HOUMA — State wildlife agents are sampling the state’s deer population for chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness about which little is known, although it apparently is spreading across the continent.

Thousands of hunters flock to the forests each fall and winter to hunt deer, whose populations are flourishing in Louisiana. The state Wildlife and Fisheries Department estimates that deer hunting brings in around $600 million a year to Louisiana’s economy.

Like mad-cow disease in cattle or scrapie in sheep, chronic wasting is a disease in which mutant proteins attack the brain. It always is fatal for deer or elk.

“It was really a western problem for years and years,” said LSU AgCenter wildlife specialist Don Reed. “What really brought it to light here in Louisiana is this past spring when they discovered it in Wisconsin.”

That was the first time the disease was discovered east of the Mississippi River. Then, late last month, it was found in Illinois. Now it has been diagnosed in deer and elk populations in 11 states and two Canadian provinces.

The disease has alarmed hunters around the country, but officials say that while it is best to take precautions when handling the brains or other potentially infected glands, people do not need to stop hunting.

“At this time, all evidence shows that chronic wasting disease is not a threat to humans,” Reed said.

In addition, there also is no evidence the disease exists in Louisiana.

But the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is testing dead deer to be sure. Agents are removing brain stems, lymph glands and tonsils, mainly from hunter-harvested deer, and sending the tissues to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Services Vet Lab in Ames, Iowa.

“We are going to sample about 500 to 1,000 deer this year,” said Larry Savage, a state wildlife manager. “Our surveillance plan includes random testing statewide. It also includes targeted animals from specific areas.”

Targeted animals include sick animals and wild deer near pen facilities, according to officials. Testing near pens is important because there is strong evidence the disease was spread by the movement of captive deer and elk.

Wildlife officials said they also are working to pass legislation that may help reduce the risk of chronic wasting disease entering the state. Regulations could include a moratorium on new game-breeder pens in the state and requiring managers to report any deer that die in their pens.

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