By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The state's deer herd will be tested again this year for chronic wasting disease, but the program's future is less certain.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is hoping to sample nearly 2,500 deer, most of which will be those killed during the state's firearms deer season, which opens Nov. 30.

Money for the testing program comes from a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a program in jeopardy because of the federal budget crunch.

"This could be the last year of the funding," said Shane Hesting, KDWP&T's wildlife disease coordinator. "They said it is, but I know things can change."

Already, the amount of money going to the state has declined, but is still enough to pay for conducting tests on the almost 2,500 samples they hope to collect.

The focus of the sampling program will continue to be on the northwest corner of the state, where the vast majority of the 40 -- one a captive elk -- cases of the always-fatal brain-wasting disease has been found.

But, Hesting said, there's a new focus on the north-central part of the state, the result of the discovery of a single CWD-infected deer in Smith County.

He's already signed up his usual cadre of people who will pull samples from deer killed by hunters or from road-killed deer.

"I signed up two or three more and lost about that many," Hesting said.

People who agree to pull the samples and send them in are paid $12 for each sample.

If funding is lost, Hesting expects the program will be scaled back, perhaps dramatically.

"We'll do something," he said.

But the sampling process might be small enough to lose some of the statistical confidence in the program. KDWP&T also might have to implement a program Colorado has developed that gives heavier weighting to sick deer.

"You test your deer more vulnerable and most likely to have CWD," Hesting said.

Road-killed deer might be more vulnerable to CWD, but are not considered to be any more valuable for testing for the disease.

Of the 39 CWD-positive deer that have been tested since 2005, only two appeared to be sick.

Road-killed deer account for only about 10 percent of the deer sampled, he said.

"Yet we've found three to four positives over the 15 years of surveying," Hesting said.

Statistically, only a small portion of the deer in the northwest part of the state -- with the exception of Decatur County -- are infected with CWD.

Hesting said he looked at Decatur, the hot spot for the disease, and estimates there's at least a 6 percent rate of infection for that county.

So far, 20 of the 39 cases of CWD in wild deer come from Decatur County. Six of the 10 cases discovered last year were in Decatur County.

The hot spot, he said, is northeast of Oberlin, along Sappa Creek.