67 Wild Horses Die of Highly Contagious Illness in Federal Care

The Colorado facility is under voluntary quarantine.

Three wild horses in Colorado
Wild horses in Colorado.

John Morrison / Getty Images

Wild horses rounded up by the government in Colorado are now in quarantine due to an “unknown yet highly contagious” disease. So far, 67 horses have died because of the illness.

The Canon City Wild Horse and Burro Facility, which is on the grounds of a state prison, is under voluntary quarantine, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency announced 57 horses died since the outbreak began on April 23. An additional 10 more horses died early this week.

There are currently 2,550 horses at the facility, according to federal officials. They say most of the horses affected were captured on Colorado's West Douglas range in Rio Blanco County in fall 2021.

At the time, the BLM said it was separating these horses from the rest of the animals until they could be tested and cleared of equine infectious anemia, a viral disease.

Officials are working to find the cause of the outbreak.

“We are working with local, state, and federal officials to determine what is impacting horses in the facility and how we can respond as effectively as possible,” Stephen Leonard, BLM Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Program Manager, said in a statement.

Two veterinarians—one independent and one who works for the government—are working at the facility to diagnose and treat the horses. Any animals showing symptoms are being quarantined from the rest of the horses.

Controversial Roundups

Inmates at the corrections facility feed, train, and care for the horses as part of a cooperative agreement between the BLM and the Colorado Department of Corrections. It is one of five facilities in the U.S. with a Wild Horse Inmate Program, reports the BLM. The inmates gain “meaningful and marketable experience they can use when they reenter the workforce,” according to the BLM website.

The facility can hold as many as 3,000 animals at a time. Two adoption events are held there each month where both trained and untrained mustangs are sold.

A controversial practice with animal rights supporters, the BLM has rounded up thousands of wild horses and burros in order to try to reduce the number of animals in Western herds. It uses low-flying helicopters to chase the horses into pens. Then the animals are trucked to holding facilities where many are later sold at adoption events.

Among the many arguments opponents offer against the process is that often animals are injured during the roundups and they are later kept in crowded holding pens. They say some end up being sold for slaughter.

The BLM estimates there are more than 86,000 wild horses and burros in the wild in the U.S. Herds typically grow by 20% each year if not managed. The agency says large populations can cause damage to the habitat and, due to limited resources, increases the risk of starvation and thirst.

The BLM plans to round up a minimum of 22,000 wild horses and burros by the end of September 2022. They plan on permanently removing at least 19,000 and returning 2,300 or more after they’ve been treated with fertility control measures.

Disease Outbreaks

The Colorado facility is the second federal location in recent weeks to have a contagious disease outbreak. The Wheatland Off-Range Corral in Wyoming canceled an adoption event in early April due to an outbreak of Streptococcus equi, a bacterial infection known as strangles.

“Disease outbreaks and deaths are the direct result of the BLM's inhumane mass roundups. Now, more than 60,000 wild horses and burros are in overcrowded dirt holding pens,” Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said in a statement.

“The agency is planning to round up and remove another 19,000 wild horses and burros from public lands this year. We can expect to see more suffering and death if BLM continues down this dangerous and destructive path.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Wild horse facility quarantined due to disease outbreak." Bureau of Land Management, 25 Apr. 2022.

  2. "Cañon City Facility." Bureau of Land Management.

  3. "2021 West Douglas Herd Area Emergency Wild Horse Gather: Completed Aug. 13." Bureau of Land Management.

  4. "Canon City Wild Horse Inmate Program." Bureau of Land Management.

  5. "Reality of Roundups." American Wild Horse Campaign.

  6. "BLM releases annual plan for wild horse and burro gathers and fertility control operations." Bureau of Land Management, 5 Jan. 2022.

  7. "BLM Wheatland Off-Range Corral Postpones April 1 Adoption Event." Bureau of Land Management, 28 Mar. 2022.

  8. "57 Federally-Protected Wild Horses Dead at Colorado Taxpayer-Funded Holding Facility." American Wild Horse Campaign, 26 Apr. 2022.