Americans who hunt waterfowl in Canada were up in arms this month, caught off guard by a surprise U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) order that prohibited them from returning to the United States with their fresh kills. This week, though, facing strong criticism from hunters and outdoors advocates, the USDA reversed the ban. That was welcome news to hunters—especially those who'd traveled to Canada to hunt waterfowl when the season opened earlier this month.
The import ban was intended to help stem an enormous, ongoing outbreak of highly pathogenic bird flu in North America that's seen thousands of wild birds confirmed to be infected and millions of commercially raised chickens and turkeys culled after also becoming infected. To dent the outbreak, the USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a mandate to waterfowl hunters in June. It banned them from bringing live birds and raw meat into the United States from specified "control zones" in Canada and required hunters to cook any meat they intended to bring back across the border.
"The importation ban only pertains to birds that fly through or are killed within the boundaries of specified control zones," Outdoor Life reported in July. "These are areas that have a high incidence of bird flu." The report also noted the mandate was confusing to hunters, who can't realistically "know if those birds [they've killed] flew through a control zone."
Earlier this month, Field & Stream reported that things got even more confusing when APHIS decided to ban hunters from bringing virtually any waterfowl they'd taken back into the United States. The ban's impact was immediate. Delta Waterfowl noted last week that the ban had "functionally shut down all import of birds from all Canadian provinces." The Meat Eater reported the ban "forc[ed] many American hunters to leave their meat north of the border."
Critics hit back at APHIS over not just the ban but the agency's opacity and seeming duplicity in adopting it. After all, the APHIS ban came just days after the agency had assured hunters it would not issue such a ban.
Ducks Unlimited, a leading waterfowl and wetland conservation group, blasted the timing of the APHIS announcement, issued late on a Friday that heralded the arrival of the Labor Day holiday weekend in the United States and the start of waterfowl hunting season in parts of Canada.
"This last-minute, after-hours, notice is a disturbing development," Ducks Unlimited said in a statement. "Waterfowl hunting seasons in a number of Canadian provinces opened on September 1, meaning American citizens currently hunting north of the border may be unaware the ducks and geese they are taking won't be allowed back in the U.S."
Outdoor Life also pointed out that other laws—including a Fish & Wildlife Service requirement that a bird's wings must be attached to any bird brought into the country—may conflict directly with the APHIS mandate.
Perhaps worst of all, though, is the fact the ban made little sense and left hunters, wildlife and outdoors advocates, and scientists alike "scratching their heads." That's large because, according to experts, around 4 billion waterfowl migrate voluntarily between Canada and the United States every fall.
Ergo, the birds which APHIS prohibited American hunters from bringing back to the United States "are the same ducks, geese and sandhill cranes, of course, that will soon be flying south from Canada to any number of destinations in the U.S.," Grand Forks Herald outdoors editor Brad Dokken wrote last week.
In short, bird flu neither knows nor cares how it transits a border. APHIS should know this.
Thankfully, logic appears to have prevailed. Without admitting the agency's ban made no sense or explaining why it was reversing course, APHIS announced this past Monday that it was lifting the ban, effective immediately, after "working with stakeholders and other federal agencies to provide options." The new APHIS requirements mean hunters who want to bring waterfowl they've killed back to the United States must clean the birds and place them in a sealed container in which they're chilled or frozen. Ducks Unlimited, Outdoor Life, and others hailed APHIS's course correction.
Billions of waterfowl and other birds migrate between the United States, Canada, and Mexico yearly—with no regard for regulations or borders. The problem of migratory birds spreading bird flu in the United States is about as likely to be impacted in any meaningful way by hunters carrying some of those same birds into the country—rather than merely letting them fly in—as it would be by an APHIS rule prohibiting sick birds from migrating into the United States.