HomeOutdoorsNewsStrange Case Sees First Grizzly Bears Test Positive for Avian Flu

Strange Case Sees First Grizzly Bears Test Positive for Avian Flu

by Jon D. B.
family of grizzly bears
Grizzly Bear female & 2 Cubs, Great Bear Rainforest. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In a landmark case, three juvenile grizzly bears tested positive for the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus in Montana. Their infection, which was discovered by wildlife officials last fall, is the first documented case of HPAI infecting the brown bear species.

As avian flus continue to ravage worldwide bird populations, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has made the information public with their Jan. 17 news release. The bird-carried virus has been detected in black bears outside the state, but this remains rare. Previous cases have been identified in other Montana mammals, however; a fox and a skunk specifically. HPAI has also been found in raccoons elsewhere in the U.S., alongside a single coyote.

“We suspect these mammals probably get the virus from consuming infected birds,” offers FWP Wildlife Veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey in the statement. All three juvenile grizzlies were first observed to be in poor condition, exhibiting “disorientation and partial blindness, among other neurological issues.”

Each was euthanized as a result of their “sickness and poor condition,” FWP cites. The grizzly bears were found near Augusta, another near Dupuyer, and the last near Kalispell.

As officials explain, Avian influenza (AI) virus naturally occurs in birds, but are classified into two groups. The distinction is made based on the severity of disease they cause in the host. Low pathogenic AI viruses generally cause no clinical illness, or only minor symptoms at the most, in birds. HPAI viruses, however, are extremely infectious and fatal to poultry and varying species of wild birds.

Montana FWP Asks Montanans to ‘Take Precautions’ After Grizzly Bear HPAI Cases

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers HPAI’s risk to humans as very low. Yet these first cases in grizzly bears have FWP asking Montanans to be wary.

“Montanans should take precautions when handling game birds, sick or dead birds and mammals they find. Whenever possible, avoid contact with sick or dead wildlife. Even if an animal is not suspected to have died from a contagious disease, gloves should always be worn if a dead animal must be handled for disposal,” FWP advises in the same statement.

Thankfully, three bears is still a small percentage comparatively to Montana’s growing grizzly population. State officials estimate around 2,000 bears now roam the state. This is a vast improvement over the species’ dwindling numbers in the early 20th century. Today, Montana holds the largest remaining grizzly bear population in America outside Alaska.

Regardless, FWP staff asks the public to report unusual or unexplainable cases of sickness and/or death of wild birds and animals. To do so, call their local wildlife biologist at 406-577-7880. Or, the wildlife lab in Bozeman is available at 406-577-7882.