Avian flu a disaster that’s here

About a decade ago, Dr. Terry Yamauchi of Little Rock insisted that avian flu was a major risk to waterfowl and to waterfowl hunters.

That was on the beginning of the latest H1N1 influenza outbreak that didn't amount to much. Others had come and gone without causing much trouble.

Journalists are poor prophets. The avian influenza strain that alarmed Yamauchi didn't produce any news, and we dismissed it as inconsequential.

As Yamauchi warned would happen, we finally have an avian flu that's very consequential.

In a story that appeared in this space one week ago, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission confirmed that highly pathogenic avian influenza is killing waterfowl throughout the Mississippi River Delta. Hatch-year snow geese are the most conspicuous victims, but we've heard reports of sick, dying and dead ducks too. The virus affects the nervous system, said Luke Naylor, chief of the Game and Fish Commission's wildlife management division.

That's Naylor's new title. Since 2007, he was the commission's waterfowl biologist. He's seen these things come and go, but this new thing is more pernicious. Naylor said he needs a lot more reports to evaluate the full impact of this outbreak.

A friend tipped us off to the story on Tuesday when he relayed reports of dead geese in fields near Clarendon and Stuttgart. When the story broke, a different friend said she found a sick snow goose in her horse pasture. She said the sick goose "freaked out" her horses and she had to prevent them from attacking the bird.

A reader sent us this email: "I just want to tell you it is real and way worse than anyone realizes. I saw it firsthand this week in Cross County. In my flooded field alone we had 20 snows already dead, floating when we got there early to duck hunt, and another 20 with symptoms. Spinning endlessly, lethargic, head back on body, etc. Then they would fly with feet hanging to the water and just crash into the water. Then we would literally walk up to them; they would show no emotion. It was so sad and unreal.

"This was in one flooded field this early in the season," our correspondent continued. "Granted there was a field a half a mile away with what seamed to be 8,000 healthy snows but I bet within a month this is on a grand scale unlike ever seen."

Again, we're not in the prophecy business and it would be irresponsible to predict disaster. Nick Posusta, owner of Eagle Head Outdoors, a major goose hunting operation, said he sees sick snow geese every year. He's seeing more this year, he said, because more geese are concentrated in limited amounts of habitat. The actual seriousness might be a matter of perspective.

On the other hand, a major disease outbreak among waterfowl has been coming for a long time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated the Light Goose Conservation Order in 1999 to avert such an outbreak by allowing and encouraging hunters to dramatically reduce the number of snow, blue, white-fronted and Ross's geese before they return to Canada to breed.

Light geese are dangerously overpopulated. Their habitat cannot longer support them and they threaten to displace ducks from traditional duck breeding habitat. Wildlife managers were most concerned about the possibility of a major disease outbreak wiping out the entire North American waterfowl population. The best way to avert disaster was to kill as many of them as possible as quickly as possible.

The disease part of that equation has arrived. We hope it's not as destructive as it appears, but there's nothing we can do about it now except to report any sick or dead waterfowl we encounter. Even one sick waterfowl is worthy to be reported, as my colleague did with the goose in her horse pasture.

Remember that a highly pathogenic avian flu has already killed more than 36 million chickens in 2022. We all know how important the poultry industry is to Arkansas and you can bet the people in that business are very concerned about migratory carriers vectoring possibly a new strain of the disease into our state.

The commission is relying on hunters to provide the information that will enable them to evaluate the scope of this disease. Email your observations, along with video and photos, to the Game and Fish Commission at [email protected].