141 wild horses killed in nation’s deadliest flu outbreak in Cañon City

The Colorado Sun

A third of feral horses captured from West Slope pastures last summer died in the equine flu outbreak in their paddocks in Cañon City, though federal officials said Wednesday the outbreak was ending.

Mustang deaths – which numbered more than 20 on the worst days of the outbreak – have fallen to two or fewer a day, with a total of 141 fatalities over the past two and a half weeks. The outbreak is now considered the deadliest of any United States Bureau of Land Management mustang holding facility.

The BLM has acknowledged that the horses were not vaccinated against equine flu, as they are after the mustangs were rounded up on public lands and confined in close quarters, but federal authorities have yet to reveal any details. details on why they were not.

Of the 435 horses in the West Douglas herd, which roamed the steep, parched land near the Utah border, 32% died, according to BLM documents released Wednesday. None of the horses from other herds held at the federal state prison facility died from the disease, but those horses were vaccinated against equine influenza.

Federal officials said they generally try to de-worm, tag, microchip and vaccinate horses within 30 days of capture, but it’s not a requirement. The vaccination schedule depends on the veterinarians and may vary depending on the condition of the horses. The BLM said it would release detailed details about why West Douglas horses were not vaccinated, but did not say when it would explain the delay in vaccination.

The federal agency also denied requests from the Colorado Sun to visit the Cañon City enclosures during the outbreak.

About 90% of West Douglas horses and about 50% of the remaining 2,000 horses in paddock had the respiratory virus, which included fever, cough and runny nose. Now only about 10% of West Douglas horses and 5% of the rest of horses show symptoms. The horses that died in recent days already had a “cautious prognosis for recovery”, the BLM said.

The Bureau of Land Management rounded up 435 wild horses by helicopter last summer from the West Douglas course along the Colorado-Utah border. (Provided by BLM)

This week, the remaining mustangs are returning to normal behavior and interacting socially with each other, federal officials said. “These observations suggest that the outbreak is decreasing in intensity and beginning to resolve,” the agency reported.

Vets and scientists determined that the outbreak was caused by the fairly common equine influenza virus, but was further complicated by strep bacteria. Laboratory testing continues and the BLM is awaiting further autopsy results from several horse carcasses. Scientists are also investigating whether environmental factors contributed to the outbreak and previously noted that West Douglas horses lived near a wildfire shortly before they were arrested by helicopter last August.

Officials first became concerned about the West Douglas horses in mid-April after three foals died. The body of the third colt has been sent for an autopsy. The BLM said this week that evidence so far showed the foal had no respiratory problems and vets did not believe his death was linked to the outbreak.

Five days after the foal’s death, on April 23, nine horses were found dead.

The southern Colorado enclosures also contain hundreds of mustangs from the Sand Wash Basin in northwestern Colorado. This beloved herd, known for its coloring and a famous pinto stallion named Picasso, includes many horses named by wild horse advocates who traced Picasso’s line and traveled to a desolate land near the line of state of Wyoming in September to watch the horses herded by a low-level flight. helicopter.

The West Douglas herd is less well known, primarily because the lands where they lived along the Colorado-Utah border west of Meeker were mostly inaccessible. The BLM deemed it ‘unsuitable’ for wild horses and last summer announced an emergency roundup of horses and burros after the Oil Springs Fire, which burned about 12,000 acres south of Rangely .

Wild horse advocates, in emails and phone calls to Congress, the BLM and the media, demand to know why the horses weren’t vaccinated. The debacle is further proof, they say, that the federal wild horse and donkey program is inhumane. Instead, they argue for increased federal spending on fertility control programs.

Feral horses at the East Cañon Correctional Complex on October 13, 2021 in Cañon City. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The BLM said on Tuesday it was looking for new contractors to round up wild horses and inject them with a fertility control vaccine, before releasing them. The agency estimated that it would have up to $20 million to devote to this effort over the next five years.

Nationally, the office has more than 56,000 feral horses and donkeys in paddock or pasture, some awaiting adoption. This includes more than 2,000 horses in Cañon City, where prison inmates tend to the animals.

The agency estimates there are around 82,000 wild horses and burros roaming the rangelands in 10 western states, but says the land is only suitable for around 26,000 of them. In Colorado, about 1,800 mustangs remain within range, but the federal goal is 827.

The BLM plans to muster an additional 19,000 wild horses and donkeys next year, including a Colorado muster of the Piceance-East Douglas herd, also west of Meeker.

“It’s a wake-up call that wild horses are the safest in the wild,” said Scott Wilson, a Denver board member of the American Wild Horse Campaign who photographs wild horses. “We cannot continue to cram more horses into a broken system while underutilizing scientifically proven fertility control treatments that would allow more horses to go free.”

The Horse Campaign is also seeing an outbreak of “strangulation,” a contagious bacterial disease that causes head and neck swelling, at a detention facility in Wyoming.

We believe vital information should be seen by those affected, whether it is a public health crisis, investigative reporting, or holding lawmakers accountable. This report depends on the support of readers like you.