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Inmates who feed, water and shoe mustangs walk inside a pen filled with wild horses from the Sand Wash Basin at the East Cañon Correctional Complex on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, in Cañon City. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

An “unknown yet highly contagious” disease has caused the deaths of 67 wild horses within four days in Cañon City, where the animals have been kept since they were captured by the federal Bureau of Land Management. 

The BLM announced the outbreak Monday and the deaths of 57 horses since Saturday. Then 10 more horses died on Tuesday, the federal agency said.

The wild horse facility, on the grounds of a state prison, is under a “voluntary quarantine.” Many of the horses that died were captured on Colorado’s West Douglas range in Rio Blanco County last year, according to federal officials.

The bureau is working with state and local officials to determine the exact cause of death of the horses, which are cared for at the prison facility and then, in some cases, sold for auction, said Stephen Leonard, program manager for the Colorado wild horse and burro program.

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

The facility has 2,550 horses, including many of the 450 removed last July and August from the West Douglas range. It also has several hundred from a large-scale helicopter roundup conducted last year in the Sand Wash Basin in far northwestern Colorado, along the border of Wyoming. 

Nearly 700 horses were herded by a low-flying helicopter into holding pens during the two-week roundup in Sand Wash in September. 

The deaths in Cañon City sparked outcry from mustang advocates and animal rights groups across the country. The national Animal Wellness Action called mustang holding pens “cramped, crowded and stressful” and “the perfect environment for infectious pathogens to propagate and spread.”

“The BLM must immediately suspend any ongoing or future horse and burro gather operations until it can demonstrate the ability to provide basic care for these animals, starting with the ability to keep them safe from infectious disease,” Scott Beckstead, director of campaigns for the Center for a Humane Economy, said in a news release.

The BLM has rounded up thousands of wild horses in the past two years, an attempt to thin herds across the West. 

Colorado has four mustang rangelands managed by the federal agency and, before last summer’s roundups, counted 2,412 wild mustangs. The appropriate number for the land, according to the BLM, is just 827. 

Nationwide, the agency estimates there are more than 86,000 mustangs and burros in the wild, after BLM roundups removed more than 10,000 in the last year in several Western states.

More roundups are planned in the next year to gather 19,000 horses and burros.

The federal agency now has about 60,000 wild horses and burros in holding pens across the country.

The American Wild Horse Campaign called on Gov. Jared Polis and First Gentleman Marlon Reis, an animal rights advocate, to “push Congress for greater oversight” of the wild horse management program. “Disease outbreaks and deaths are the direct result of the BLM’s inhumane mass roundups,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the campaign.

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo