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Cañon City facility where 145 wild horses died is short-staffed, in violation of federal policies, report finds

Many of the horses that died of equine flu were not vaccinated because the southern Colorado holding facility lacks enough workers and the mustangs were “unusually high-strung,” BLM investigators said.

Wild horses at the East Cañon Correctional Complex on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, in Cañon City. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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The federal Bureau of Land Management failed to vaccinate wild horses captured from western Colorado because the Cañon City holding facility lacks enough workers and because the mustangs were “unusually high-strung,” according to a report released Thursday that offers the first clues about why 145 horses died from a typically preventable equine flu.

A review by an animal welfare team found multiple violations of BLM policy, including that the horses had not received vaccinations despite being hauled to the holding pens more than seven months ago. 

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The federal agency’s policy is to freeze-brand and de-worm mustangs within 30 days of capture and vaccinate them as soon as possible based on the advice of a veterinarian. The “comprehensive animal welfare program team assessment” found the BLM was out of compliance with its own vaccination policy, noting that the facility on the grounds of a state prison doesn’t have enough workers “on a consistent daily basis to complete all the work required in a timely manner.”

The team — which included three BLM officials and a veterinarian from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — found the federal agency was noncompliant on 13 policies. Besides being behind on vaccinations, the team noted the facility was behind on trimming hooves every six months as required and that horses did not always get freeze-marked within 30 days. 

“The delays appear to be a combination of management and staffing issues, such as the prioritization of other tasks,” the report says, noting that BLM officials took care of mustangs from the popular Sand Wash Basin herd ahead of the lesser-known West Douglas horses. All of the horses that died in the flu outbreak were from West Douglas, in northern Colorado along the border with Utah.

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The assessment team also found that the holding facility, which held about 2,000 mustangs and burros, is not operating in compliance with the BLM’s rules on euthanasia, which say that a “properly trained, and experienced person” and euthanasia equipment must be on site in case of emergencies. Euthanasia at the facility is done via injection by contract veterinarians, who have to travel to the site to euthanize an animal. The policy is meant to prevent suffering of horses because of illness or injuries.

Since the holding pens are on Colorado Department of Corrections property, firearms are prohibited. But the assessment team recommended that the BLM authorize staff, equipped with firearms, to euthanize horses when needed. The report suggested trailering animals off site for euthanisia by an “equipped person.”

Other criticisms noted in the report included that some stallions were accidentally mixed in pens with mares and that, due to lack of adequate staff, the facility was behind on regular maintenance, including repairing gates and sharp edges in pastures that could injure horses, it 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)

The outbreak began April 23, when nine horses were found dead. Most of the 145 deaths occurred during the following two and a half weeks, until the outbreak tapered off in mid-May. Only one horse has died in the past week. 

BLM officials said they will release another report in the coming weeks with further explanation about why the West Douglas horses were not vaccinated. The horses were gathered last August after the federal agency determined their rangeland was unsuitable for mustangs. The helicopter roundup resulted in the capture of about 450 horses from a remote and parched range that was near a recent wildfire. 

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The southern Colorado holding pens also contain hundreds of mustangs that were gathered from the Sand Wash Basin in northwestern Colorado in September. Federal officials are planning another wild horse roundup this year in East Douglas, also in northwestern Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis last week called for a delay in rounding up wild horses to consider a “more cost effective and humane” plan. Numerous wild horse advocacy groups, meanwhile, are demanding answers about the mustang deaths and asking federal officials to end the roundups.



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