La Veta, CO

Virus likely caused horse deaths, BLM criticized for roundups

Matt Whittaker

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Wild horses near La Veta, Colo., in 2015.Larry Lamsa/Flickr

By Matt Whittaker / NewsBreak Denver

(Canon City, Colo.) Horse flu likely caused the deaths of 95 wild horses in less than a week at a quarantined federal facility where prisoners train the animals, officials said Thursday.

Officials determined that an equine influenza outbreak that began on April 23  likely killed a fourth of the 366 horses gathered from West Douglas Herd Area in an emergency operation in fall 2021 following a wildfire that impacted their habitat. 

Veterinarians at the bureau's wild horse and burro holding site at a Colorado Department of Corrections complex in Canon City observed mild signs of the flu in approximately 10% to 20% of the other 2,184 horses at the facility that are not from West Douglas. 

Tests from two U.S. veterinary diagnostic laboratories identified the virus in nasal swabs and lung tissue from several horses. Testing also identified two equine herpes viruses common in healthy horses, and the bureau said it is unclear to what extent these may have contributed to the severity of the outbreak.

The outbreak garnered national media attention, and Thursday, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) brought up the fatalities in a Natural Resources Committee hearing. "These horses are kept in close quarters," he said. "If they were not penned it is entirely possible that the pathogen would have not spread nearly as quickly."

The American Wild Horse Campaign, which called on Congress to halt wild horse roundups and investigate BLM corrals, said on Thursday the fatalities are a small part of a wider problem, with dozens of horses dying each month at BLM holding facilities from skull fractures, broken legs and other maladies.

Animal Wellness Action, a group working to prevent animal cruelty, criticized the Wild Horse facility after seeing photos of the packed pens and stressful conditions the formerly wild animals are forced to live in.

“The Bureau of Land Management will review operations at the Canon City facility to prevent future outbreaks like this from occurring,” said BLM Colorado acting associate state director Ben Gruber. “This tragic outcome was influenced by a population of horses that may have been particularly vulnerable given their time in the West Douglas area and their exposure to last year’s wildfire that prompted their emergency gather.” 

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Matt Whittaker writes about natural resources industries, including oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, agriculture and cannabis. He's been based in the Denver metro area since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @mattswhittaker.

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