Montana is one of 32 states that has reported Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu this year. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Wednesday, the highly contagious, highly deadly bird disease has killed more than 78,000 birds in the state, but it poses little, if any, risk to humans.
And while Montana’s numbers pale in comparison to other harder hit states, like Iowa where 13.4 million of the national total of 36.9 million birds have been euthanized or killed, officials with the Montana State Department of Livestock are urging small producers, especially those with backyard flocks, which may come into contact with wild birds, to take precautions.
Dr. Marty Zaluski, state veterinarian with the Montana Department of Livestock, said the disease is highly contagious and highly deadly, often killing between 80 and 90 percent of fowl that are infected. Wild birds appear to have more of a genetic tolerance to the disease.
The last major outbreak of HPAI was in 2015, Zaluski said.
Already this year, several notable cases have been reported including one in Billings where a popular flock of wild turkeys that lived near the campus of Montana State University-Billings has been decimated.
Zaluski said that most commercial producers have extensive biohazard controls that help mitigate the risk of the disease. However, those smaller producers who let chickens or turkeys possibly come into contact with other birds, like ducks, have seen the effects of the disease. Right now, Zaluski said the danger is higher for backyard producers because often large-scale commercial producers don’t allow contact with birds from the outside.
“There are things backyard poultry producers can do,” he said. “I had chickens, and I hate to see them kept inside, especially during Spring when they’re stir crazy, but keeping them confined or putting up netting for wild birds may help reduce the risk.”
When a flock of domesticated birds are found with the disease, the protocol is euthanasia, Zaluski said, because of the disease’s high fatality rate. He also said that in order to keep America’s international trade agreements intact, commercial poultry producers must eliminate any flock with an outbreak of the disease. He said that while the disease is not transmissible to humans, entire flocks are removed because health officials don’t want the rapidly moving disease to mutate into a strain that could put humans at risk.
“It’s when low pathogenic mutates into a highly pathogenic disease that it starts to be a concern,” Zaluski said.
In that way, it’s not unlike human influenza where certain strains or variants seem to be mild, and other years see much more illness or death.
“It’s inhumane to let these animals suffer and die,” Zaluski said. “We also don’t want to create a disease factory where a virus could develop a novel mutation.”
One of the challenges is staying ahead of the disease, Zaluski said. The incubation period, which is how long it takes from exposure for an animal to become symptomatic, is as low as 36 hours with the illness spreading quickly and virulently.
“By the time we detect it, it’s almost always too late,” Zaluski said.
Scientists believe the 1918 influenza epidemic may have been a case where swine flu in pigs and avian flu in birds combined to create a deadly human flu strain.
Historically, most of the disease has subsided by the beginning to middle of June, and Zaluski anticipates the same would likely be the case this year.
Commercial egg and meat producers have a government reimbursement system for the loss, but those don’t come near to offsetting the costs completely.
“It’s not going to make anyone rich or whole, but the point is to reduce the economic impact,” Zaluski said of the federal reimbursement program.
In 2015, Zalusky said food prices in poultry spiked because of the limited supply and that could happen again with the avian flu, but he said once production ramped up again, the cost of chicken and turkey subsided.
While typically a wheat and beef state, Montana has seen a recent uptick in poultry production. According to the latest production statistics, 2020 saw more than $48 million in poultry production, which includes chickens and turkeys. That is more than double the amount of business in just five years, Zaluski said, which demonstrates it’s a growing part of Montana’s agricultural industry.
Across the United States, the USDA said that 171 commercial flocks and 108 backyard flocks have been affected.