Alaska in Brief

Red fox is first documented Alaska mammal infected with current strain of avian influenza

By: - June 1, 2022 4:00 am
Red fox kits stand in the tall grass on St. Matthew Island in July of 2019. Alaska has recorded its first fox infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza, and the wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that young foxes and other young scavenging mammals are liley to be more susceptible to infections. (Photo by Rachel Richardson/USGS Alaska Science Center)

Red fox kits stand in the tall grass on St. Matthew Island in July of 2019. Alaska has recorded its first fox infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza, and the wildlife veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that young foxes and other young scavenging mammals are liley to be more susceptible to infections. (Photo by Rachel Richardson/USGS Alaska Science Center)

A dead red fox on the Aleutian Island of Unalaska was found to be infected with the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus that has spread around the world and into populations of domestic poultry and wild birds.

The fox was the first Alaska mammal found infected with the current influenza strain. The infection was confirmed last week, according to state officials. That fox joins other foxes in the upper Midwestern U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario as the first wild mammals in North America documented as infected with this type of avian influenza.

The Unalaska fox was found in the same area as some dead eagles that also were found to have died from this avian influenza, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It is believed that the fox, like the eagles, was scavenging on smaller birds that were infected, officials said.

There will likely be other mammals infected in the coming weeks and months, said Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife health veterinarian with the Department of Fish and Game. Several types of mammals are scavengers, she said, so “we’re expecting it to show up in other species.”

Within those species, young animals are more likely to fall victim to this new avian influenza, she said. She noted that influenza-infected foxes found sick or dead elsewhere have been kits. In the case of the Unalaska fox, it was found to have been suffering from another illness, she said. “So it was probably highly susceptible,” she said.

An adult female northern harrier flies above California's Suisun Marsh. A member of the species found dead in Juneau was infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza. (Photo by Billy Thein/USGS Western Ecological Research Center)
AAn adult female northern harrier flies above California’s Suisun Marsh. A member of the species found dead in Juneau was infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza. (Photo by Billy Thein/USGS Western Ecological Research Center)

In addition to the red fox, a dead northern harrier – a type of hawk – was found infected with this avian influenza, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The case, from Juneau, was the first in Alaska so far for any species of wild bird other than bald eagles, Canada geese or, in a case from Fairbanks, a lesser Canada goose, according to DEC records. It was also the nation’s second northern harrier documented with the current avian influenza strain – so far. An earlier case was found in North Dakota, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Beckman said the discovery of an infected northern harrier in Alaska was not a surprise. “We’re expecting it to be in other raptors because raptors are scavengers,” she said.

As of Tuesday, there were about 1,300 documented cases of wild birds infected with the current avian influenza, according to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

While bald eagles and geese have been hard hit, a wide variety of species have been found infected in the Lower 48 states, including peregrine falcons, owls, seabirds, wild turkeys and, in a Florida zoo, several vultures.

In Alaska, there have been 25 wild birds found infected as of Tuesday, along with a backyard flock of chickens in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, according to the DEC’s running tally.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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