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Scientists are concerned for North American wildlife as the worst avian flu outbreak since 2015 rages on.
By Sarah Trent
The National Trust team of rangers clear deceased birds from Staple Island, one of the Outer Group of the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, where the impact of Avian Influenza (bird flu) is having a devastating effect on one of the UK's best known and important seabird colonies with 3104 carcasses recovered by rangers so far. Picture date: Wednesday July 20, 2022. (Owen Humphreys / PA Images / Getty)
OCTOBER 1, 2022, 8 AM ET
This article was originally published in High Country News.
The July 5 trip was routine: From the deck of an airboat, two wildlife biologists scanned the cattail marsh—one of many seasonal wetlands in the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge—on their weekly lookout for sick or dead birds. In the summer months, avian botulism is a major concern in California’s Central Valley, and removing carcasses can stem its spread. But this year, there was added worry: A new and devastating strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) had been creeping west across the continent since December 2021, affecting millions of poultry and countless wild birds.
That day, the biologists carefully collected several carcasses, including those of two Canada geese and two American white pelicans, and sent the remains on to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center lab for routine testing. Days later, the lab and then the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed: The avian flu’s H5N1 strain had finally reached California.
This year’s avian-flu outbreak—the first in North America since 2015—is caused by a version of this virus unlike any that virologists and wildlife managers have ever seen. “It’s behaving by a different set of rules,” says Bryan Richards, the emerging-disease coordinator at the National Wildlife Health Center. Now it’s spreading widely among wild birds, which has far-reaching implications for wildlife and human health.
Wildlife already face unprecedented stressors, from drought to wildfire to habitat loss. Now emerging and widely infectious forms of avian influenza are yet another serious threat—one that wildlife biologists say requires a new approach to disease management on farms, refuges, and landscapes nationwide. “We are in the midst of a completely unprecedented wildlife disease outbreak in North America,” says Rebecca Poulson, a University of Georgia research scientist who’s been studying bird flus for 15 years. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
Before 1996, it was widely assumed that highly pathogenic avian influenzas only infected commercial poultry farms: These were virulent but contained outbreaks caused by on-farm mutations of a wild-bird-origin flu virus. Although devastating to those farms, the mutated strains seemed not to affect wild birds. This made outbreaks simple to manage with biosecurity prevention, isolation of exposed flocks, and swift culls.
In 1996, virologists first detected the H5N1 strain in a domestic goose in Guangdong, China. That virus received global attention in 1997 when it sickened 18 people in Hong Kong, killing six. The outbreak prompted international fears of a human pandemic, but the virus never mutated in a way that enabled human-to-human transmission. International media paid less attention to the fact that, by 2002, H5N1 had acquired the ability to move from domestic flocks to wild birds. The virus has continued to evolve ever since.
Today, several variants of HPAI are associated with “sporadic mortality events” in wildlife. In Newfoundland and Labrador this past summer, the current strain emptied seaside cliffs of thousands of gannets, puffins, and murres. This August, it killed 700 black vultures at a Georgia sanctuary. Waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and scavengers are some of the creatures at highest risk. In Western states most recently hit by the virus, such species include threatened and endangered birds such as the California condor and the snowy plover, though agencies have not yet documented infections in either species. Common urban- and suburban-dwelling Canada geese and crows and nationally symbolic bald eagles are also at risk, as are the millions of waterfowl whose migrations are beginning to peak now in northern states and will continue south through the season.
The last major outbreak—caused by a related strain, H5N8—reached North America in 2014, causing approximately $3 billion in losses to U.S. farmers, who had to cull 50 million chickens and turkeys. This year’s outbreak has so far affected a similar number of commercial birds, but it is orders of magnitude larger in wild landscapes. Via wild-bird transmission, it has reached nearly 10 times the number of backyard poultry, and while the 2014–15 outbreak was documented in just 18 wild-bird species across 16 states, this year, it’s been confirmed in at least 108 wild-bird species, with cases in nearly every state. In another unusual development, many mammal-crossover cases and deaths have also been confirmed in foxes, skunks, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, minks, harbor seals, a juvenile black bear, and one bottlenose dolphin. Labs are so overwhelmed that one wildlife official says they’ve stopped submitting carcasses of species that have already been documented in their county. They’re also submitting only a few birds per mortality event, making the official wild-bird death figures a gross underestimate.
The next few months could be even worse. Flocks across the continent are migrating now toward Central and South America, home to the largest diversity of bird species on Earth. “I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” Poulson says. “We’re just sort of holding our breath to see what’s going to happen.”
Among Western states this fall, California is most likely to feel the brunt of the impacts: It’s one of the nation’s largest egg producers, and commercial poultry meat is the state’s sixth-largest commodity, worth $1 billion annually. California’s Central Valley provides essential migration and wintering grounds for wild birds: The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex alone is visited by hundreds of thousands of migrants each fall. It supports a large number of the continent’s northern pintails (one of the most numerous duck species in the world) and is a critical habitat for overwintering waterfowl.
This year’s drought means wintering flocks may be both unusually crowded and especially mobile, heightening the risk of viral spread, says Michael Derrico, the refuge’s lead wildlife biologist. Because the refuge’s wetlands are half their normal size, birds will be forced into closer proximity and may move frequently to find resources, which Derrico thinks may also push birds farther south.
Derrico’s concern for birds in the Pacific Flyway is somewhat tempered by the fact that, so far, the country’s westernmost migratory channel doesn’t seem to have as much of the virus as other regions do. But he and other wildlife managers are also very limited in what they can do to mitigate potential impacts.
“Once a disease becomes established in a free-ranging population, then you really lose the upper hand,” Richards says from his USGS home office near Madison, Wisconsin. “We’re really, really good at documenting disease on the landscape, but we’re less good at altering disease outcomes.” Instead, he says, “some of us are beginning to pivot towards a conversation of wildlife health as opposed to wildlife disease.”
Read: The strongest sign Americans should worry about flu this winter
For Derrico, at the Sacramento refuge complex, promoting health instead of preventing disease might involve investing more in wetland management to ensure that birds have access to the largest habitat possible, and minimizing human disturbance to prevent scattering birds to new areas. In many parts of the country, bald eagles and other raptors are already experiencing widespread mortality from lead poisoning by bullets and fishing tackle, and Richards says that addressing that issue might be a better use of resources.
“That’s something we can control, right?” he says. Combined with improving biosecurity measures on farms, by tackling environmental factors that are within human reach, Richards believes wildlife managers may be able to increase bird resilience even in the face of deadly new diseases.
The pressure to change wildlife-disease management is only increasing. “When you look globally at emerging infectious diseases, we’ve seen some pretty interesting trends,” Richards says. “We have seen more new diseases, larger disease outbreaks, more frequently and with larger impacts.” That includes some with the potential to cause species extinction, and, as seen recently with COVID-19, ones that could mutate to become widely infectious and transmissible in humans. Virologists believe the risk of that happening in this H5N1 strain is low but recommend that hunters, farmworkers, and other bird handlers take extra precautions this year anyway. Of all the emerging diseases that threaten people, Richards says, a majority have originated in wildlife.
Sarah Trent is an editorial intern for High Country News based in southwest Washington.
As temperatures rise and habitats shrink, hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species around the world are at risk of vanishing.
For the first time, the United States is designating a special diplomat to advocate for global biodiversity amid what policymakers here and overseas increasingly recognize as an extinction crisis.
Monica Medina is taking on a new role as special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, the State Department announced Wednesday. She currently serves as the department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.
The appointment underscores the Biden administration’s desire to protect land and waters not just at home but to also conserve habitats abroad.
‘Not just about nature for nature’s sake’
The loss of biodiversity isn’t just a tragedy for wildlife. It’s one of the biggest threats facing humanity.
According to a major U.N. report in 2019, a million species face possible extinction, with dire implications for humans who depend on ecosystems for food, fresh water and other resources. Overfishing, pollution, pesticides, disease, urban sprawl and, of course, climate change contribute to declines in imperiled species’ populations worldwide.
“There's a direct connection between biodiversity loss and instability in a lot of parts of the world,” Medina said in a recent phone interview. “It's not just about nature for nature’s sake. I think it is about people.”
Before the Biden administration, Medina was an adjunct professor at Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service and worked as general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other government roles. She is the wife of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
Her appointment comes weeks ahead of a major biodiversity conference in mid-December in Montreal. The meeting originally was scheduled to take place in the Chinese city of Kunming in 2020 but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The aim of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity — also known as COP-15 — is for nations to reverse the loss of species by adopting an international framework for conserving biodiversity. The effort is akin to the climate talks in 2015 that yielded the Paris agreement.
What the United States wants out of the conference: For nations to commit to conserving 30 percent of their land and water area. “We are looking for ways to reach that goal, because that's what scientists tell us we need in order to have a healthy planet,” Medina said.
One big hurdle: Defining what, exactly, counts as land and water conserved? “That is part of the discussion, is what counts,” she said.
Is the United States doing its part? President Biden set a goal of conserving nearly a third of the nation’s land and waters by 2030.
Biden has taken a few steps toward that target, restoring protections for two desert expanses in Utah and reinstating fishing restrictions in a marine monument off New England. Both moves reversed decisions made by President Donald Trump.
But the Biden administration has yet to identify many other specific places for new protections. Medina noted that the Inflation Reduction Act passed this year set aside billions of dollars for conservation funding.
The link between biodiversity and climate change
Rising seas flood forests and kill trees. Increasing temperatures allow for the greater spread of disease, such as an avian form of malaria that is wiping out birds in Hawaii. Warming waters leach out oxygen, suffocating marine life.
But protecting ecosystems such as forests and peatlands, Medina noted, will help keep climate-warming carbon out of the atmosphere in the first place.
“It's a crisis that we face that's interwoven with the climate crisis, but also independent and important on its own,” she said. “If we can solve the biodiversity crisis, we're a long way along the way to solving the climate crisis.”
Update: This story has been updated to include that Medina is married to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
This news and analysis are provided by the Ornithological Council, a consortium supported by ornithological societies. Join or renew your membership in your ornithological society if you value the services these societies provide to you, including OrnithologyExchange and the Ornithological Council.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released its proposal for changes to its process for issuing permits for the incidental take of bald and golden eagles. The agency first announced its plans to streamline the permitting process in September 2021.
The USFWS also published rules regarding eagle incidental take in 2009, revising them in 2016.
The proposed rule would create general permits for four activities: wind-energy generation projects, power line infrastructure, disturbance of breeding bald eagles, and bald eagle nest take. Those whose activities fall into one of those categories would be required to register with the USFWS and self-certify compliance with permit conditions. Individual permits will be available for any project that does not qualify for one of the proposed general permits.
According to the USFWS, bald eagle populations have continued to grow in recent years, leading to increasing interactions with human activities and infrastructure and there a higher demand for permits authorizing the disturbance take and nest take of bald eagles. The permitting process currently in use places an extensive administrative burden on the public and the agency. A goal of the agency’s 2016 rule was to increase compliance and improve consistency and efficiency relating to permitting golden eagle take at wind-energy projects. However, although participation in the permit program by wind energy projects has increased since 2016, it is well below the agency’s expectations and there is continued take golden eagles that is not being offset be conservation actions.
The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits any take of bald eagles and golden eagles, except as permitted by federal regulations. Pursuant to regulations, “take” is defined as to pursue, shoot, shoot at, kill, capture, trap, molest, or disturb (50 CFR 22.3). Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Secretary of the Interior is authorized to issue regulations that permit the taking of eagles for various purposes, as long as such take is compatible with the preservation of the eagle.
The proposed rule will publish in the Federal Register on September 30, 2022, opening a 60-day public comment period until November 29, 2022.
Press Release from USFWS
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes Improvements To Incidental Take Permit Process for Bald and Golden Eagles
September 29, 2022
Contact: Vanessa Kauffman (703-358-2138, email@example.com)
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing improvements for how it processes permits for the incidental take of bald and golden eagles. The bald eagle’s recovery is one of the United States’ most important wildlife conservation success stories, yet the future of golden eagle populations remains uncertain. Under federal law, the Service must ensure that regulations for eagle permits are consistent with the goal of maintaining stable or increasing eagle populations.
“Preservation of bald and golden eagles is a key responsibility for the Service,” said Service Director Martha Williams. “This proposed rule is part of an open and transparent process where we can engage the public in a collaborative effort to help us conserve bald and golden eagles, while also creating a process to provide multiple pathways to obtain a permit.”
Human development and infrastructure continue to expand in the United States and at the same time, bald eagle populations are growing throughout their range. The Service’s purpose in proposing amendments to the permit process is to encourage more project proponents that may have an impact on eagles to obtain a permit and implement mitigation measures. This will improve the conservation of both bald eagles and golden eagles, incentivizing more projects to be in compliance with the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act) and implement mitigation measures.
The Service is proposing to create general permits for four activities under current regulations: wind-energy generation projects, power line infrastructure, disturbance of breeding bald eagles, and bald eagle nest take. Each general permit outlines eligibility criteria and mitigation requirements to avoid, minimize and compensate for impacts to eagles. Eligible activities would obtain a general permit by registering with the Service and certifying compliance with permit conditions without review by the Service. In addition, the Service is proposing to improve the specific permit process. Specific, or individual, permits require applicants to submit an application that is reviewed by the Service, which then works with the applicant to develop mitigation measures appropriate to the project. Any project that does not qualify for one of the proposed general permits would still be able to apply for a specific permit.
The Eagle Act prohibits the harm and possession of bald and golden eagles and their parts, nests or eggs, except pursuant to federal regulations. The Eagle Act also authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to issue regulations to permit the taking of eagles for various purposes, provided the taking is compatible with the preservation of the bald eagle and the golden eagle.
Permits for the incidental, or unintentional, take of eagles were first established in 2009 and then revised in 2016 to authorize incidental take of bald eagles and golden eagles that results from a broad spectrum of activities, such as utility infrastructure, energy development, residential and commercial construction and resource recovery.
On Sept. 14, 2021, the Service published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking input from Tribal governments, the public and the regulated community on potential approaches for further expediting and simplifying the permit process authorizing incidental take of eagles. The Service is now publishing a proposed rule and draft environmental assessment with approaches to improve the eagle incidental take permitting program to make the permitting process more efficient and effective. Public input received through the ANPR process was considered in developing this proposal.
The proposed rule will publish in the Federal Register on September 30, 2022, opening a 60-day public comment period until November 29, 2022.
The notice will be available at http://www.regulations.gov, Docket Number: FWS-HQ-MB-2020-0023 and will include details on how to submit your comments. We will not accept hand-delivered, emailed or faxed comments. We will post all comments on https://www.regulations.gov.
More information can be found online at: https://www.fws.gov/program/eagle-management.
About the Ornithological Council
The Ornithological Council is a consortium of scientific societies of ornithologists; these societies span the Western Hemisphere and the research conducted by their members spans the globe. Their cumulative expertise comprises the knowledge that is fundamental and essential to science-based bird conservation and management. The Ornithological Council is financially supported by our member societies and the individual ornithologists who value our work. If the OC’s resources are valuable to you, please consider joining one of our member societies or donating directly at Birdnet.org. Thank you for your support!
Some 15 Griffon vultures from Spain have been released into the wild in Cyprus to help revive the east Mediterranean island's population that's dropped to just 8-10 birds because of deliberate poisoning, conservationists said Wednesday.View the full article