US Officials Test for Bird Flu in Arctic Alaska
By Daisuke Wakabayashi
BARROW, Alaska — In a coastal marsh near the frozen Arctic Ocean, a black-and-white feathered spectacled eider leaves a gift for Corey Rossi, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Crouching down to take a closer look, Rossi inspects the dropping left by the large sea duck and then carefully dabs at the greenish mound with a swab before breaking off the tip into a plastic vial.
"He laid a fresh one there. We really want the freshest stuff," said Rossi, Alaska district supervisor for the USDA’s wildlife services.
The swab of eider dropping is one of 50,000 such field samples from wild birds that federal and local agencies aim to collect in America this year and test for the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu. Officials also want another 75,000 to 100,000 samples directly from the anus of live or dead birds.
Since 2003, the virus has killed 128 people in nine countries including Indonesia, Vietnam and China, according to the World Health Organization, but the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu has not been found in North America.
The small Alaskan community of Barrow — the northern-most city in the U.S. and a crossroads for migratory birds from Asia — is the front line for the government’s efforts for early detection of bird-flu’s North American arrival.
The work has a sense of urgency because experts fear H5N1 could evolve into a form that easily infects people and that people can easily pass to others – perhaps sparking a pandemic.
The role of wild birds in carrying H5N1 avian influenza is unclear, but wild swans are believed to have infected feather-pluckers in Azerbaijan earlier this year. The more immediate threat is that the wild birds will infect poultry.
In Barrow, as the frozen tundra starts to thaw in the summer, migratory birds stop to drink and rest in the area’s wetlands.
It is an ideal spot to find rare birds like the spectacled eider, which is on the threatened species list and one of 33 bird species the government has identified for priority testing due to its flights between Asia and North America.
Barrow is also considered a hub for bird-flu testing, because it is home to the world’s largest Inupiat Eskimo community. Subsistence hunting of waterfowl still plays a crucial role in the local diet, and officials can test harvested birds for the virus.
Even in a birder’s paradise like Barrow, collecting samples poses a challenge to biologists who admit that success is often the result of luck and lots of patience.
"You could walk around the tundra 20 years and not get that close to a spectacled eider," said Rossi, noting that this type of duck tends to congregate miles away on the ice atop the frozen ocean. "Some days, you spend a lot of energy and you come up with an empty sack."
Wildlife biologists spent two days at a landfill trying to lure a group of glaucous gulls with whale blubber to a spot where they could launch a 50-foot by 60-foot (15-meter by 18-meter) net to quickly capture, test and release the birds.
The gulls only approached the bait after the officials left in the evening. In a separate attempt to catch shorebirds, a group of biologists set up a thin "mist" net in a coastal marsh only to be foiled when the net billowed in a stiff breeze, and the birds easily avoided the trap.
The Bush administration’s $29 million call to arms to combat bird flu will involve biologists from several government agencies.
Rick Lanctot, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plans to send teams of biologists into remote areas of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve via helicopter to sample a larger area and increase the odds of detecting the virus.
"I’m a shorebird biologist, so swabbing butts is not my highest priority, but it’s national emergency kind of thing," said Lanctot, who normally monitors shorebirds’ nesting patterns and survival rates.