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Bird Flu Threatens Utah's Backyard Poultry

Utah agriculture and wildlife officials have joined together to help backyard poultry producers understand the threat of avian flu.

Backyard chickens may be enjoying this pleasant summer afternoon in their Sugar House pen, but the people who oversee wild and domestic birds in Utah are scrambling to protect them from avian flu.

Two migrating ducks tested positive for the high-pathogenic virus last winter in Utah. In spring it killed 36 million laying hens in the Midwest. Wildlife officials identified another carrier from Farmington Bay.

“Our commercial poultry folks are very aware of this virus,” says Warren Hess, Utah’s acting state veterinarian. “They’re on the lookout for it. They test for it routinely. But our backyard poultry owners – many of them don’t know anything about this virus.”

Humans can’t catch this flu, he says. Nor do the wild birds and ducks that carry avian flu and spread it in their droppings. But chickens and turkeys are highly susceptible. The virus can kill whole flocks in a few hours. The threat keeps Utah’s poultry producers up at night

“One word: It’s a red alert. Red alert,” says Cliff Lillywhite, co-owner of Oakdell Farms, one of Utah’s biggest poultry producers.

He and others in the $150 million industry are doubling down on sanitation at commercial farms to prevent an outbreak.

“There are things we believe we can do to prevent that,” Lillywhite says, “and there are things we would ask all backyard producers and everyone to do to prevent it, and that is to increase biosecurity.”

The Utah Department of Agriculture Food has posted informational brochures in feed stores. Avian flu prevention tips can also be found on the agency’s web page.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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