In what can only be described as a preventable tragedy, over 145 wild mustangs have died in Colorado from equine influenza, a respiratory illness that can lead to pneumonia. Vaccinations can protect both domestic and wild animals; however, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who is in charge of the care of the mustangs, has admitted that at the Cañon City facility, horses were not vaccinated due to staff shortages and the claim that the horses were “unusually high-strung.” They’re wild horses ‒ high-strung is a given.

According to an in-depth report by The Colorado Sun, the official BLM policy is purportedly to “freeze-brand and de-worm mustangs within 30 days of capture and vaccinate them as soon as possible based on the advice of a veterinarian.” However, an animal welfare team investigating the deaths, which included three BLM officials and a veterinarian from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “found the federal agency was noncompliant on 13 policies. Besides being behind on vaccinations, the team noted the facility was behind on trimming hooves every six months as required and that horses did not always get freeze-marked within 30 days.”

The same report says, “The delays appear to be a combination of management and staffing issues, such as the prioritization of other tasks.” In a puzzling find, the report also found that BLM officials prioritized the care of mustangs from the “popular Sand Wash Basin herd ahead of the lesser-known West Douglas horses.” Indeed, all of the horses that died during the flu outbreak came from West Douglas, which lies in northern Colorado along the border with Utah.

In a recent document released by the BLM, the timeline states that the first deaths occurred in April of this year. Nine “horses were found dead in 4 pens containing horses gathered from the West Douglas Herd Area in July/August of 2021.” Over 430 horses were rounded up during that time. The timeline notes the most recent death was reported on May 26.

The deceased animals were tested for disease and EHV-1 and EHV-4 were not detected; however, PCR testing from two laboratories confirmed EIV as equine H3N8 type flu virus.

The recent document attributes the loss of life and severe illness in the herd as “a multifactorial respiratory disease complex outbreak involving the H3N8 equine influenza virus and the bacteria streptococcus equi subspecies zooepidemicus as components of the problem.”

The report concludes with a brief outline in the ongoing treatment and mitigation of the remaining horses, stating: “In addition to the voluntary quarantine of the entire facility, supportive care for affected animals and biosecurity measures have been put in place. Animals that could be handled without being moved outside the most affected pens were provided with anti-inflammatories and/or antibiotics at the direction of the attending veterinarian. Most of the affected animals are wild and ungentled and cannot be treated without 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. 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 is being done on an ongoing basis.”

Many animal welfare and wild horse advocates such as the American Wild Horse Campaign and The Wild Beauty Foundation  are calling for further investigations, as well as an end to the inhumane round-ups.