Alaska Bear Cub Euthanized After Becoming Infected With Bird Flu

by Amy Myers
Photo by Jessica Matthews/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Alaska Department of Fish and Game had to make the unfortunate decision to euthanize a bear cub after it fell ill with the bird flu. Officials found the young black bear in Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Local sources report that the cub is the second bear to fall victim to bird flu.

Obviously, avian species are most susceptible to this highly contagious pathogen, but the recent cases of the infected bears spark concerns about the effect on mammals. According to Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, though, a wildlife veterinarian for the DFG, bird flu “passes really easily to poultry, but mammals aren’t really susceptible to it.”

Rather than the birds directly infecting the bear cub and previous sow through superficial contact or proximity, Beckmen believes that these creatures actually contracted the disease through digestion.

She added, “It’s difficult to get, but we suspect the cub probably ate a bird that died from avian influenza.”

Back in June, a black bear sow suffered a similar fate in Canada as the Glacier Bay cub. It’s unclear whether officials needed to euthanize the full-grown female after she fell ill with bird flu. In the case of the bear cub, its mother abandoned it, and under the care of wildlife experts, the cub endured seizures. As a result, a state biologist concluded that the most humane option was to euthanize it.

Since this initial finding with the Canadian sow, investigating officials have reported several other bird flu cases in two red foxes in Dutch Harbor and the western Alaska community of Unalakleet.

The fact that bears and foxes are both scavengers points to the probability that bird flu only passes from wild animal to wild animal.

“This particular strain, people are pretty much immune to it,” Beckmen said.

Montana Officials Warn of Bird Flu Contagion Prior to Bear Cub Case

Meanwhile, wildlife officials in the Lower 48 have warned waterfowl hunters of the disease as well. The state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) department isn’t quite so concerned about bird flu affecting its bear population. Rather, they fear that waterfowl may take the worst hit.

“It’s highly lethal in geese, especially snow geese and Canadian geese. Ducks seem to live with it so, they’re the primary carriers and spreaders of the disease. But all birds are ultimately susceptible,” Charles Noland, a local veterinarian and bird hunter of 60 years, told KTVQ.

Similar to Beckmen, the Montana veterinarian clarified that mammals really aren’t at risk of contracting the disease.

“Influenza viruses can jump from species; they can go from one to another. This one is highly contagious among birds and highly fatal among certain species of birds. But it doesn’t seem to transport easily to mammals,” Noland said.

Still, it’s up to hunters to help maintain the spread of bird flu to other game animals.

“If you find a bird or have a bird in your possession that has randomly died. We do advise you to protect yourself if you have to handle that dead bird. So, wearing gloves or using a plastic bag to pick up that bird and dispose of it,” added Chrissy Webb, acting communication and education manager at FWP region 5.