Laurel Demkovich

(Washington State Standard) A bird flu outbreak around Fort Flagler State Park near Port Townsend may be spreading to mammals, according to the state Department of Health.

As of last week, an outbreak of a deadly strain of the avian influenza had likely killed 1,700 gulls and Caspian terns on Rat Island – a small wildlife preserve near the state park, and its adjacent shores. The island is currently closed due to the outbreak.

The Department of Health said Friday that preliminary results show three harbor seals in the area have likely been infected with the disease, though confirmation testing is still pending.

The Rat Island outbreak of the new strain, known as H5N1, is believed to have begun this year and left the Department of Fish and Wildlife scrambling to test suspected cases and clean up hundreds of bird carcasses as they tried to stop the spread of the disease to other wild animals, including seals.

Infected Caspian terns have also been found near the Port of Everett, the Port of Tacoma and along the lower Columbia River, according to the Department of Health.

Historically, bird flu has affected mostly poultry, but this new strain has proved deadly for wild birds and other animals across the world.

Globally, the strain has killed more than 75,000 wild birds. Thousands of sea lions in Peru died from H5N1 last year. Seal deaths in Maine were also linked to the bird flu.

At a Washington State  Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting last month, officials said they were still trying to gauge the effects of the new flu strain. The first case of the H5N1 strain appeared in Washington in March 2022, but the long-term impacts are still “unknown,” Katie Haman, a wildlife veterinarian at the Department of Fish and Wildlife said during the meeting. “I think time will tell.”

The Department of Health is encouraging people and their pets to avoid all contact with sick or dead wildlife.

Dogs and other animals can be infected with the flu, and though human infection is rare, it’s not impossible. It can happen when the virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or if it is inhaled through contact with infected saliva or feces. The Department of Fish and Wildlife is encouraging everyone to report sick or dead birds immediately using an online form. Biologists may respond to remove carcasses and test for the virus, though with limited resources, they may not be able to respond to every reported case.