Hunters watch for sick birds

Remote Alaska villages are on the frontlines in tracking avian flu virus

Posted: Sunday, March 05, 2006

James Active Jr. may live in one of the more remote areas of North America, but that hasn't kept him from tracking the path of the avian flu virus on its march across the globe.

A Yupik Eskimo from Kipnuk, a Native village of 600 people on the edge of the Bering Sea, he follows the news on satellite television: reports of poultry killed or culled en masse in Asia, a scattering of human deaths among poultry workers, fallen swans and ducks in France and, most recently, a dead cat in Germany.

Thousands of miles from these outbreaks, he sounds resigned to the eventual appearance of the disease on his turf.

"We hear about it being overseas in different countries but somewhere down the line, I'm sure it will end up this way too," he said.

A subsistence hunter, Active depends on birds to feed his family through the spring until salmon return to local rivers in June. Like many others, he shrugs off his nagging worries about the virus.

He can't afford to give up hunting birds, he said, even as a massive effort gears up to find out if the disease has gained entry into North America through his vast backyard.

While no roads link Kipnuk and dozens of neighboring villages to the rest of the world, the skies are thoroughfares for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Come spring, they nest by the millions in the surrounding delta of the mighty Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers - a broad flat plain covering millions of acres that is crisscrossed by rivers and streams and dotted with countless lakes and sloughs and ponds.

It's considered the crossroads for birds migrating between Asia and North America.

So far, the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, found in migratory birds in other parts of the world, has not been detected in North America. And in an effort to make sure the virus has not arrived, the federal government plans to spend $7.4 million this year to test wild birds, focusing on the vast tundra and small isolated villages of Western Alaska.

"If all goes according to plan, we'll have tested well over 15,000 birds" in Alaska, said Deborah Rocque, avian influenza coordinator for the region's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We feel pretty confident that if it is here, our sampling plan will be able to detect it."

While most birds will be tested live, several thousand hunter-killed birds also will be tested.

That will require enlisting the help of local subsistence hunters. They'll be asked to bring their catch to a check station where technicians will swab the bird for a sample of fecal matter.

Even though test results won't be available for another two weeks to two months, Active is willing to help. He and other residents of the delta's cash-poor villages depend on the spring migration - birds like cackling geese, king eiders, sandhill cranes, green and blue-winged teal - to add a boost of protein to their diet.

"Without (subsistence) we'd have to depend on chicken and turkey. That's expensive," said Active. Food prices in remote villages are 2 1/2 to three times what they are in urban areas.

"And wild bird is better than chicken and turkey," Active added.

Michael Rearden, manager of the Yukon-Delta National Wildlife Refuge, said the benefits of good fresh food far outweigh the more uncertain risks of bird flu.

"People need to be cautious and reasonable about (handling the birds) but this is an important food source out here and I'd hate to see people avoiding them," he said.

Still, the news from abroad is making some people nervous. Radio station KYUK in the hub village of Bethel recently aired a call-in show on avian flu, and heard from villagers around the region. For example, they wanted to know if boiling the birds would kill the virus, and if they should worry about bird droppings on the wild berries they pick.

Wildlife and health experts hammered home home the point that humans have little to fear. So far the only cases of human sickness have occured among those in very close daily contact with infected poultry. Callers were told their chances of picking up the virus from contaminated berries are next to nil and their food is safe as long as it's properly cooked, even if the virus is present.

Yet the jitters are not surprising. Elders remember the stories of the flu pandemic of 1918 that wiped out entire households in some villages. The virus, believed to have been carried to Alaska by soldiers returning from World War I, was a bird flu that mutated into a virus that spread easily among humans.

Whether today's virus will follow the same mutations is still unknown and while experts seek to allay local concerns, most hunters plan to head out this spring and harvest their subsistence foods.

Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said his organization will work with state and federal agencies on the sampling program and keep villagers informed about the relative risks of avian flu.

And while he says it will be discussed at the association's mid-year conference in March, it won't be the main topic. He said people are more worried about two large mine projects planned for the area.

Bird flu "is just another major issue that needs to be worked on," he said.

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