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Avian Influenza spreading rapidly across Montana

Avian Flu
Posted at 10:00 AM, Jan 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-20 12:00:38-05

KALISPELL - Three grizzly bears were euthanized this fall after testing positive for avian influenza, the largest outbreak of the virus since 2015.

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

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

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

Dr. Zaluski said the virus has adapted to a highly pathogenic form, crossing over into different species, "we know there is just a lot of virus in the environment and there has been for many months.".

The virus has crossed over into mammals as three grizzly bears in Montana tested positive this fall after showing poor neurological issues including disorientation and blindness.

“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 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Ramsey.

Dr. 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,” added Dr. Ramsey.

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 Dr. Ramsey.

Dr. 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,” said Dr. Zaluski.