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67 wild horses died in a Colorado holding pen. Why?

Investigators probe mysterious cause of death

SHARE 67 wild horses died in a Colorado holding pen. Why?

Horses stand in corrals waiting to be adopted in March as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s first auction for horses gathered from the Sand Wash Basin in the fall of 2021. Horses primarily impacted at this time by the illness are from the West Douglas herd. Horses from both herds were rounded up last year and are kept in Canon City, though the horses from the two herds are not kept in the same corrals.

Dylan Anderson, Steamboat Pilot and Today

The Colorado state office of the Bureau of Land Management is working with academic partners to learn what killed 67 wild horses kept at its Canon City Wild Horse Facility, about 300 miles from the Utah border.

The facility can hold up to 2,550 wild horses and is now in voluntary quarantine.

“We are working with local, state and federal officials to determine what is impacting horses in the facility and how we can respond as effectively as possible,” said Stephen Leonard, BLM Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Program manager, in a statement posted on the agency’s website.

The highly contagious and fatal outbreak first began April 23 and has continued over the last several days.

The BLM said the horses that are dying are from two regions of the state, with horses gathered from the West Douglas area in fall 2021 being the most impacted.

At the time, according to wild horse advocacy group the American Wild Horse Campaign, the federal agency noted the West Douglas horses captured near the Utah state line were being segregated from other horses at Canyon City pending testing for equine infectious anemia. That is a disease that was confirmed in horses in nearby Uintah County, Utah. 

Bailee Woolstenhulme, spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said the state veterinarian investigated the outbreak in Utah.

“These were horses on the reservation in the Uinta Basin. Our vets were dispatched out there to administer medication and to take care of them.”

Known in the horse world as swamp fever, equine infectious anemia is a bloodborne disease typically caused by biting insects. There is not a treatment or vaccine, according to the Merck veterinary manual and, once infected, the animal becomes a carrier. Because the disease can be spread from animal to animal, an infected equid is either euthanized or forced into lifelong quarantine.

It’s not unusual to have disease outbreaks in horses as they come in contact with each other either in domesticated settings, such as rodeos or showing events, and in wild populations penned in close quarters.

In Utah, an outbreak of a highly contagious respiratory disease at a Delta wild horse facility forced the cancellation of an auction in 2019. Strangles, or equine distemper, was detected in horses gathered from the Onaqui Herd Management Area near Dugway in Tooele County.

BLM Colorado spokesperson Steven Hall told the Craig Press that the impacted West Douglas animals in that state were likely already in poor condition at the time of the roundup.

“That’s an area that’s unsuitable for wild horses and has been for years due to vegetation (and) access to water,” Hall said. “It’s not surprising if some of the horses from West Douglas were gathered with existing health conditions.”

The American Wild Horse Campaign, which is vehemently opposed to the BLM’s roundups and the stockpiling of horses, said the Colorado deaths of wild horses is another example of failed federal policies.

“Disease outbreaks and deaths are the direct result of the BLM’s inhumane mass roundups. Now, more than 60,000 wild horses and burros are in overcrowded dirt holding pens,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), the nation’s leading wild horse protection organization. “The agency is planning to round up and remove another 19,000 wild horses and burros from public lands this year. We can expect to see more suffering and death if BLM continues down this dangerous and destructive path.”