September 12, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A disease in elk and deer, discovered in 1967, has spread over the years to eight states and two Canadian provinces to the extent that it is causing concern and fear among Oregon hunters.

Area biologists are thankful chronic wasting disease, the fatal illness that destroys the animals' brains and eventually kills it, hasn't reach Oregon. And biologists are ever alert to try to prevent its invasion. The state has banned importation of live deer and elk as well as any butchered meat from these animals killed elsewhere.

The state of Oregon has helped in the effort to stop the spread of the disease. On Aug. 9, the state adopted an emergency order prohibiting the importation of live deer and elk, as well as parts of butchered carcasses.

Although there is no evidence chronic wasting disease — a debilitating, ultimately fatal malady — can affect people, the fear of human infection remains.

"A real concern in what this is doing to people's confidence about hunting," said Gary Wolfe, a wildlife biologist from Missoula, Mont., and a former president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. "Sportsmen are scared. They're confused; they don't know where to turn for answers."

To try to allay those fears, scientists have been working to determine if there is any chance the disease can reach people — or even domestic animals — the way mad cow disease was transmitted to people in Great Britain. Mad cow disease, properly known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, has not reached the U.S.

There is a legitimate right to be concerned, officials in all effected states said. A Wyoming biologist, Beth Williams, was the first, in the late 1970s, to discover that chronic wasting disease is in the same family as BSE. But she and others have found no cases of transmission of CWD from deer and elk to cattle or sheep.

There is concern about the possibility of disease in captive elk and deer herds. Williams, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Wyoming and a pathologist at the state veterinary laboratory, said the disease is present in captive herds in five states.

The first positive in a farmed herd in the United States was detected in 1997 in South Dakota, said the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Since then, 16 more positive herds have been found: six in South Dakota, five in Colorado, three in Nebraska, and one each in Oklahoma and Montana.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists Leonard Erickson and Jim Cadwell, who work out of the La Grande office, are well acquainted with the disease.

"There have been no confirmed cases in Oregon, although we are concerned, as are all states," Erickson said.

Monitoring and testing began in Oregon last year and will continue, they said. The agency will get brain samples from the heads they collect of 25 deer and 25 elk in each of the four regions this fall in conjunction with the hunting season.

A special emphasis will be placed on Grant County, where tuberculosis was discovered last year in one animal on a game farm.

"We are always on the alert to any animal showing symptoms of any diseases, not just chronic wasting disease," Erickson said. When they can, the biologists get tissue samples for examination in the lab.

Cadwell said that in 2001 there were 97 samples taken for chronic wasting disease. Some 250 samples are planned for this year.

With no cases in Oregon, hunters need not fear but should take sensible precautions, the biologists said.

"Chronic wasting disease is not a major concern of us now," Erickson said. "But hunters should take extra precautions to look over the carcasses of the animals they take or take them to a butcher. If they've been hunting a long time, they should know what the insides of an animal look like when they dress it. They should look at the guts and see what's normal and what appears to be abnormal."

Cadwell added, "There are a lot of parasites in animals, unusual growths on their heads, for example. But these usually have nothing to do with the meat being contaminated."

However, if the meat just doesn't look right, the hunter should bring it in for testing, the biologists said. Better safe than sorry.

Both Cadwell and Erickson have been trained in meat inspection. They said the animal must have abnormalities in at least three places on its body before they will condemn it.

Freezing the meat really hard will take care of the parasites, they said. Cooking it well is best. Rare-meat eaters may be taking a chance, they said.

The biologists tell concerned hunters who call that they need to be aware that diseases are out there and to take precautions.

"I'm a hunter and I have no qualms about getting any disease," Erickson said. "I do take precautions, examine every piece of meat."