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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Bird Flu Basics for Duck Hunters

Avian influenza, bird flu, pandemic, highly pathogenic, H5N1 virus—what does all this mean to duck hunters and waterfowl conservation?
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Another concern among sportsmen and waterfowl managers is that some groups might advocate culling wild birds to prevent them from spreading the disease. This possibility has been thoroughly reviewed and opposed by international conservation organizations and by public health authorities across the world. The official position of both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service is that such an action is out of the question. Large-scale culling is how diseases are stopped from spreading among domestic flocks where they are confined and every bird can be slaughtered. In the wild, such a campaign could never eliminate every bird in every targeted flock and would simply cause carrier birds to disperse to other areas.

The overwhelming concern with wild birds is that they might transmit Asian bird flu to domestic poultry flocks. The threat to domestic birds is huge with profound economic and food supply implications—but wild ducks and geese are not a threat to human health. Wild birds have never been shown to transmit the disease to people, and health officials consider this type of transmission highly unlikely.


As this article was written in early June, Asian bird flu had not been detected anywhere in North America. Most authorities and biologists expect the virus to arrive by being transmitted in illegally imported poultry and poultry products or secondarily by wild birds that move between continents in the Northern Hemisphere. If avian flu ever becomes transmittable from human to human, it would almost certainly be transferred by airline passengers who unsuspectingly picked up the virus while in a foreign country and then carried it home on commercial aircraft—the prevalent way annual flu outbreaks are carried to this continent every year.

The wild bird connections are most likely to occur between Russia and Alaska, where more than 26 species of birds are known to regularly move across the Bering Sea. Some of these birds breed in Alaska and winter in China, Japan, and even Australia and Southeast Asia. Others breed in northern Russia and winter on the west coast of North America. There are also a few connections across the Atlantic with birds that winter in western Europe and breed in northern Canada and Greenland.

On March 20, the U.S. secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services  announced a $29 million surveillance plan to search for the disease this year, in every state, in live wild birds, hunter-harvested birds, sentinel birds, and selected wetlands across the country. Between 75,000 and 100,000 samples will be taken and tested for Asian bird flu. The details of the national program can be studied at this website. For more about surveillance efforts in Alaska, click here, and for programs under way in Canada, see http://wildlife1.usask.ca/en/CCWHC_home.php.
With such surveillance efforts in place, there is a good probability the disease will be detected if wild ducks and geese carry Asian bird flu to North America this year.


So where does this leave the North American duck hunter? A couple of countries in Europe and Asia closed their spring hunting seasons this year. Might that happen in North America?

Obviously, the best scenario is that the Asian bird flu does not show up in North America. But even if it is discovered in wild birds in North America, not much is likely to change related to hunting seasons. The world’s health experts continue to stress that this strain of Asian bird flu has never been transmitted from wild birds to humans, so even if a hunter shoots and subsequently handles a bird carrying the disease, transmission of the virus is not very likely to occur. Nevertheless, hunters should use commonsense precautions when cleaning game.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not anticipate closing waterfowl hunting seasons based on what is currently known about this form of bird flu.

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