Three grizzlies have been euthanized in Montana after falling ill and testing positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (HPAI), according to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
These were the first documented cases of bird flu in a Montana grizzly bear and the first nationwide for this HPAI outbreak, according to department wildlife veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Ramsey.
The juvenile bears were at three separate locations in the western part of the state during the fall, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said in a statement.
The bears “were observed to be in poor condition and exhibited disorientation and partial blindness, among other neurological issues,” the statement said. “They were euthanized due to their illness and poor condition.”
Bird flu – commonly known as bird flu – is a naturally occurring virus that spreads rapidly among birds. There were documented cases of HPAI in a skunk and a fox in Montana last year, and the virus has been seen in raccoons, black bears and a coyote in other states and countries, according to the Montana agency.
“The virus spreads from bird to bird,” Dr. Ramsey told CNN via email. “These mammals likely became infected by consuming carcasses of HPAI-infected birds.”
“Fortunately, unlike avian cases, generally small numbers of mammalian cases have been reported in North America,” Ramsey said. “At this time, we continue to test any bears that show neurological symptoms or whose cause of death is unknown.”
Although the discovery of three grizzly bears with bird flu in a short time may raise concerns, Ramsey said there may well have been more cases that have gone undetected.
“When wildlife mortalities occur in such small numbers or in individuals, and in species like skunks, foxes and bears that don’t spend much time in situations where they are highly visible to the public, they can be difficult to detect,” the wildlife veterinarian said.
“When you get that first detection, you tend to start looking harder and you’re more likely to find new cases,” she said. “When a large number of birds are found dead on a body of water, it is noticed and reported…when someone sees a dead skunk they may not think about it and report it.”
Although it is not known how widespread the virus is in wild birds, “we do know that the virus is active essentially statewide due to the wide distribution of HPAI fatalities in some species of birds. ‘wild birds,’ Ramsey said.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in November the country was approaching “a record number of affected birds compared to previous avian flu outbreaks”, with more than 49 million birds in 46 states dying or killed due to exposure to infected birds.
Human infections with avian influenza are rare but are possible, “usually after close contact with infected birds. The current risk to the general public from avian influenza viruses is low,” the CDC states on its website.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks asks people to report any birds or animals acting “unusual or unexplained cases of illness and/or death.”
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