WALDPORT — The most explosive issue in the history of North American deer and elk management could erupt from the end of a grapefruit knife that Doug Cottam bought at Fred Meyer.

Hands safely squeezed into latex gloves, he kneels at a rural roadside in a light mist and works the bent blade carefully down the cranial canal of a poached elk to slice free the bull’s brainstem.

“There it is,” the seasoned Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist says quietly, with a little awe. “That’s all there is to it.”

Biologists, Oregon State Police, sheriff’s deputies, treaty tribal members, hunters, ranchers, zookeepers — even state and county road crews that come upon roadkill — have spread throughout Oregon this fall in a determined effort to make sure a deadly brain disease hasn’t invaded from its strongholds in Rocky Mountain states and Canadian provinces.

The 500 to 1,500 samples being collected mark the state’s most intense and widespread surveillance of big game animals, part of a nationwide race against chronic wasting disease, a fatal, incurable biological time bomb. It threatens North America’s wild and domestic herds, along with billions of dollars invested in hunting, farming and wildlife management.

The best and earliest test thus far is possible only on the brainstems of animals within 24 hours of death, making the fall hunting seasons a perfect sampling window.

So far, Oregon is disease-free, but chronic wasting has been diagnosed in free-ranging or captive mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk in 11 states and two Canadian provinces, some of which have slaughtered thousands of wild deer and farmed elk to stem the spread.

Urgency heightens every time it hopscotches across entire states or even within new borders.

Last week, it was reported in an elk at Wind Cave National Park near Mount Rushmore, South Dakota’s second case in a wild elk. In early November, Illinois’ first case was diagnosed.

“It’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen,” said Cottam, 43. “These things are awfully hard to stop.”

Chronic wasting, similar to mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, appears limited to deer and elk. Testing across the continent concentrates on those two species, with surveillance and research on other species in their family, called cervids. They include a wide range of grazing animals, from moose, caribou and reindeer to tiny imports such as axis, fallow and sika deer.

Oregon is gathering as many specimens as possible from its 67 geographic game management units through December. They’ll be shipped in January to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. Results are expected in the spring or early summer. Another intense collection scheduled for 2003 will give biologists a far better idea of the disease’s presence, and annual tests will continue for the foreseeable future.

Dozens of states, including Oregon, have banned all interstate traffic on cervids, putting the skids on a growing elk-ranching industry and affecting species that haven’t been afflicted, such as axis, fallow and sika deer raised for their restaurant-quality venison. Even reindeer used in live Santa Claus displays can’t cross many state lines.

Cottam and other biologists in Oregon began with buck deer seasons in late September, but poor hunting in dry fall weather almost immediately sent them searching for additional sources.

“We’ve gotten a lot of cooperation,” said Cottam, who’s attached to Fish and Wildlife’s Newport office. “And it’s across the board, with hunters, game farmers, tribal hunters, road crews, state police, everyone. I’ve actually gotten many of my samples from department employees who call me from their own hunts. Nobody wants this here.”

Perhaps the most unusual collection point is the Wildlife Safari “meat wagon,” which has a state permit to search Winston-area roadways each morning for fresh roadkill to feed its large cats. The drive-through zoo has contributed more than 20 skulls to the state’s effort.

On Veterans Day, Cottam plied narrow roads perched along steep mountainsides between Philomath, Waldport and Newport, talking with several luckless elk hunters before Oregon State Police Trooper Todd Thompson of Newport radioed him with the discovery north of Waldport of an elk shot to death during the night.

The poached animal was unsalvageable, but Thompson severed its skull and packed it several hundred yards to the nearest highway. Cottam extracted the brainstem within a few minutes and left Thompson and Trooper Greg Torland to investigate.

Don Whittaker, a staff biologist coordinating the sampling, said extra attention is being paid to regions such as the northern areas of Central Oregon, where tuberculosis was discovered last year at an elk-ranching operation.

Tests on lung tissues also are being made in those zones for TB, another disease feared to be spreading among the continent’s wildlife. Some forms are transmissible to humans, although chronic wasting has not jumped from the cervid species to humans or other grazing animals, such as cattle.

Whittaker points out that chronic wasting is not related to two other diseases afflicting deer in Oregon.

One, hair-loss syndrome, affects black-tailed deer in most Western Oregon units. Deer apparently carry parasites that cause them to rub and tear at their hair. In many cases, they eventually succumb to exposure.

The eating quality of venison from hair-loss deer is not affected, however.

Mule deer in Central and Western Oregon, most recently around Sisters and the Crooked River Ranch but also near Cottage Grove, Mosier and Sunriver, are plagued with adenovirus, a viral disease with flu-like symptoms that’s usually fatal.

That venison also is edible, but deer with adenovirus act so sickly that hunters rarely take them.

An outbreak of adenovirus in the 1990s in Northern California killed tens of thousands of deer.

Linda Detwiler, a veterinarian for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Robbinsville, N.J., said the Ames lab participated in a nationwide symposium on chronic wasting held in July in Denver.

Interest was so high, she said, that the lab certified and contracted with 15 private labs to handle the increased traffic.

Larry Cooper, deputy wildlife division director for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Oregon has been told that the federal government will pay the testing bills at $35 to $50 apiece.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers chronic wasting information at www.aphis.usda.govoacwdindex.html

“Ultimately, we’re going to find a better test for it,” Detwiler said. Numerous companies are working on a live test for chronic wasting in cervids. They think they’ll have the tests certified and on the market in 2003 or 2004, making year-round sampling far more feasible.

And more palatable for biologists such as Cottam, limited now to testing animals already killed or those that biologists might have to kill if the infection appears.

“I can’t even imagine having to go through something like Colorado or Wisconsin, where guys like me have to wipe out everything,” Cottam said.

Finding a cure, however, is far less certain, because little is known about chronic wasting’s cause and transmission.

“Veterinarians like to think more in terms of prevention,” Detwiler said. “We’ve got to get it stopped.”