Colorado BLM responds to concerns after pneumonia kills 145 horses

Matt Whittaker

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A wild horse near La Veta, Colo.Larry Lamsa / Flickr

By Matt Whittaker / NewsBreak Denver

(Canon City, Colo.) Colorado’s office of the Bureau of Land Management, facing criticism for its roundups and care of wild horses after 145 died in its corrals in April and May, said Thursday it will hold a public information meeting on the issue next week.

The BLM will host the one-hour virtual meeting from 5 to 6 p.m. on June 15, when staff will provide brief updates on the bureau’s management of wild horses, information about an upcoming gathering of the animals and the next steps for the Canon City facility where the fatalities occurred.

People who want to attend the meeting can sign up here and submit written questions here. Participants can also submit written questions during the live meeting.

The BLM’s outreach comes after 145 horses died at the bureau's wild horse and burro holding site at a Colorado Department of Corrections complex in Canon City between April 23 and May 21. Hardest hit were horses gathered from the West Douglas Herd Area in an emergency operation in fall 2021 following a wildfire that impacted their habitat.

On May 27, the bureau said the cause of the deaths was pneumonia caused by the flu virus and strep bacteria.

Staff from the Colorado State Veterinarian’s Office, the Colorado Department of Corrections and the BLM began a review of the events surrounding the outbreak. In May, a team from the bureau reviewed the facility’s compliance with the bureau’s own animal welfare standards.

It found a long list of conditions that weren’t compliant with those standards. The report’s commentary on “major” compliance issues said:

  • “While the BLM and contract employees working at the facility have the training, skills, and experience to observe, move, and handle the wild horses at the facility, they simply do not have enough employees on a consistent daily basis to complete all the work required in a timely manner.”

  • “There was missing information and discrepancies between the … database used to track animals and animal health and BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program System. It is apparent the facility is not staffed adequately for accurate and timely data entry and records maintenance.”

  • “Among animals received from gather operations as well as those that had been at the facility for some time, current and timely vaccinations had not been maintained in several instances.”

  • “Numerous pens had horses with long hooves that were not maintained in proper condition. Examination of the records available confirmed it had been more than 6 months since the hooves of some animals had been trimmed."

  • “Due to limitations associated with the location of the facility inside a prison, use of a firearm is prohibited. All euthanasia is done by injection by one of the contract veterinarians. There are not authorized and properly trained persons available on-site at all times in case of an emergency.”

The Canon City facility remains under voluntary quarantine until at least July 1.

As the horses were dying in May, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis wrote the Bureau of Land Management calling for the delay of a planned roundup in the Piceance Basin.

“The systems established for the benefit of wild horses once taken off the range are currently inadequate and require reevaluation and analysis to guarantee that any influx of new horses will not result in the same outbreak conditions we are witnessing in Canon City today,” Polis wrote.

Some advocates have called for the BLM to stop wild horse roundups altogether.

“Internal assessments show widespread problems that are creating an animal welfare crisis at these taxpayer-funded holding facilities where 60,000 wild horses and burros are confined,” Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, which on June 1 called for an emergency halt to all federal wild horse and burro roundups. The group says the BLM should use horse birth control instead of roundups and holding facilities.

In January, the BLM said it planned to treat at least 2,300 wild horses and burros with fertility control – the largest number the bureau has ever treated that way in one year – and release them back onto public lands through the end of September.

Critics of the BLM’s horse management policies say the bureau favors cattle ranchers over the wild horses and burros that graze on the same land as cattle.

“Environmentalists who consider them ‘nonnative’ or ‘invasive’ and call for their removal are playing into the beef industry’s false, self-serving narrative,” Animal Wellness Action said in a tweet on Wednesday.

But the American Farm Bureau Federation, a farm and ranch insurance company and lobbying group, said the animals’ fast population growth threatens more than just cattle.

“Widespread and overabundant feral horses and burros wreak havoc on the rangeland ecosystem by overgrazing native plants, exacerbating invasive establishment and out-competing other ungulates,” the group said. “As a result, water resources are impacted, and important and iconic wildlife species are threatened.”

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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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