Wildlife managers across the country are wondering what’s next after a deadly strain of bird flu was discovered in wild turkey flocks for the first time ever.
“Highly pathogenic avian influenza” (HPAI), caused by a virus known as H5N1, has been sweeping the continent since it first hit Canadian shores back in December 2021. From there, the virus made its way into a large commercial turkey operation in southern Indiana.
Since arriving stateside, HPAI case numbers have continued to balloon, and now, the U.S. is in the midst of its biggest outbreak of avian influenza to date.
The last big outbreak spanned the winter of 2014 and persisted until June of 2015, when temperatures in more northerly parts of the country finally warmed enough to stop the cold-adapted virus. Like the outbreak of 2014 to 2015, the current bird flu strain came to North America from China via migratory bird movement.
While the latest strain of HPAI is killing domestic birds by the tens of millions, it’s the toll that the outbreak is taking on wild birds, and wild turkeys in particular, that’s turning heads in the hunting and conservation communities.
Western Turkeys Bear the Brunt Last month, avian influenza turned up in dead Merriam's turkeys in Montana and then in Wyoming a short time later.
In Montana, three tom turkeys from an urban flock in Billings tested positive for HPAI after they were reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) by a resident who found two of the birds dead in his yard. The HPAI-positive toms were just three of seven dead turkeys that FWP game wardens found in the Billings neighborhood.
“Our game warden described these birds as urban turkeys, and people have speculated that they hang out around the university in places where they’re probably being fed to some extent,” Dr. Jennifer Ramsey, a wildlife veterinarian with Montana FWP, told MeatEater. “They’re wild turkeys, but they’re not your typical wild birds that are out in the wild living a completely wild life.”
There is some debate around if these turkeys are truly wild—one Montana FWP communications manager said the flock likely bred with domestic turkeys at some point.
While the habituated Billings birds were the first wild turkeys to ever test positive for avian influenza in North America, they aren’t the only wild birds in the Big Sky State that have been contracting the disease this year.
“We’re definitely seeing more wild bird mortalities this time around than we did back in 2015,” Ramsey said. “Twenty fifteen was a bad year, but we didn’t have nearly this many calls and reports and animals testing positive.”
Ramsey said that the hardest-hit species in Montana, as of now, are snow geese, Canada geese, and various types of raptors.
“Snow geese and Canada geese are both getting hit pretty hard,” she said. “And we’re getting reports of a lot of raptors contracting this. We’re getting turkey vultures, various hawks, and we’re getting quite a few great horned owls that have died and are testing positive.”
While the USDA reports that just 18 birds in Montana have tested positive for HPAI in its official statistics, Ramsey says that that number is far lower than what she’s actually seeing in her day-to-day work with reported avian influenza cases.
“We keep getting calls, and it’s fairly disheartening,” she said. “We have a scheme of prioritizing which ones we need to get tested and which ones we don’t because we can’t test them all. There’s way too many.”
Wild birds in nearby Wyoming are fairing even worse. According to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), at least 38 wild birds have tested positive for H5N1in the Cowboy State. Eleven of those were wild turkeys that turned up dead near a captive pheasant farm that is administered by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD).
Pheasant Farming Fears Because HPAI is known to decimate captive bird populations, the presence of the virus in close proximity to a pheasant breeding facility immediately raised red flags within the WGFD.
Out of what it called “an abundance of caution for the thousands of birds soon to hatch,” the agency depopulated the 1,200-member broodstock of pen-raised pheasants at its Sheridan bird farm. With its two breeding facilities, WGFD incubates and hatches nearly 40,000 pheasants annually, birds that the agency then stocks on public lands in eastern and central Wyoming throughout the upland game bird hunting season.
Dr. Samantha Allen is a wildlife veterinarian with WGFD. She says that pen-reared pheasants in other states have contracted H5N1 during the 2021 to 2022 outbreak.
“I think that the risk is definitely there because other states have had pheasant farms get this strain, and they’ve all died very quickly,” Allen told MeatEater. “I know that in places like Texas and New York, they had to depopulate whole pheasant farms because they had avian influenza.”
She says that none of the broodstock pheasants from the Sheridan game farm were tested for avian influenza either before or after euthanization. But it’s highly likely that if any of the captive pheasants had contracted the virus, the whole facility would have been depopulated, not just the broodstock.
“The unfortunate thing when it comes to getting AI (avian influenza) is, one, your pheasants get really sick and they die, but you’re also going to have to get rid of everything on the premises,” she said. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I have this breeding group and then I have these chicks, and I’m just going to get rid of the breeding group at this point.’ If you have AI on your farm, every bird has to be depopulated.”
The discovery of highly pathogenic avian influenza near a captive pheasant facility has raised the hackles of conservationists who fear that pen-rearing game birds and then releasing them into wild populations could exacerbate the spread of this deadly pathogen.
In Montana, a new pheasant farming program, mandated by legislative action in the spring of 2021, is in the early stages of implementation. When it’s up and running, the new program aims to release as many as 50,000 pheasants every year onto “suitable and eligible state-owned lands.”
The pheasant rearing program is being set up at the Montana State Prison, where it will be staffed by inmates. One million dollars in license-supported FWP funds have already been allocated for the project.
Writing on behalf of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers in a recent op-ed published in the Billings Gazette, Missoula lawyer Graham Coppes said that Montana FWP’s plan to initiate a stocking program for pen-raised ring-neck pheasants amid an avian influenza outbreak could have disastrous implications.
“While the legislature appropriated money specifically for this project, that was long before avian flu arrived,” Coppes wrote. “The Fish and Wildlife Commission could still say no. Given this new and emerging bird virus, this seems like the perfect time for the Commission to put the chicks back in the egg, so to speak, and prevent a biological disaster.”
In a recent press release, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks attempted to alleviate such concerns, saying that the pheasants at its new facility were recently tested for HPAI, “and all results came back negative.”
“We’re taking the threat from HPAI very seriously and monitoring the stock closely in partnership with staff at the prison,” FWP Director Hank Worsech said in the press release. “The safety measures folks are taking to ensure the health of the flock are impressive—on par with any medical facility. They’ve gone above and beyond from a biosecurity standpoint.”
Though the current strain of H5N1 that’s circulating in wild and domestic birds in North America has low zoonotic potential, meaning that transmission from birds to humans is unlikely, there has been one reported case of the virus jumping the species barrier and ending up in a human being. That case involved an inmate at a Colorado prison who contracted HPAI while culling infected birds at a private poultry farm as part of an early release work program. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the man was asymptomatic and has since recovered.
A New Future for Wild Turkeys? When it comes to wild turkeys, few game managers in the United States predicted that avian influenza would emerge as a potential threat to the country’s already beleaguered turkey flocks.
“I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been something that we’ve really paid a lot of attention to because it typically affects other species like waterfowl and domestic chickens,” wild turkey expert Mike Chamberlain told MeatEater.
Chamberlain is the Terrel Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Georgia. He’s been immersed in wild turkey research throughout his career, and he’s been an avid turkey hunter for most of his life.
He says that the anecdotal reports he is getting on wild turkey flocks in HPAI-affected areas are concerning.
“I have had several people contact me about this,” Chamberlain said. “One was an outfitter in the Sheridan, Wyoming area. I was supposed to hunt on his land, and he called me last week as I was about to drive from South Dakota to visit him and he said, ‘My birds are gone.’”
The area Chamberlain had planned to hunt was near Buffalo, Wyoming, the same area where WDFG had to euthanize its broodstock of pen-reared pheasants after necropsies on 11 dead turkeys confirmed the presence of HPAI.
“He texted me two days later and said that the population had continued to decline,” Chamberlain said. “He said birds were just disappearing. Birds that he had been watching were no longer there.”
Chamberlain went on to say that many birds that contract diseases like HPAI will go completely unnoticed by state agencies and USDA officials.
“The problem with these diseases is that birds get infected, and then they get sick, and then they hide,” he said. “They go hunker down somewhere and die, and therefore we don’t know about it.”
Chamberlain fears that Western turkey flocks, which have largely escaped the type of declines that are plaguing turkey populations in other parts of the country, could see their numbers dip too if HPAI gets out of hand.
“Populations in the West, in many ways, haven’t been subjected to some of the declines that we’ve seen in the South and the East,” he said. “But these anecdotal reports that I’m getting are pretty concerning. I’ll be curious to see if they come to fruition, in other words, if agencies realize that we really took a hit in some of these areas.”
While hunting turkeys in South Dakota this year, Chamberlain encountered a dead horned owl in the middle of a freshly cut hay pasture.
“We were hustling along through this pasture to try to cut off a bird before it got away, and I just glanced over my shoulder and happened to notice a dead horned owl laying there,” he said. “I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, and then the next day that outfitter called me, and I thought to myself, ‘Damn, I wonder if that bird had avian influenza and died from it.’ I reported it, but I wasn’t in a position where I could go back. By the time I realized that, I was four hours away.”
According to APHIS, South Dakota has seen at least 50 wild birds test positive for HPAI, while neighboring North Dakota leads the country with 197 known cases.
Back in Montana, Jennifer Ramsey and her team of technicians rely on encounters like Chamberlain’s to track the spread of avian influenza on the landscape.
“Most of our calls come from the public,” she said. “Like people having owls in their yard, or just weird birds in weird places where they’ve never seen them before. They’re having these encounters with dead birds that are out of the norm and calling in to report those.”
If you see a bird that might have died from highly pathogenic avian influenza, you should report it to your nearest game warden immediately. And though the likelihood of humans contracting this particular strain of the bird flu is low, Dr. Samantha Allen of WDFG recommends caution when dealing with dead birds, harvested or otherwise.
“There is a low risk of zoonotic potential with this disease,” she said. “Wear rubber gloves when you’re cutting stuff open to be cautious.”
Feature image via John Hafner.