HELENA, Mont. – Three young Montana grizzly bears have been euthanized after contracting a highly contagious strain of bird flu last fall.
The bears, which were found near Augusta, Dupuyer and Kalispell, were in poor condition and exhibited disorientation and partial blindness as well as other neurological issues, officials at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said.
These were the first documented cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in grizzly bears, wildlife officials said Tuesday.
A fox and a skunk in Montana also tested positive for HPAI last year, and the virus has been found in raccoons, black bears and even a coyote in other states and countries.
"We suspect these mammals probably get the virus from consuming infected birds," the department's wildlife veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey said.
Bird flu outbreak
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPAI viruses have been detected in nearly 58 million wild aquatic birds, commercial poultry and backyard or hobbyist flocks in the U.S. since last January.
Montana's first case of avian influenza was detected last spring and continues to have a significant impact on domestic and wild birds, wildlife officials said.
"Many people have noticed dead geese in the Missouri River in and around Great Falls, which are suspected to have died from the disease," the agency said. "Cold weather is helping to preserve the carcasses and keeping these waterfowl mortalities noticeable for longer periods of time."
Although there have been no reports of human infections from the avian influenza strains recently detected in the U.S., people and pets should avoid contact with sick or dead wildlife, and gloves should always be worn if a dead animal must be handled for disposal.
Shell-shocked over eggs
The outbreak of bird flu has driven a shortage of eggs as well as a dramatic increase in prices in stores throughout some parts of the country.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the Consumer Price Index for eggs rose 11.1% in December – 160% over the level of December 2021 – to an average price of $4.25 per dozen. That price was nearly $2.50 higher than the $1.79 price in December 2021.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the prices for shell eggs at retail have begun to ease but remain at historically high levels.
What is bird flu?
Avian influenza is a naturally occurring virus in birds and is classified into two groups based on the severity of the disease they cause in infected poultry.
Low-pathogenic avian influenza 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.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk of HPAI spread to humans very low. However, people should take precautions when handling game birds as well as sick or dead birds and mammals they find.
Whenever possible, avoid contact with sick or dead wildlife, officials warn. Even if an animal is not suspected of having died from a contagious disease, gloves should always be worn if a dead animal must be handled for disposal.