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

Gov. Jared Polis is asking federal officials to delay rounding up wild horses off Colorado’s rangelands and consider a “more cost effective and humane” plan after 142 horses have died from the equine flu while penned up in a federal facility in Cañon City.

“The facilities and procedures are ill-equipped to take on the hundreds of additional horses scheduled to be removed from the range,” Polis said Thursday in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management.

The governor asked the agency to review its current procedures and that any roundups in the coming months be re-evaluated.

Federal officials reported the outbreak last month, saying 57 horses had died from an “unknown yet highly contagious” illness in a three-day period. The mustangs continued to die at a rapid pace and veterinarians later determined the mustangs, many of which were unvaccinated, died from a common equine influenza.

The deaths reached “a grim new milestone of 142,” Polis said. 

A spokesman for BLM declined to comment on Polis’ letter Thursday evening. 

Many of the horses that died were captured on Colorado’s rangeland last year before they were hauled to the federal facility on state prison grounds. Several hundred of the horses at the facility, which holds more than 2,100 horses, were rounded up by helicopter last year in the Sand Wash Basin in far northwestern Colorado, along the border with Wyoming. Many of the 450 removed last July and August from the West Douglas range in Rio Blanco County are also there. 

The outbreak has disproportionately affected the West Douglas herd, which lived along a remote, craggy and inaccessible area near the Colorado-Utah border. The BLM deemed it “unsuitable” for wild horses last summer and announced an emergency roundup of 450 horses and burros after a wildfire scorched what was left of their habitat, according to a BLM spokesman. Federal officials said the land has little water and not much vegetation to feed the horses.  

In his letter, Polis said the pace at which the horses were dying has slowed, but he remains concerned about the future of the system of care for wild horses in Colorado. 

“The health and well-being of the horses should be the foundation of any proposed activity, and placing them in a confined setting susceptible to disease outbreaks does not seemingly fit that aim,” he wrote. 

“The potential to cause stress and induce disease remains unacceptably high at the Cañon City facility,” he said, in asking the BLM to revisit its plan to round up horses in the Piceance Basin in northwest Colorado to be re-evaluated.

Many of the horses at the facility weren’t vaccinated before they died, prompting outcry from national mustang protection groups and wild horse advocates who have for years rallied against the BLM’s crowded holding facilities that confine horses that used to roam free.

The American Wild Horse Campaign called for an investigation into the outbreak, and why the horses weren’t vaccinated even though they were hauled to the facility last summer. 

BLM said it is working with veterinarians and epidemiologists, including those at the US Department of Agriculture and the Colorado State Veterinarian’s Office, to determine what factors led up to the most severe cases among the country’s deadliest equine flu outbreak and prevent further spread of the disease. 

Olivia Prentzel covers breaking news and a wide range of other important issues impacting Coloradans for The Colorado Sun, where she has been a staff writer since 2021. At The Sun, she has covered wildfires, criminal justice, the environment,...