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A cub in Glacier Bay National Park became the first US bear to test positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza ” Alaska

A cruise ship is dwarfed by the mountains of Glacier Bay in this undated photo. A bear in Glacier Bay National Park became the first in the country to test positive for a highly contagious strain of bird flu. (NPS photo)

A black bear cub euthanized in Glacier Bay National Park this fall is the first in the country to test positive for a highly contagious strain of bird flu. Park visitors alerted wildlife officials after noticing the animal’s strange behavior.

At Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay National Park, a cub had difficulty walking and struggled to keep up with its two siblings and mother.

Kimberlee Beckmen is a Wildlife Physician for the State Department of Fish and Game. She says concerned parkgoers took videos of the boy in October.

“They thought it was drunk — it tripped and was then abandoned by the mother,” Beckmen said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

These symptoms are common in the strain also known as H5N1. It causes fatigue and neurological problems like seizures.

Beckmen says the bear had no chance of surviving at the time.

“It was very sad to see that the animal would not recover,” she said. “Its brain was swollen and it probably would have died within hours if it hadn’t been euthanized.”

After the cub was euthanized, scientists took swabs and a brain sample from the bear to test for rabies and canine distemper. They sent the samples to labs in Washington and New York for analysis.

According to Beckmen, the results were positive for the flu strain known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, sometimes referred to as “high-path AI.”

“We test for rabies all wild animals that die with clinical signs or are suspected of having an inflammation in the brain — encephalitis,” she said. “We had to do the rabies test on this animal before we could test it for high-path AI because the tissue poses a risk when infected with rabies.”

It’s the first time the strain has been discovered in an Alaskan bear. Wildlife officials say two foxes have also tested positive this year — one in Unalaska and one in Unalakleet.

According to Beckmen, the only other bear diagnosed with the tribe was an adult female black bear in Quebec.

“Because it was the first report in the United States to be reportable to the World Organization for Animal Health. They will report to the federal government… because it is considered a foreign animal disease and of international concern, it is reportable,” she said.

Beckmen says the hatchling found in Bartlett Cove was likely infected after eating a sick or dead bird.

“They have to inhale a large dose (of the virus) while catching infected birds and then get that virus into their airways,” she said. “It’s not from bear to bear.”

Animals can also contract the virus by ingesting water that has been contaminated by sick waterfowl. She says the risk to humans is very low — only four people worldwide have tested positive for H5N1 flu, and just one in North America.

But the virus has devastated poultry and wild birds — nearly 50 million were killed or euthanized this year alone, according to the CDC.

In Alaska, wildlife officials say the Matanuska-Susitna County is still a hotspot for infection among backyard herds. Beckmen also says Sitka has seen infections in eagles recently. Fish and Game also reported infections in waders, ravens and waterfowl nationwide this summer.

Wildlife officials say residents should report sick, orphaned, or dead animals to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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