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141 wild horses — a third of those captured from the Western Slope — died in country’s deadliest flu outbreak

Bureau of Land Management officials say the outbreak is winding down after two and a half weeks

The Bureau of Land Management gathered more than 400 wild horses and burros by helicopter last summer from the West Douglas rangeland along the Colorado-Utah border. The dry, rugged range is considered unsuitable for mustangs by federal officials. (Provided by BLM)
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A third of the wild horses captured from Western Slope rangeland last summer have died in the equine flu outbreak at their holding pens in Cañon City, though federal officials said Wednesday that the outbreak is winding down.

Mustang deaths — which numbered more than 20 on the worst days of the outbreak — have trickled to two or fewer per day, with a tally of 141 deaths in the past two and a half weeks. The outbreak is now considered the deadliest at any U.S. Bureau of Land Management mustang holding facility. 

The BLM has acknowledged the horses were not vaccinated against the equine flu, as is procedure after mustangs are rounded up from public lands and contained in close quarters, but federal officials have yet to release details about why they were not.  

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

Federal officials said they typically try to de-worm, brand, microchip and vaccinate the horses within 30 days of capture, but that is not a requirement. The vaccination schedule is up to veterinarians and can vary based on horses’ condition. The BLM has said it will release thorough details about why the West Douglas horses weren’t vaccinated, but has not said when it will explain the vaccination delay. 

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

About 90% of the West Douglas horses and about 50% of the rest of 2,000 horses at the pens were sick with the respiratory virus, which included fever, coughing and nasal discharge. Now, only about 10% of the West Douglas horses and 5% of the rest of the horses have symptoms. The horses that have died in the past few days already had a “guarded prognosis for recovery,” the BLM said. 

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

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

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Where did the wild horses removed from Sand Wash Basin go? A Colorado state prison.

Veterinarians and scientists determined the outbreak was caused by the fairly common equine flu virus, but was further complicated by a streptococcus bacteria. Laboratory tests are continuing and the BLM is awaiting further necropsy results from several horse carcasses. Scientists also are studying whether environmental factors contributed to the outbreak, and have previously noted that the West Douglas horses lived near a wildfire shortly before they were rounded up by helicopter last August. 

Officials first became concerned about the West Douglas horses in mid-April, after the deaths of three foals. The third foal’s body was sent for a necropsy. The BLM said this week that evidence so far shows the foal did not have respiratory issues and that veterinarians don’t believe its death was related to the outbreak. 

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

The southern Colorado holding pens also contain hundreds of mustangs from the Sand Wash Basin in northwestern Colorado. That 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 bloodline and traveled to desolate country near the Wyoming state line in September to watch the horses herded by a low-flying helicopter. 

The West Douglas herd is less well-known, mainly because the land where they lived along the Colorado-Utah border, west of Meeker, was 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 torched about 12,000 acres south of Rangely. 

Wild horse advocates, in emails and phone calls to Congress, the BLM and the media, are demanding to know why the horses were not vaccinated. The debacle is further proof, they argue, that the federal wild horse and burro program is inhumane. They are advocating for increased federal spending on fertility-control programs instead. 

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

The BLM announced Tuesday that it is seeking new contractors to gather wild horses and inject them with a fertility-control vaccine, before releasing them back to the range. The agency estimated it would have up to $20 million to spend on the effort over the next five years. 

Nationwide, the bureau has more than 56,000 wild horses and burros in holding pens or pastures, some awaiting adoption. That includes more than 2,000 horses in Cañon City, where prison inmates care for the animals

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

The BLM has plans to round up an additional 19,000 wild horses and burros in the next year, including a Colorado roundup of the Piceance-East Douglas herd, also west of Meeker.

“This is a wake-up call that wild horses are safest in the wild,” said Scott Wilson, a Denver board member of the American Wild Horse Campaign who photographs wild horses. “We can’t keep piling more horses into a broken system while underutilizing scientifically proven fertility control treatments that would allow more horses to remain free.” 

The horse campaign is also watching an outbreak of “strangles,” a contagious bacterial illness that causes swelling of the head and neck, at a Wyoming holding facility.


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