Hunters killed 344 deer during the first three days of a special southeast Minnesota whitetail season prompted by the discovery there of two animals that carried chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The hunt, which began Saturday and ends Jan. 15, is being held in a 371-square-mile area surrounding the location near Lanesboro where the infected deer were killed by hunters in November.

Since then, a third hunter-killed deer carrying CWD was detected in the southeast. The diseased animals were among 40,000 deer tested in Minnesota by the Department of Natural Resources since 2002.

The DNR has monitored harvested deer in the southeast in recent years because the state’s only previous CWD-positive wild deer also was found there, in 2011 near Pine Island.

The DNR hopes about 900 adult deer are killed in the ongoing hunt and a follow-on landowner hunt, giving researchers a large enough sample to determine whether CWD is widespread in the area or limited to a few animals.

CWD is progressively fatal to deer, elk and moose. The disease is carried in the animals’ saliva and other body fluids, and close contact among animals is believed to encourage its transmission. For that reason, the DNR has banned deer feeding in Fillmore, Houston, Mower, Olmsted and Winona counties.

No CWD test exists for live deer.

DNR research manager Lou Cornicelli said Tuesday his agency is unsure how many hunters have been in the field since Saturday. About 2,300 residents and 150 nonresidents have purchased special $2.50 disease management permits, Cornicelli said.

Those with unfilled deer licenses from the fall were allowed to hunt without the permits.

Most land in the disease management zone is privately owned, and access permission is required. Limited public land within the zone includes Forestville State Park, where “a lot of hunters’’ have been seen, Cornicelli said.

Hunters who kill deer in the CWD hunt are required to register them at DNR stations in Chatfield, Preston, Lanesboro or Wykoff. A station was established in Harmony, but was closed due to inactivity, Cornicelli said.

The Preston station has been busiest. The DNR has placed dumpsters at its Forestry office there for carcass disposal, as well as butchering tables and a refrigerated trailer for use by hunters who wish to leave their deer on site until CWD tests are complete.

Boned-out meat, quarters with bone in it and antlers without brain material can be moved from the disease management zone. But the remaining carcass — including the head and spinal column — must remain in the zone until a negative CWD test result is received.

Glands removed from harvested animals by DNR technicians when the deer are registered are flown to Colorado State University for testing, with results posted on the Minnesota DNR website, usually after three business days (any hunters whose deer test positive will be contacted by the DNR.)

A tally of deer counted in a recent helicopter survey of the disease management zone isn’t complete. But “there’s no shortage of deer in the area,’’ Cornicelli said. The majority of whitetails killed so far in the hunt have been does, he said, adding that some bucks in the area have dropped their antlers.

More information about the CWD hunt is online at tinyurl.com/z6cdj2y.