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The welcome mat is rolling up for ducks and geese at Montana county fairs and shows this summer.

Poultry superintendents at the Western Montana Fair said Wednesday they’ll abide by a recommendation of the Montana Department of Livestock to ban waterfowl exhibits in response to an outbreak of avian influenza that is devastating poultry populations in the Midwest.

“We personally feel the probability of having any kind of infection in our area is really pretty low because we’re not on a flyway,” said Kristin Whisennand, co-superintendent of poultry at the Missoula fair. “It’s just in everybody’s best interest to follow the protocol the state veterinarian has set.”

The Western Montana Fair usually gets no more than a dozen domestic ducks and geese in 4-H and open classes, compared with 180 to 190 chickens.

Chicken and turkey entries still will be accepted, even though it is those birds that have been most adversely affected. Since December, avian flu has resulted in the deaths of more than 40 million in the United States, including nearly one of every 10 layer hens. Most have been killed in Midwest states to ward off the flu, and state livestock departments in Iowa and Minnesota have banned all birds from fairs.

It’s a good idea to keep waterfowl away from public shows rather than chickens, because waterfowl tend not to show signs of infection. Chickens and turkeys “will generally show signs and be dead in 24 to 48 hours,” said Eric Liska, assistant state veterinarian.

“In other words, you’ll know about it shortly before you get to the show. The fact of the matter is chickens and turkeys that get the flu will probably be dead.”

There have been no reported cases of human illness due to the current outbreak, and the human health risk associated with the outbreak is considered to be low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Montana has had just two deaths from avian flu so far, both in April. The first was a gyrfalcon near Columbia Falls that had been fed duck meat. The other was in a backyard flock of chickens in the Judith Basin. The chickens had been in contact with domestic ducks that shared water bodies with wild ones.

“We believe wild waterfowl are the No. 1 source of avian flu,” Liska said.

Laura DeNitto, who shares poultry superintendent duties in Missoula with Whisennand, said the department will try to cover all the state’s recommendations “to make it as safe as possible for the birds that are entered and their owners.”

A letter sent last week from state veterinarian Marty Zaluski to Montana fair officials included a list of “best practices” for all poultry exhibits. It included such suggestions as providing solid siding between chicken cages to prevent beak-to-beak contact, keeping hallways and aisles in the poultry barn clean, providing hand sanitizer for contestants and visitors, and avoiding stacked poultry cages.

Montana fairs last year faced recommended restrictions on piglets after a national outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea. Breeding shows were eliminated so that all hogs brought to the fair were market hogs headed for slaughter.

“Certainly, swine flu and avian flu have been historically related worldwide and in the United States,” Liska said. “Luckily, this is not one of those strains.”

Nonetheless, the Department of Livestock is advising keeping poultry and swine exhibits separate. In Missoula, they traditionally have been in different barns.

Whisennand said one of the new features at the Western Montana Fair is software that allows more flexibility in entering exhibits late. National experts are predicting the avian flu will run its course by July.

“Who knows? We may make a change at the last minute that would allow us to bring in waterfowl,” she said.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian