encephalopathies, which include scrapie in sheep and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, popularly known as mad cow disease.

But unlike mad cow, there’s no indication humans can contract chronic wasting disease by eating venison.

“It’s going to be a big project,” Beringer said of a sampling effort in 30 randomly selected counties that will be most intense on the opening weekend of hunting season, Nov. 16-26. “There will be close to 300 people at check stations. Then we’ll have over 100 folks every day of the week collecting samples.”

In southwest Missouri, hunters in Greene, Christian, Taney and Jasper counties will be asked to donate 800 deer heads.

In 2001, the department tested 74 deer heads, none showing signs of CWD.

Delays at check-in stations should be minimal, Beringer said. “I think it will be pretty quick,” he said. “If things get slowed down, we’re going to wave hunters on through.”

And unless CWD is confirmed in Missouri, hunters won’t have to change their habits, Beringer said.

He sees no problem with hunters who have removed the meat from carcasses taking the bones back to the woods so other animals can scavenge them, for instance, Beringer said.

“Deer die every day in the woods and it’s natural for a hunter to take the remains back to the woods,” he said.

Finding out whether Missouri deer get a clean bill of health won’t happen for a while, department policy specialist Bob Ziehmer said.

“It’s likely it will be several months before results are available because several states are doing this,” he said.

Researchers are working on a “litmus test” procedure that would provide a quick way to determine if a deer is infected with CWD, but that’s going to take time, Ziehmer said.

Surveying deer for CWD would give the department a head start on stopping an outbreak, possibly avoiding what states like Wisconsin are facing, wildlife biologist Beringer said.

In 2001, officials with MDC, the state Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Senior Services devised a response plan calling for the eradication of deer in a specific area when it was suspected infected elk from Colorado had been sent to Missouri.

The plan wasn’t put into action after it was determined no elk were affected.

The situation is different near the Wisconsin town of Mount Horeb, where that state’s Department of Natural Resources is trying to kill 25,000 deer.

Wildlife officials didn’t think they would have to consider that until getting the startling news early this year that CWD was in the state’s deer herd, Wisconsin department spokeswoman Steffes said.

The discovery of CWD in Wisconsin may affect more than the willingness of hunters to head for the woods, Whitetails Unlimited executive director Peter Gerl said.

The sale of deer permits is down 22 percent for a firearms season that starts Nov. 23, he said.

“The concern here is because of the CWD and a lot of unknowns, hunters are plain skeptical,” Gerl said. “Ever since since Feb 28, it’s turned hunting upside down in the state of Wisconsin.”

Not only would a drop in hunting cut the $1 billion in revenue the annual hunt produces in the state by some $200 million, it could increase the chance of CWD spreading from a relatively small area, he said.

But other factors might be involved in the downturn, from holding the firearms hunt a week later than usual to banning deer baiting and feeding to reduce the chances of deer gathering in large groups, Steffes said.

Sturgeon Bay-based Whitetails Unlimited is cooperating with state agencies and other groups on a $300,000 campaign using bumper stickers, billboards and literature to encourage hunters.

Nothing like that is happening in Missouri, although the Conservation Department has provided advice to hunters on how to handle deer they’ve taken and has issued reassurances there never has been a proven case of a human contracting CWD from venison.

From talk he’s heard around Roy’s Store in the small Ozarks community of Dora, there isn’t much concern about CWD, store employee Glain Martin said.

Just west of the North Fork River, which is popular with weekend floaters during the summer months, Roy’s Store is a deer check-in station and something of a gathering place for local hunters.

Comments about CWD have been rare, Martin said.

“One of them did today,” he said of a hunter talking about CWD. “But that’s the first one.”