Worst Avian Flu in U.S. History Is Hitting Poultry, Wild Birds, Even Bears


In South Dakota, the highly contagious bird flu, typically transmitted by the feces, mucus and saliva of wild birds, first hit commercial poultry farms in March 2022 and has continued to affect flocks. Within the last month, egg-laying hens and turkeys at several local farms were infected, leading to the deaths of more than 1.3 million poultry over that period, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Nearly four million poultry have died in the state since the start of the outbreak. 

‘We don’t know why it has been able to thrive for so long. We’re almost a full year into this outbreak and it is ongoing.’


— Maggie Baldwin, Colorado’s state veterinarian

Nebraska, where more than 4.8 million poultry died during a 2015 bird-flu outbreak, has surpassed 6.7 million poultry deaths from the current outbreak, according to state and federal data. 

Colorado has lost more than 90% of its table egg-laying hens, while also seeing its population of wild birds including snow geese, raptors, hawks and eagles sickened, state officials said. 

“One of the challenges is that we don’t know why it has been able to thrive for so long. We’re almost a full year into this outbreak and it is ongoing,” said

Maggie Baldwin,

Colorado’s state veterinarian. 

Some 6.25 million poultry in Colorado have died so far.

People working on the problem say there is no easy way to stop the spread of bird flu. Instead, the virus must be allowed to run its course.

“There is no historical context for this. It’s like when Covid hit for humans,” said

Mike Tincher,

rehabilitation coordinator for Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Raptor Program.

To keep bird flu from spreading, entire poultry flocks must be destroyed after an infection is confirmed. The outbreak has caused the deaths of nearly 58 million poultry in 47 states, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Customers are told about the egg shortage and higher prices in Racine, Wis.



Photo:

Mark Hertzberg/Zuma Press

While it rarely affects humans, the disease is mostly fatal for domestic birds. It can also infect other animals. On Tuesday, Montana wildlife officials said three young grizzly bears had contracted bird flu during the fall and were euthanized, the first known cases of grizzlies getting the disease. The bears likely contracted the virus from eating infected birds, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks veterinarian

Jennifer Ramsey.

One facility in Colorado’s Weld County that had restocked with healthy hens after initially having to euthanize its flock because of the virus was struck again by an outbreak last month, said

Bill Scebbi,

executive director of the Colorado Egg Producers, which represents five family farms. The facility had to euthanize its new flock, Mr. Scebbi said. 

He said the flu has been destructive to Colorado’s egg industry, with farmers having to purchase eggs from out of state to meet customer demand. Egg farmers aren’t insured against the virus, Mr. Scebbi said, and estimated losses are in the millions.

“It’s been devastating to their businesses, to their farms and personally devastating to their livelihoods,” he said. 

Still, according to

Emily Metz,

president and chief executive of the American Egg Board, which represents egg producers, many farms around the country are recovering from the outbreak. There are currently about 6% fewer hens laying eggs than normal nationwide, she said. 

According to the group, egg producers have developed better biosecurity measures since the 2015 outbreak—such as securing areas to keep wild birds away and keeping equipment clean—which can help keep the virus from spreading from farm to farm.

Wholesale prices of Midwest large eggs hit a record $5.46 a dozen in December, according to the research firm Urner Barry. Prices have fallen back to $3.77 a dozen this month after the seasonal demand of the holiday baking season.

In addition to the millions of poultry at farms that have been killed, many wild birds have been infected as well, officials said.

Jim Gammonley,

who supervises the avian research program for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife division, said the state has experienced die-offs of snow geese in the thousands due to the virus.

The die-offs have typically occurred in and around reservoirs where the snow geese like to roost at night, he said. In one case, field staff were called to a reservoir just before Thanksgiving where they found about 1,000 dead geese, which they retrieved. The next day, the employees returned to check on the reservoir and found another 1,000 dead geese, Mr. Gammonley said. 

Mr. Tincher said his group had located 37 raptors that had tested positive for the virus and referred another 19 to state officials for testing. Such animals typically get the virus by feeding off diseased geese and ducks.

“We’ve never seen this before. And it’s just not slowing down,” he said. 

Write to Dan Frosch at dan.frosch@wsj.com

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