Grizzly bears have tested positive for bird flu in Montana, authorities said

Grizzly bears have tested positive for bird flu in Montana, authorities said

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Three grizzly bears were euthanized in Montana after they became ill and tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), according to the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

These were the first documented cases of bird flu in grizzlies in Montana and the first statewide for this outbreak of HPAI, according to Dr. Jennifer Ramsey, a wildlife department veterinarian.

The bear cubs were in three separate locations in the western part of the state in 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 problems,” the statement said. “They were euthanized due to their illness and poor condition.”

Avian influenza – commonly called bird flu – is a naturally occurring virus that spreads rapidly among birds. There were documented cases of HPAI in a skunk and fox in Montana last year, and the virus has been seen in raccoons, black bears and coyotes in other states and countries, according to the Montana agency.

“The virus spreads from one bird to another,” Dr. Ramsey told CNN via email. “These mammals likely became infected by consuming the carcasses of HPAI-infected birds.”

“Fortunately, in contrast to avian cases, overall a small number of mammalian cases have been reported in North America,” Ramsey said. “For now, we are continuing to test all bears that demonstrate neurological symptoms or for which the cause of death is unknown.”

While the discovery of three grizzlies with bird flu in a short period of time may be cause for concern, Ramsey said it’s possible there are more cases that have gone undetected.

“When wildlife deaths occur in such small numbers or individuals, and in species like skunks, foxes and bears that don’t spend a lot of time in situations where they are highly visible to the public, they can be difficult to detect,” said wildlife veterinarian.

“When you get that first detection, you start looking more carefully and you’re more likely to find new cases,” she said. “When a large number of birds are found dead in a body of water, it gets noticed and reported … when someone sees a dead skunk, they might not think about it and not report it.”

While it’s not known how prevalent the virus is in wild birds, “we know the virus is basically active across the state because of the widespread occurrence of HPAI mortality in some wild bird species,” Ramsey said.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in November that the country was approaching “a record number of affected birds compared to previous bird flu outbreaks,” with more than 49 million birds in 46 states dying or being killed due to exposure to infected birds.

Human infections with bird flu are rare, but they do happen possible,” usually after close contact with infected birds. The current risk to the general public from avian influenza viruses is low,” the CDC says on its website.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is asking people to report any birds or animals behaving “unusual or unexplained cases of illness and/or death.”

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