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Qawalangin Tribe launches effort to stop spread of H5N1 bird flu following series of cases on the island

A convocation of eagles sit near Unalaska's landfill. The Environmental Director for the Qawalangin Tribe Mandy Salminen says having an abnormally large population of eagles could promote diseases like the avian flu.
Theo Greenly
A convocation of eagles sit near Unalaska's landfill. The Environmental Director for the Qawalangin Tribe Mandy Salminen says having an abnormally large population of eagles could promote diseases like the avian flu.

Unalaska’s local tribe is working to stop the spread of a concerning strain of avian flu that could be killing birds in the Aleutian region. The tribe's biggest concern is the virus making the leap from animals to humans.

In Alaska, the first case of H5N1 was found last spring in chickens in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. It was then detected in Unalaska in late May 2022, when a red fox and eagles were found dead with the disease. Wildlife officials said the animals were most likely feeding on birds that had died from the H5N1 flu. In January of this year, the state’s department of environmental conservation reported that two bald eagles and a gull in Unalaska were found dead with the virus.

Mandy Salminen is the Environmental Director for the Qawalangin Tribe, which recently launched a multi-year effort to slow H5N1 spread on the island, thanks to a nearly $775,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Salminen said the virus can be passed on to other wildlife like foxes, marine mammals, and even to humans.

“If we can try to stop the bird to human part of it, or at least slow it down, then that mutation from human to human doesn't have as much of an opportunity,” Salminen said. “Because really, what it is, is us giving the virus an opportunity to adapt and make those jumps.”

According to Salminen, there are cases around the world of humans getting sick and dying from this strain, but there aren’t any reported cases where the virus transferred from human to human. Still, she said the bird flu evolves over time.

“So that's our big concern,” said Salminen. “While the birds and the other species are important, human health is what we're concerned about.”

Even if the virus doesn’t lead to death and people just get sick, Salminen said, health care is sparse in rural areas like Unalaska, which doesn’t have a hospital. If many people get sick at once, that could overwhelm the island’s health care system.

While the virus hasn’t affected humans in Alaska, it is affecting populations of other birds like seabirds and ducks that many Alaskans depend on for subsistence, according to Salminen. She said population decline amongst some species could be detrimental.

“The big thing for rural and remote Alaska is food security,” she said. “If you're hunting for these birds or collecting eggs from these birds, if there's a big die off, that means that there's not as strong food security.”

Recently, local residents have observed a decrease in the island’s raven population. But Salminen said there just isn’t enough local data collection to determine if that drop is related to the avian flu.

“I wouldn't be surprised,” she said. “Ravens, crows, gulls, eagles — they're all big scavengers. So if they see a dead bird, they might eat off of it, and that might cause them to pick up the virus and die. But without actually being able to test, we can't say for certain that's what caused it.”

In mid-May, Salminen did a presentation on H5N1 at the Unalaska Public Library, in hopes of bringing more awareness regarding the prominent disease to the community. She said increasing awareness about avian flu is a big part of preventing its spread. And starting these conversations could lead to greater understanding and preparedness in the face of future wildlife disease outbreaks.

Sofia was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She’s reported around the U.S. for local public radio stations, NPR and National Native News. Sofia has a Master of Arts in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana, a graduate certificate in Documentary Studies from the Salt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado Boulder. In between her studies, Sofia was a ski bum in Telluride, Colorado for a few years.
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