(Jan. 23, 3:23 p.m.) PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — A preliminary study looking into the link between a virulent strain of E. coli and Salinas Valley wildlife is expected out in February.

A status report is part of a three-year study started in 2007. It’s being released before the final report is done due in part to media requests for updates, said Andy Gordus, a Department of Fish and Game ecological toxicologist. The report is a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state Department of Fish and Game, and the University of California-Davis, which are surveying the prevalence of E. coli 0157:H7 in wildlife.

“The science doesn’t exist,” Gordus said, about a possible link between wildlife and the spread of E. coli to crops like lettuce or spinach.

Started in the wake of the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach, the study’s findings will be based on wildlife colon and fecal samples collected in Monterey and San Benito counties. The study targets what are considered “high-risk” animals and carriers of the bacteria — deer, elk, mice, birds, feral pigs — under food safety rules.

Although the Food and Drug Administration’s investigation into the E. coli outbreak focused on a possible link to wildlife, including wild hogs in the area or transference of cattle manure, no definite link was found.

The department of fish and game solicited help from deer hunters last deer hunting season, from Aug. 9 to Sept. 21. Hunters collected more than 375 deer colon samples, though Gordus declined to comment on whether any tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.

The announcement came Jan. 22 at the annual Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove during a panel discussion on the conflict between food safety standards and conservation practices among Salinas Valley growers.

Rob Gularte has had to change his conventional and organic farming practices in the past two years because of new food safety rules.

Gularte is a co-owner of Rincon Farms, Gonzales, Calif., with 700 acres in production, a third of them certified organic. He contracts with shippers to sell his produce, and a stricter “super-matrix” of food safety rules imposed by retailers, shippers and other buyers of produce are causing environmental problems in the Salinas Valley.

He said his environmental concerns include buffer zones resulting in wildlife habitat removal and erosion, and standards — covering both conventional and organic crops — that are causing some growers to leave productive land fallow.

The standards, outlined in the California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement (whose members include almost 100% of the state’s shippers) include measures for increased fencing and buffer zones to keep wildlife out of fields and crops away from livestock producers.

Gularte said at the behest of safety auditors and buyers he’s spent $30,000 erecting plastic fencing to keep frogs out of his row crops, and has had patches of crops rejected by suppliers out of concerns of contact with wildlife.

“It’s expensive to remove habitat,” Gularte said.

The link between wildlife, wetlands, and the spread of E. coli 0157:H7 has little scientific backing, said panelist Diana Stuart, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has been studying the issue for several years.

“Many food safety standards are now conflicting with environmental standards,” Stuart said.

Groups such as the Community Alliance of Family Farmers, Davis, and the Wild Farm Alliance, Watsonville, Calif., are hoping new science will lead to revisions in the leafy greens marketing agreement and other food safety protocols.