Equine influenza claims lives of 119 wild horses; congressman voices concern

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File image of horses at the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Corrals in Cañon City, Colorado.
File image of horses at the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Corrals in Cañon City, Colorado. © BLM

Nearly 120 horses have died from equine influenza at a wild horse holding facility in Colorado, and a US congressman has raised concerns about the management of mustangs.

The outbreak at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Corrals in Cañon City, Colorado began on April 23, and as of May 2, there had been 119 deaths among the 445 West Douglas horses who were rounded up in autumn 2021 at the facility.

Testing from two labs confirmed the cause as equine H3N8 type flu virus, and the latest tests on Monday have determined the virus to be the Florida Clade 1 sublineage, the endemic strain of equine influenza in North America.

During a hearing last week on Preventing Pandemics through US Wildlife-borne Disease Surveillance, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN), Member of the House Natural Resource’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee ,voiced his concern with the unfolding situation.

“The facility currently holds 2500 horses … in close quarters — if they were not penned, it is entirely possible that the pathogen would’ve not spread nearly as quickly.”

Cohen also raised overall concerns about how wild horses and burros are being treated and managed. He noted concerns about large-scale helicopter roundups, wild horses and burros being sent to slaughter, and subsidized livestock grazing within federally designated wild horse and burro habitats. He noted the wild horses and burros are at-risk and called for a committee hearing on the matter.

“They should have rights in those lands to graze. They are an American treasure,” he said.

Holly Gann Bice, Director of Government Relations for the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC), said the group was grateful for Cohen’s support of wild horses.

“Congressman Cohen is a steadfast champion for wild horses and burros, and we are grateful that he is bringing awareness to the over 60,000 wild horses and burros being warehoused in crowded corrals,” she said.

“The situation at Cañon City is evidence of a broken federal system that has resulted in serious animal welfare concerns, and yet the government plans to round up 19,000 more horses this year,” Gann Bice said.

The AWHC described the Colorado deaths as “just the tip of the iceberg” and called for an immediate pause on the roundups and a full investigation into the BLM’s off-range wild horse holding system. The group is urging the public to contact Congress over the issue.

“Documents received through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that dozens of horses are dying every month at BLM holding facilities from causes other than infectious disease, including skull fractures, broken legs, foaling and gelding complications, failure to thrive, and many from unknown causes who are simply noted as ‘found dead in pen’,” the group said.

The Cañon City facility is under voluntary quarantine and biosecurity measures have been put in place. Anti-inflammatories and antibiotics have been administered to affected horses.

“Most of the affected animals are wild and ungentled and cannot be treated without the use of the hydraulic squeeze chute systems. This risks further spreading the illness throughout the facility, stressing the animals that could exacerbate any current underlying issues and risk further injury to adults and young foals in the affected pens,” the BLM said.

“For these reasons, individual animal treatment will be limited. The preventive medication of water with antibiotics is considered, but not implemented at this time. Dust mitigation efforts including wetting down adjacent roads and gravel areas are being done on an ongoing basis.”

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