Avian flu has burned through 60 million domestic birds in at least 47 states, egg prices have hit the stratosphere, and more troubling, the virus is mutating to infect mammals including three Montana grizzly bears.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has responded to these dark events by ordering an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The USDA unit charged with controlling the virus says it “intends to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) to examine the potential environmental effects of the Agency’s response activities to highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in commercial and backyard poultry operations in the United States.

Until Feb. 17, APHIS is requesting public comment to further define the scope of the EIS, and identify reasonable alternatives and potential issues, as well as relevant information, studies, and/or analyses that it should consider in the EIS.

Under the Animal Health Protection Act, the Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to protect the health of livestock, poultry, and aquaculture populations in the United States by preventing the introduction and interstate spread of serious diseases and pests of livestock, poultry, and aquaculture, and for eradicating such diseases within the United States when feasible. This authority has been delegated to APHIS.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is an extremely infectious disease and is mostly fatal to poultry. (1) HPAI can rapidly spread within and between domestic poultry flocks and wild bird (especially waterfowl) populations.

In February 2022, HPAI was detected in a commercial turkey flock in Indiana. Within 9 months, the virus was confirmed in 266 commercial and 360 backyard flocks in 46 States.

According to APHIS, keeping the nation’s poultry free from HPAI helps protect the poultry industry, farmers’ livelihoods, the availability of poultry for U.S. consumers, international trade, the health of wild birds, and the health of people who are in close, regular contact with birds.

The EIS findings will be used in planning and decision-making, as well as to inform the public about the potential environmental effects of the HPAI outbreak response activities. When HPAI outbreak response activities are implemented at specific locations, site-specific environmental documents may be required. If such documents are needed, APHIS may refer to the information presented in the EIS in order to promptly fulfill its environmental compliance obligations during an emergency.

Differences during the current outbreaks and the last peak event in 2014-15 are getting attention in industry meetings. David Suarez, DVM, acting laboratory director, Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory, said at the Animal Health and Biosecurity Committee Briefing, that in general, it takes less of the current North American H5N1 virus strain to cause an infection in chickens and turkeys than was required of the 2014-15 strain before it passed through domestic poultry.

Suarez said, “Most of the HPAI outbreaks were the result of farm-to-farm spread in 2014-15.” The virus in the 2014-15 epidemic became more contagious after it passed through domesticated poultry. During the current outbreak, only 15 percent of the outbreaks are believed to be the result of farm-to-farm spread.

This time, the H5N1 virus is much more widespread in wild birds and in a wider variety of wild birds than during the 2014-15 epidemic. This virus appears to be endemic in some resident wild bird species.

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