Influenza virus killed feral horses at Cañon City Bureau of Land Management facilities

A flu virus was likely responsible for the deaths of 95 feral horses penned at a Bureau of Land Management facility in Cañon City, the BLM said Thursday.

The virus, which caused respiratory and neurological symptoms in horses at the BLM detention center in Cañon City, “is not uncommon in wild and domestic horses” and has been identified in nasal swabs and lung tissue collected on multiple horses, the BLM said in a statement.

“This strain of equine influenza…is not related to the current outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza currently affecting wild birds and poultry across the United States,” he said.

Animal rights activists have pointed to overcrowding at the BLM detention facility as a factor that has allowed the disease to spread through the feral horse population, which is protected by federal law.

The American Wild Horse Campaign wants the BLM to stop herding wild horses and switch to humane methods of managing wild horse populations, such as fertility control vaccines, to prevent “more horses from enter these overcrowded facilities,” he said in a statement. .

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Horses in Cañon City began showing respiratory and neurological symptoms on Saturday, and within days more than 50 were dead, said BLM Colorado communications director Steven Hall.

The death toll rose to 67 on Tuesday, 85 the next day and 95 on Thursday as Colorado state veterinarians and the Federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service tried to determine what the horses were dying of, a he declared.

“It’s been difficult for the BLM staff who work at the facility,” he said. “They are very dedicated to the wild horses and the horses in their care.”

The BLM is mandated by federal law to manage “healthy horses on healthy (public) land,” Hall said.

Many of the horses that were falling ill and dying had been rounded up in the fall of last year in the rugged West Douglas area, west of the town of Meeker in northwest Colorado, it said. he declares.

The wildfires had reduced the fodder available to wild horses, which “will eat more than one cow in a month”, he said.

The BLM “will review operations at Canon City facilities to prevent future outbreaks like this from occurring,” BLM Colorado acting associate state director Ben Gruber said.

“This tragic outcome was influenced by a population of horses that could have been particularly vulnerable given their time in the West Douglas area and their exposure to last year’s wildfires which prompted their emergency rally. .”

U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said during a hybrid hearing on Capitol Hill and online Wednesday on preventing pandemics through wildlife-borne disease surveillance, that 3.5% of 2,550 Horses at the Cañon City facility were dead within a week.

“These horses are kept cramped – if they weren’t corralled, it’s entirely possible the pathogen wouldn’t have spread as quickly,” Cohen said, calling wild horses a national treasure. .

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A wild horse is shown on August 23, 2021, the day it was adopted by Carol Walker at the Bureau of Land Management detention center in Cañon City, Colorado.

Photographer Carol Walker, who adopted a feral horse from the Cañon City facility, also said keeping the horses in crowded conditions “is very likely to cause disease.”

“When herding horses have no natural immunity to diseases that affect domestic horses, such as strangles,” a highly contagious disease of the upper respiratory tract, she said.

“I think if the horses hadn’t been rounded up they would still be healthy,” she said.

Walker also questioned the standards of care for horses in Cañon City, saying the horse she adopted there in August last year was “skin and bones”.

“The care at this facility is terrible. It doesn’t surprise me that anything happened,” she said.

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Veterinarians are still at the facility, working with the BLM to “investigate and mitigate factors that may contribute to the most severe cases and prevent the spread of disease,” the BLM said.

“The facility remains under voluntary quarantine, with no horses allowed to leave the premises at this time and for the foreseeable future until the animals are determined to be healthy again and pose no risk. for the domestic equine population in the community,” he added. mentioned.

The American Wild Horse Campaign has called for “an immediate halt to roundups and a full investigation into the system of holding wild horses beyond the reach of the BLM,” said the advocacy group’s government relations director, Holly Gann Bice. , in a press release.

Feral horses at Sand Wash Basin in northwest Colorado are pictured here ahead of a raid by the Bureau of Land Management.

Karin Zeitvogel can be contacted at [email protected]