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Avian influenza continues spreading in Montana, even to grizzly bears

Undated photo of grizzly bears
Posted at 6:37 PM, Jan 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-21 11:57:22-05

KALISPELL — Three juvenile grizzly bears in Montana tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus this fall, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

The agency said in a news release on Tuesday, January 17, 2023, that the three bears - one near Augusta, one near Dupuyer, and one near Kalispell - were observed to be "in poor condition and exhibited disorientation and partial blindness, among other neurological issues."

The three bears were euthanized due to their sickness and poor condition. These were the first documented cases of HPAI in grizzly bears.

“This year is unique, again both in the geographical spread but also in the ferociousness of the outbreaks,” said Dr. Martin Zaluski, Montana Department of Livestock veterinarian.

Avian influenza is spreading rapidly across the country in both wild and domestic birds, including here in Montana.

“We have over 50 million birds affected and it’s probably the most consequential animal health disease outbreak in the country,” said Zaluski.

Zaluski said the virus has adapted into a highly pathogenic form, crossing over into several species.

“We know there is just a lot of virus in the environment and there has been for many months,” he noted.

As for the three bears that were euthanized: “They probably just you know found a food source and, in the fall, they’re trying to put on weight for the winter and so they probably had consumed birds that had died from the virus,” said Dr. Jennifer Ramsey, a veterinarian with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

Jennifer Ramsey, a veterinarian with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks
Jennifer Ramsey, a veterinarian with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks

Ramsey said skunks and foxes have also been found dead from the virus in Montana as it crosses into different mammals.

“It’s just one more thing you know to deal with and then we don’t have a good way to control it, you know it’s a virus so there’s not a treatment for it, birds can die in places no one could ever recover them so they’re out there and they’re available for scavengers,” she explained.

She said the virus continues to spike in different areas across the state, months after the outbreak was first detected.

“We were all hoping that it would be a more short-lived outbreak but unfortunately it’s dragging on, and you know we’re seeing right now, some parts of the state are just seeing really high numbers of wild bird mortality,” said Ramsey.

Zaluski said epidemiologists are tracking the virus closely: “Because one of the reasons why our response is fairly aggressive to the detections of avian influenza is that we’re trying to prevent another mutation that might be of greater public health concern.”

Avian influenza (AI) virus is a naturally-occurring virus in birds. AI viruses are classified into two groups, based on the severity of disease they cause in infected poultry. Low pathogenic AI viruses generally cause no clinical illness, or only minor symptoms in birds. HPAI viruses are extremely infectious and fatal to poultry and some species of wild birds.

Although the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention considers risk of HPAI spread to humans to be very low, Montanans are advised to take precautions when handling game birds, sick or dead birds and mammals they find. Whenever possible, avoid contact with sick or dead wildlife. Even if an animal is not suspected to have died from a contagious disease, gloves should always be worn if a dead animal must be handled for disposal.

FWP staff would like to know about unusual or unexplained cases of sickness and/or death of wild birds and animals by calling their local wildlife biologist or the wildlife lab in Bozeman at 406-577-7880 or 406-577-7882.