Update: Thanks in part to outcry from hunters, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reversed their decision on Sept. 12, 2022. Rather than bar all hunter-harvested wild game bird carcasses, the USDA is requiring hunters to process their take according to a multi-step process.
First, hunters must remove the viscera, head, neck, feet, skin, and one wing from the bird. The remaining wing (including the feathers) is required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for species identification. Carcasses must be rinsed in fresh, clean, potable water prior to packaging and must not have visible evidence of contamination with dirt, blood, or feces. Carcasses must also be imported in leak-proof plastic packaging and stored in a leak proof cooler or container during transport. Finally, carcasses must be chilled or frozen.
The USDA Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) announced on September 2 that it will no longer allow hunters to bring their duck and goose meat into the United States from Canada.
The move came two days into Canada’s waterfowl season, forcing many American hunters to leave their meat north of the border. The announcement is also a reversal of a previous statement just days earlier in which APHIS assured hunters that they’d be able to bring their ducks and geese home as long as they weren’t from Priority Control Zones in select parts of Canada.
The reason for the policy change is the persistence of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak. The outbreak began in December of 2021 in South Carolina and exploded across North America through the spring as wild migratory birds left their wintering grounds and headed north to breed. While confirmed cases slowed over the summer months, the HPAI outbreak reemerged this fall with two commercial flocks of turkeys in Minnesota testing positive. It seems likely that the spread will persist through the fall, and APHIS understandably wants to prevent as much infection from wild bird populations as possible.
The Chief Policy Officer at Delta Waterfowl, John Devney, was satisfied with the guidance that was in place a week ago but not this new restriction.
“I’m OK with being really cautious and having biosecurity measures in place for HPAI, and we were supportive of the restrictions on bringing home birds from Priority Control Zones,” Devney said. “But this new restriction is invoking precautionary principle at an extraordinarily broad scale. And now the USDA has put American hunters in a position of committing wanton waste. This policy can be changed easily, so I’m hopeful that we can affect change on this very swiftly.”
I understand the risk of this virus to commercial poultry operations, but the restrictions seem overboard if you consider how HPAI initially spread. This spring, the outbreak spread from South Carolina to Alaska in a matter of months, and it wasn’t from hunters bringing home wild game, but from the natural progression of the migration. These migratory birds will travel from Canada to the midwest regardless of hunters, and they’re a proven vector when they’re alive and migrating. It’s difficult to imagine dead birds in a cooler being a greater contributing vector than the millions of birds crossing the border by wing.
This new restriction also places hunters into a corner that allows for almost no legal means of take and bird disposal (short of eating all their game while still in Canada).
Wanton waste laws are one thing, but waterfowl hunters are also restricted by additional laws that other hunters are not: federally-enacted transportation requirements, tagging, gifting laws, and even laws regarding labeling in freezers not at your own domicile. Because waterfowl are federally-managed migratory birds, breaking the law is a federal violation, not just a state violation.
A sensible solution would be to allow hunters to bring home only the meat–no feet, no wings, no lungs, just the flesh. It would minimize the risk of disease spread via carcass and allow direct transportation of the meat from cooler to freezer, with little opportunity for transmission to other birds. Birds could even be required to be processed or cooked.
Unfortunately, these solutions would violate federal law. Federal law requires a wing or head attached for identification, and processed meat is not exempt. It’s a ridiculous gray area, but goose snack sticks technically can’t be transported.
So, if a hunter shot a limit of geese and ducks two days before the policy change, they now have 32 birds in their possession and no way to get them home. What’s ethical is no longer legal.
“We shot birds for three days before we found out about the rule change. What are we supposed to do with our birds?” asked Luke Cramlet, a hunter from the U.S. who went to Canada. “We traveled 28 hours to hunt here, and now we can’t legally do anything with our birds? Even processing them isn’t a legal option.”
After COVID-19 regulations hampered American travel to Canada and severely hurt hunting and fishing lodges, these new restrictions added another complicated layer to their businesses.
Ben Webster, a waterfowl guide at Prairie Limits Outfitters, said his clients now have to pay for meat processing. “There’s no good solution here, but what we’re doing is processing it all into sausages and sticks, jerky, using it for charcuterie boards, breakfast sausage, summer sausage, gifting some snacks to locals, you name it,” Webster said. “Some clients are pretty upset they can’t take their birds home and are having to pay a processing fee, but what can we do?"
This is a classic example of two separate entities creating laws that hamstring the public and don’t allow for a legal or ethical solution. Some hunters will arrive at the border with their meat, unaware of the after-hours policy change, and have no legal method to proceed. Wanton waste laws will prohibit them from disposing of the meat, but APHIS prohibits them from bringing the game across the border. With red tape from both sides, how are hunters supposed to proceed?
Policymakers and APHIS must act now to give hunters a legal and ethical route to make good use of their game meat.