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Experts say avian influenza may be here to stay in Wyoming

Two hens on green grass outside.
WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Avian influenza is on the rise again in Wyoming after a summer lull, and experts fear the virus is here to stay.

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza is a viral infection that can affect all types of birds.

“They grade these viruses based on how lethal they are for chickens,” said Hank Edwards, the laboratory supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s (WGFD) Wildlife Health Laboratory. “So this one happens to be very, very lethal for chickens and it also happens to be very lethal for other birds as well.”

Wyoming has seen eight flocks of backyard chickens come down with the virus this year and a concentration of cases have been detected in wild birds near the Wind Rivers, Big Horns and Albany County.

Cases are picking back up again – just this week two turkey vultures tested positive at the University of Wyoming campus. Edwards said the increase is likely because of exposure from migratory birds.

“Likely what's happening is the waterfowl is coming in, it's infected. It's dying of the disease,” he said. “And then our raptors and owls are then consuming those animals and coming down with the disease.”

The last major outbreak in the states was in 2015. Experts fear this year’s outbreak is here to stay for the long term, although it could ebb and flow in the winter as migratory birds leave the state.

“It's going to be one of those diseases we contend with on a year-to-year basis, and that wasn't the case before,” Edwards said. “Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza doesn't make it to the United States every time and when it does, it's usually not a huge outbreak.”

In the 2015 outbreak, the virus was essentially eliminated by summer heat and it did not return in the fall, like it has this year. Scientists still do not understand why there is a difference in the 2022 outbreak.

The virus can spread to humans, but it is not typical. However, the WGFD is recommending bird hunters take precautions, like not handling or eating sick game or feeding it to domestic animals. Additionally, the WGFD has an online reporting form to report suspected cases.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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