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1,300-1,500 Geese Die at Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas -- Avian Cholera is Suspected Cause


January 11, 2006

Tom MacKenzie, 404-679-7291
Dennis Widner, 870-347-2614

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced today that 1,300-1,500 snow geese and Ross’ geese have died in a suspected avian cholera outbreak at Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge biologists discovered sick and dead birds on Monday, Jan 9, 2006 at the remote refuge 60 miles northeast of Little Rock, Ark.

Dennis Widner, Project Leader for the refuge complex that includes Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, immediately contacted the U.S. Geological Survey Wildlife Health Center wildlife lab in Madison, Wis., and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, both of which are leaders in the field of wildlife diseases. Based on the description of symptoms provided by the refuge biologists, experts from both locations suspected avian cholera from the beginning. The current outbreak is confined presently to snow geese and Ross’ geese with no other species of waterfowl affected. The birds are contained in a part of the refuge that is designated as a sanctuary, and not accessible to the public.

“We are doing everything possible to contain the disease outbreak here at the refuge by not disturbing the rest of the flock of geese here now,” said Widner. “While we can’t capture the thousands of geese here, our recovery operations are designed to not chase them away from this site. This should help reduce the chance of spreading the disease.”

There have been many outbreaks of the disease at various locations and with various wild birds over the years. In the past six years, from January 2000 to Dec 2005, there have been 41 outbreaks of avian cholera across the United States that caused the deaths of a total of nearly 70,000 dead geese, ducks, grebes and other species. These outbreaks can range in size from 12 birds to 30,000 per instance. Outbreaks of avian cholera are fairly common, especially in California, Texas, and Oklahoma and occur among many waterfowl species.

A wildlife pathologist from the USGS National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC), Dr. Lou Sileo, made the field diagnosis at the refuge today indicating that the snow geese found dead on Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge most likely died from avian cholera, a bacterial infection which is one of the most prevalent diseases in waterfowl populations nationally. Specimens have also been collected and shipped to the NWHC for complete necropsies, which is standard procedure to confirm field diagnosis.

“We have done field necropsies that have all indicated avian cholera as the cause of death,” said Dr. Sileo. “We will need laboratory confirmation to be 100 percent certain.”


Snow geese populations have greatly expanded in the past two decades. Waterfowl biologists are concerned that the large numbers of snow geese are destroying the prime nesting habitat for all bird species and other wildlife in the Hudson Bay area of Canada. Concentrations of wintering snow geese continue to grow each year in AR and surrounding states. This could be a contributing factor to these die-offs. Another factor may be reduced habitat from lack of rain and other weather patterns that concentrate flocks onto smaller wetlands -- increasing the rapid transmission of disease. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has loosened snow geese hunting regulations to reduce the size of their populations and help reduce the adverse effects of too many birds on the breeding grounds in Canada and the impacts on other species.

General guidance:

The general public should, as a general rule, observe wildlife, including wild birds, from a distance. This protects you from possible exposure to pathogens and minimizes disturbance.

  • Avoid touching wildlife. If there is contact with wildlife do not rub eyes, eat, drink, or smoke before washing hands with soap and water.
  • Do not pick up diseased or dead wildlife. Contact your state, tribal or federal natural resource agency if a sick or dead animal is found.

Hunters should follow routine precautions when handling game.

  • Do not handle or eat sick game.
  • Wear rubber or disposable latex gloves while handling and cleaning game, wash hands, and thoroughly clean knives, equipment and surfaces that come in contact with game.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling wildlife.
  • All game should be thoroughly cooked (well done or 160o F).

Additional information can be found at:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 95-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.


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