Environmentalists Blast NJDEP Call to Let Dead Vultures Rot in the Wild

Sometimes all it takes is a seemingly innocuous public notice put out by  government agency that can tip the public off that there’s something seriously amiss in the bureaucracy. If COVID taught us anything, it’s that we need to pay close attention for ourselves. 

Such was this case over the weekend when DEP’s New Jersey State Parks, Forests and Historic Sites Facebook page posted  an advisory that a portion of the Sussex Brach Trail in Lafayette was going to  closed for further notice because the United States Department of Agriculture had confirmed that over 100 black vultures had died in that portion of the trail from Avian Influeneza (bird flu).

New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife have left the dead birds to decompose on site due to rough terrain causing accessibility issues and a lack of personnel in the State certified to handle infected birds,” the notice said. “Improper handling can lead to further spread of disease.”

The agency went on the reassure the public that “the risk of avian influenza being transmitted to people is extremely low” and that the “New Jersey Department of Agriculture and NJ DEP Fish and Wildlife are continuing monitoring the situation.”

Back in April, the CDC reported the first human case of avian bird flu in the United States in a Colorado man who has since recovered. The agency says the risk remains of humans contracting the virus is considered “low”. 

“This one H5-positive human case does not change the human health risk assessment,” the CDC said in an on line up date. “CDC will continue to watch this situation closely for signs that the risk to human health has changed. Signals that could raise the public health risk might include multiple reports of H5N1 virus infections in people from exposure to birds, or identification of spread from one infected person to a close contact. CDC also is monitoring H5N1 viruses for genetic changes that have been associated with adaptation to mammals, which could indicate the virus is adapting to spread more readily from birds to people. CDC is taking routine preparedness and prevention measures, which includes an existing candidate vaccine virus that could be used to make vaccine for people if one were needed.”

The CDC advisory continued. “CDC has been monitoring for illness among people exposed to H5N1 virus-infected birds since these outbreaks were detected in U.S. wild birds and poultry in late 2021 and into 2022. To date, H5N1 viruses have been found in U.S. commercial and backyard birds in 29 States and in wild birds in 32 states.”

Here in New Jersey, the decision by the state agency to let the diseased bird carcasses rot  ‘in situ’ was uniformly blasted by environmentalists, including a former DEP official, as being wholly inadequate because it risked further infection of wildlife that will come into contact with the infected carcasses. This comes at a time when the world is seeing a troubling upsurge in wild birds contracting the virus and there are concerns about potential mutations as we saw with COVID. 

Jeff Tittel, the former executive director of the New Jersey’s Sierra Club for over 20 years, described the NJDEP response  was “shocking.”

“By leaving those birds out there to rot you can spread Avian to other birds and you are taking about a stench and pollution as they decompose—it’s just malpractice from an environmental and public health standpoint,” Tittel said. “I think it’s a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the DEP when it comes to the budget where thanks to cuts over the years you now don’t have enough qualified staff to pick up these dead birds and dispose of them properly.”

Tittel continued. “The State of New Jersey now has the biggest budget in state history by fare yet DEP’s budget is languishing and in real dollars is much less than it was 30 years ago. If you can’t pick up these contaminated dead birds how are you going to have the money to deal with flooding or cleaning up toxic waste sites.” 

Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official and whistleblower, said the choice to let the contaminated vultures rot in the wild has roots in what has been a bi-partisan drive going back to the Gov. Florio administration to try and make the DEP more self-sustaining off of the revenues it can raise through permitting and promoting commercial activities.

“DEP Fish and Wildlife has plenty of staff available to promote hunting and logging of State lands (wildlife management areas) but not enough to dispose of dead birds? Are you kidding me?,” Wolfe said. “This is just another example of how DEP budget cuts, misplaced priorities driven by revenue generating activities like hunting and fishing, and lack of leadership at the top directly threaten public health and healthy ecosystems.”

Black vultures have a massive 5 foot wing span, slighting smaller than the turkey vulture. They play a critical role in a society where road kill is so common. Earlier this month, Newsweek reported an even larger Avian Influenza outbreak  that killed 700 black vultures at  Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary in Georgia, which ranks first in the U.S. for poultry, which is particularly susceptible to the virus.

The news outlet saw that the sanctuary had been placed quarantine by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “As a natural disease event, the site needs to be contained, cleaned up and then sanitized/disinfected,” the Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary said in a statement to News week. “We are at the contained stage. But our State Agency partners are and will lead clean up and sanitization. They will lead full vulture removal and roost removal and sanitation.”

According to the USDA fact sheet the US is experiencing “a widespread outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Although this disease primarily kills domestic poultry (chickens and turkeys), it can also affect more than 50 species of wild birds.” 

The federal agency asks property owners that find dead wild birds to call your “state wildlife agency or state health department so they can collect and test them for HPAI.”

The USDA fact sheet is not alarmist, but informative.

“If local authorities tell you to dispose of the bird’s carcass (body), wear disposable gloves to pick it up,” warns the USDA.  “If you don’t have gloves, turn a plastic bag inside out and use it to pick up the carcass. Double-bag the carcass and throw it away in your regular trash. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, handling HPAI-infected birds is unlikely to lead to illness in people.”

The USDA tip sheet continues. “However, you should seek medical attention if you experience any influenza-like symptoms or illness within 10 days of handling sick or dead birds. Disinfecting Shoes and Clothing Because HPAI spreads easily on contaminated surfaces, be sure to wash your clothing in hot water and disinfect your shoes after handling a dead wild bird. To disinfect your shoes, use one of the methods below: ƒ Prepare a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water and submerge shoes in the solution for 10 minutes. The mixed solution is good for 7 days. ƒ Spray your shoes with a benzalkonium chloride based commercial disinfectant (such as Lysol* spray or similar product) and allow them to dry.”

Back in 2012 researchers at the University of Michigan published research that predicted that “climate change could increase levels of avian influenza in wild birds” and that the Delaware Bay could be a nexus as “a crossroads for many bird species traveling between continents” resulting in “an increase in the avian infection rate” as well as potentially spawning “novel subtypes of the influenza virus among North American wild bird populations.”

The University of Michigan study emphasized that while “avian flu viruses do not normally infect humans…..sporadic human infections with avian flu viruses have occurred. Since 2003, for example, more than 600 cases—including more than 300 deaths—of human infection with highly pathogenic avian influenza A H5N1 have been reported worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.”

It seems our black vultures may be that proverbial canary in the coal mine.

A headline in the May edition of Nature was as concise as it was sobering.

“Why unprecedented bird flu outbreaks sweeping the world are concerning scientists-Mass infections in wild birds pose a significant risk to vulnerable species, are hard to contain and increase the opportunity for the virus to spill over into people.”

Nature’s writer Brittney Miller described vividly how “a highly infectious and deadly strain of avian influenza virus has infected tens of millions of poultry birds across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America…. Since October, the H5N1 strain has caused nearly 3,000 outbreaks in poultry in dozens of countries. More than 77 million birds have been culled to curb the spread of the virus, which almost always causes severe disease or death in chickens. Another 400,000 non-poultry birds, such as wild birds, have also died in 2,600 outbreaks — twice the number reported during the last major wave, in 2016–17.”

In short, “researchers say that the virus seems to be spreading in wild birds more easily than ever before, making outbreaks particularly hard to contain, leaving scientists “concerned that the high levels of virus circulating in bird populations means that there are more opportunities for spillover into people.”

Exactly.

The time for feel good press releases and photo ops is over when the birds with that big a wing span drop dead. Somebody in the state legislature needs to not be afraid of having an independent thought and call an oversight hearing and found out why the NJDEP lacks the personnel to handle infected birds.

If necessary, it might be time to train the National Guard for this clear and present danger. Make no mistake, our planet’s fate rests with the birds, even the ugly ones. 

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