Wildlife managers across the country are wondering what their next step might be after a deadly strain of bird flu was discovered in wild turkeys for the first time ever.
Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), caused by a virus known as H5N1, has been sweeping the continent since it first hit Canadian shores in December 2021. From there, the virus made its way into a major commercial operation in Turkey in the south. Indiana.
Since its arrival in the United States, the numbers of highly pathogenic avian influenza have continued to rise, and now, the United States is in the midst of the largest outbreak of avian influenza to date.
The last major outbreak spanned the winter of 2014 and lasted until June 2015, when temperatures finally rose in the northern parts of the country enough to halt the cold-adapted virus. Like the 2014 to 2015 outbreak, the current strain of avian influenza came to North America from China via the movement of migratory birds.
While the latest strain of highly virulent avian influenza kills domestic birds by the tens of millions, it is the toll the outbreak is taking in wild birds, and turkeys in particular, that is drawing attention in the hunting and conservation communities.
Western Turkey bears the brunt
Last month, bird flu emerged in Maryam’s dead turkeys in Montana and then in Wyoming shortly thereafter.
In Montana, three turkeys from an urban flock in Billings have tested positive for HPAI after a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) report was reported by a resident who found two of the birds dead in his yard. Highly virulent bird flu-positive trots were just three of seven dead turkeys found by FWP rangers in the Billings neighborhood.
Dr. Jennifer Ramsay, a Montana FWP wildlife veterinarian, told MeatEater. “They are wild turkeys, but they are not the typical wild birds found in the wild that live completely wild.”
There is some debate as to whether these turkeys are really wild — a Montana FWP communications director said the herd likely bred with domestic turkeys at some point.
While Billings’ usual birds were the first wild turkeys ever tested positive for bird flu in North America, they aren’t the only wild birds in Big Sky State to have contracted the disease this year.
“We are definitely seeing more wild bird deaths this time around than we did in 2015,” Ramsay said. “Twenty bad years have been, but we haven’t had nearly as many calls and reports and animal tests positive.”
Ramsay said the hardest-hit species in Montana, so far, are snow geese, Canada geese, and various types of raptors.
“Snow geese and Canada geese are badly affected,” she said. “And we’ve had reports of a lot of raptors contracting this. We’ve got turkey vultures, many hawks, and we’re getting quite a few great-horned owls that have died and have tested positive.”
While the USDA reports that only 18 birds in Montana have tested positive for bird flu in its official statistics, Ramsay says that number is much lower than what she actually sees in her daily work with reported cases of bird flu.
“We keep getting calls, which is somewhat frustrating,” she said. “We have a blueprint for prioritizing which ones we need to test and which ones we don’t because we can’t test all of them. There are a lot of ways.”
The wild birds of nearby Wyoming are an even worse gift. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), at least 38 wild birds have been tested positive for H5N1in in the State Cowboy. Eleven of these were wild turkeys that died near a captive pheasant farm operated by the Wyoming Department of Fishing and Hunting (WGFD).
Pheasant farming concerns
As HPAI is known to wipe out captive bird populations, the presence of the virus in the vicinity of a pheasant breeding facility immediately raised red flags within the WGFD.
Among what it described as “an abundance of caution for the thousands of birds that will soon hatch,” the agency evacuated 1,200 mothers of pheasants raised in barns at Sheridan Bird Ranch. With two breeding facilities, the WGFD incubates and hatches approximately 40,000 birds annually, which are birds the agency stores on public lands in eastern and central Wyoming throughout the highland birding season.
Dr. Samantha Allen is a wildlife veterinarian with the WGFD. It says that pen-bred riders in other states contracted H5N1 from 2021 to 2022.
“I think the risk definitely exists because other states have bird farms that get infected with this strain, and they all died pretty quickly,” Allen told Mitt Eater. “I know that in places like Texas and New York, they have had to depopulate entire pheasant farms because they have bird flu.”
It says that none of the pheasant mothers from Sheridan’s toy farm have been tested for bird flu either before or after euthanasia. But it is very likely that if any of the captive riders were king By contracting the virus, the entire facility could have been evacuated, not just the spawning flocks.
“The unfortunate thing when it comes to catching bird flu is, first of all, pheasants really get sick and die, but you also have to get rid of everything on the premises,” she said. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I have this breeding set and then I have these chicks, and I’m just going to get rid of the breeding set at this point. “If you have artificial intelligence on your farm, every bird must be depopulated.”
The discovery of highly pathogenic avian influenza near a pheasant captive facility has angered conservationists who fear that birds feeding on barns and then releasing them into wild populations could exacerbate the spread of this deadly pathogen.
In Montana, a new pheasant breeding program, mandated by legislative action in the spring of 2021, is in the early stages of implementation. When up and running, the new program aims to release up to 50,000 cyclists each year on “appropriate and qualified state-owned land.”
A pheasant breeding program is being prepared at the Montana State Penitentiary, where it will be staffed with inmates. $1 million of license-supported Public Works Program funds have already been allocated for this project.
Writing on behalf of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers in an opinion piece recently published in Billings GazetteMissoula’s attorney, Graham Cobbs, said the Montana FWP’s plan to start a stocking program for the ring-necked pheasant amid an outbreak of bird flu could have catastrophic effects.
“While the legislature allocated special money to this project, it was long before bird flu arrived,” Cobbs wrote. “The Fish and Wildlife Committee can still say no. Given the new and emerging avian virus, this appears to be the perfect time for the committee to return the chicks to the egg, so to speak, and prevent a biological catastrophe.”
In a recent press release, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks attempted to allay these concerns, saying that riders at its new facility had recently been tested for HPAI, and “all results were negative.”
“We take the threat from highly pathogenic avian influenza seriously and are closely monitoring the stock in partnership with staff at the prison,” FWP Director Hank Worsech said in the press release. “The safety measures people are taking to ensure the health of the herd are impressive – on par with any medical facility. They have gone above and beyond from a biosecurity standpoint.”
Although the current strain of H5N1 that circulates in wild and domestic birds in North America has a low zoonotic potential, meaning that transmission from birds to humans is unlikely, only one case of the virus has been reported that jumped the species barrier and ended up in humans. user. This case involved an inmate in a Colorado prison who contracted highly pathogenic avian influenza while culling infected birds on a private poultry farm as part of an early release work program. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the man was asymptomatic and has since recovered.
A new future for the Wild Turks?
When it came to wild turkeys, a few game managers in the US predicted that bird flu would emerge as a potential threat to the already beleaguered flocks of turkeys in the country.
“I’ll be honest, it wasn’t something we really pay much attention to because it usually affects other species like waterfowl and domestic chickens,” wild turkey expert Mike Chamberlain told MeatEater.
Chamberlain is the Terrel Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia. He has been immersed in wild turkey research throughout his career, and has been an avid turkey hunter for most of his life.
He says the anecdotal reports he gets of flocks of wild turkeys in areas affected by highly pathogenic avian influenza are alarming.
“A lot of people have contacted me about this,” Chamberlain said. “One of them was a processing worker in the Sheridan area, Wyoming. I was supposed to hunt on his land, and he called me last week when I was about to drive from South Dakota to visit him and said, ‘The birds are gone.’”
The area Chamberlain planned to hunt was near Buffalo, Wyoming, the same area where the WDFG had to euthanize its flock of barn-raised pheasants after autopsies confirmed 11 dead turkeys for the presence of the highly virulent bird flu virus.
“He texted me a couple of days later and said the population continued to drop,” Chamberlain said. “He said the birds are just disappearing. The birds he was watching are no longer there.”
Chamberlain went on to say that many birds that contract diseases such as highly virulent avian influenza will go unnoticed by state agencies and USDA officials.
“The problem with these diseases is that birds get sick, then get sick, and then hide,” he said. “They go for cover somewhere and die, so we don’t know anything about that.”
Chamberlain fears that herds of western turkeys, which have largely escaped the kind of declines that have plagued turkey numbers in other parts of the country, could see their numbers decline as well if the highly virulent bird flu virus gets out of control.
“The population in the West has not, in many ways, experienced some of the declines that we have seen in the South and East,” he said. “But these anecdotal reports that I receive are very worrying. I would be curious to see if they would pay off, in other words, if the agencies recognized that we really had success in some of these areas.”
While hunting for turkeys in South Dakota this year, Chamberlain encountered a dead horned owl amid a freshly cut hay pasture.
“We were scrambling across this meadow to try and cut a bird before it escaped, and I peeked over my shoulder and happened to notice a dead horned owl lying there,” he said. “I didn’t pay much attention to him at the time, and then the next day this store called me, and I said to myself, ‘Damn, I wonder if this bird had bird flu and died of it. “I reported it, but I wasn’t in a position to go back to it. By the time I realized it, I was four hours away.”
According to APHIS, South Dakota has seen at least 50 wild birds tested positive for the highly virulent avian influenza virus, with neighboring North Dakota topping the country with 197 known cases.
Back in Montana, Jennifer Ramsay and her art team rely on encounters like Chamberlain to track the spread of bird flu in the landscape.
“Most of our calls come from the public,” she said. “Like people who have owls in their yard, or just strange birds in strange places they have never seen before. They have these encounters with dead birds that are out of the ordinary and they call to report.”
If you see a bird that may have died from highly contagious bird flu, you should report it to your nearest game supervisor immediately. And while the likelihood of humans contracting this particular strain of bird flu is low, Dr. Samantha Allen of the WDFG recommends caution when handling dead, harvested or otherwise dead birds.
“There is a low risk of potential zoonosis with this disease,” she said. “Wear rubber gloves when cutting and opening things to be careful.”
Main image via ‘John Hefner’.