As fall inches closer in New Jersey, nothing sets an ominous tone quite like a recent North Jersey discovery. Eye-catching headlines flooded North Jersey news this week, detailing over 100 black vultures that turned up dead on a trail in Sussex County. According to a New Jersey State Park, Forest, & Historic Sites Facebook post, the Sussex Branch Trail in Lafayette Township had to be officially closed off indefinitely starting on August 27th due to the large number of dead birds decaying in the area. The United States Department of Agriculture officially confirmed the cause of death to be Avian Influenza, otherwise known as bird flu, which has been on the rise in local vultures. In order to prevent the spread of disease and partially due to an understaffing of certified individuals, the New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife has left the vultures on site to further decompose. Read on for what we know about the uptick in vulture deaths that has shut down an entire North Jersey trail.
A New Jersey State Park, Forest, & Historic Sites Facebook post announced on August 27th that the Sussex Branch Trail in Lafayette Township was officially closed due to the high presence of dead and decomposing black vultures.
“A section of the Sussex Branch Trail is closed until further notice from Route 94 to Morris Farms Road in Lafayette due to over 100 black vulture deaths in the area,” the post reads, citing the cause of death as Avian Influenza. The birds have been left to decompose on site, per New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife, due to “rough terrain causing accessibility issues and a lack of personnel in the State certified to handle infected birds.”
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Failing to properly handle the infected birds can lead to the spread of the disease, though in general, the CDC says the risk of bird-to-human Avian Influenza transmission is currently low. However, exposure to “infections in wild birds might place some groups of people, who may have job-related or recreational exposures to birds, at higher risk of infection,” which could be a factor in the decision to cordon off the Sussex Branch Trail. The CDC explains that human infection is rare, but it can happen if people are directly exposed to enough of the virus in the mucus, saliva, or feces of infected birds. Only 1 human case has been reported in the US this year.
New Jersey DEP Fish and Wildlife explains that vultures have been turning up dead under similar circumstances all around the East Coast. “Black vultures are seemingly very susceptible to Avian Influenza, and they tend to scavenge the carcasses of dead vultures, which can prolong the duration of a local outbreak such as the one being seen in Sussex County,” the website reads. The NJ DEP Fish and Wildlife takes a slightly stronger stance than the CDC when it comes to exposure risk, emphasizing the the risk of bird-to-human transfer of Avian Influenza is “extremely low.”
Just this month, a similar outbreak in Locust Grove, Georgia killed over 700 black vultures at an animal sanctuary. According to the CDC, 2,116 wild birds have been infected with Avian Influenza this year. More than forty million commercial and backyard flocks (like chickens and turkeys) have also been infected.
The trail will remain closed until further notice, and in the meantime, the NJ Department of Agriculture and NJ DEP Fish and Wildlife are said to be monitoring the situation.