FILE - Illinois, deer, Shawnee National Forest

In this April 9, 2013 photo, a white tailed deer moves through the Shawnee National Forest near Belknap, Ill. 

(The Center Square) – Illinois is offering hunters free testing for deer to find deer that have been infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Taxidermist Robyn Rocke, owner of Rocke Wildlife Studio in Eureka, Ill., said many hunters do not know anything about CWD.

“Probably, most hunters have no idea about it. They are hunting and they are eating the meat. They are not worried about it. And they are probably fine,” Rocke said.

The problem is that a deer can carry the CWD infection for several years without showing any outward signs of the disease. Until an infected deer is close to death, it is impossible to distinguish a healthy deer from an infected deer, Rocke said. Rocke sends deer meat samples to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) for CWD testing when his customers bring a deer in to be mounted.

CWD has been detected in deer from 17 Illinois counties: Winnebago, Boone, McHenry, DeKalb, Ogle, LaSalle, Stephenson, Jo Daviess, Kane, Grundy, Kendall, DuPage, Lake, Will, Livingston, Kankakee and Carroll. Most infected deer are in northern Illinois.

“It’s working its way down from the north part of the state. IDNR is keeping an eye on it. That’s just about the only thing that they can do,” Rocke said.

Rocke collects samples from about 70 deer a year for testing. So far, none of the tests have come back positive, he said. He advises people to take advantage of the free IDNR tests, because eating meat from deer with CWD is not advisable, he said.

You cannot count on meat companies that process deer to test for CWD, Rocke warns.

“They would probably not take the time to do that,” he said. “They don’t want to scare people unduly.”

So far, there has not been a documented case where CWD has infected a human who has eaten deer meat, Rocke said.

“But it is similar to mad cow disease, which could do that,” he cautioned. “If the DNR tests your deer and finds CWD, they will call you. And they recommend that you do not eat that meat. So they are trying to be careful about it.”

Rocke reminds people that it is against the law in Illinois to feed deer, because drawing different deer together spreads CWD.

“It is critical that people do not put out salt licks or a salt block where deer would be drawn to one spot,” Rocke said. “People just do not realize that they are really doing a bad thing when they do that.”

Dense concentration of deer in a single place, such as around a salt block or a mound of corn kernels, makes the disease more transmittable amongst the deer population, the DWR website warns.