LOUISIANA OFFICIALS are conducting a test they hope will fail. Wildlife and fisheries agents are sampling the state's deer population for the fatal chronic wasting disease — a disease of deer and elk about which little is known although it apparently is spreading across the continent.

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

“It was really a western problem for years and years,” said LSU AgCenter wildlife specialist Don Reed, adding, “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 in late October it was discovered in Illinois. Now chronic wasting disease 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 wildlife manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “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, who say the testing near pen facilities is important because there is strong evidence the disease was spread by the movement of captive deer and elk.

Wildlife and fisheries officials also are working to pass legislation that would help reduce the risk of chronic wasting disease entering the state.

“Our primary regulation is to prevent importation of deer and elk into the state,” Savage explained. Other regulations include a moratorium on new game breeder pens in the state and requiring pen managers to report any mortality within a pen.