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Lack of staffing apparently main cause of 144 horse deaths at BLM facility, report says

By Alan Gionet

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    CAÑON CITY, Colorado (KCNC) — A Bureau of Land Management review of the functions at the wild horse facility in Cañon City concludes too little staffing led to issues of care with the wild horse population at the facility. An outbreak of equine influenza complicated by a streptococcal bacteria looks like the likely culprit behind the deaths of 144 horses.

“I don’t know that anyone will ever manage wild horses in a confined area to the satisfaction of some members of the public,” said spokesman Steven Hall in reference to wild horse advocates who would rather see the animals left in the wild. “A lot of people start from the place that these wild horses should never have been gathered.”

The BLM gathered more than 400 horses from the West Douglas area of northwest Colorado in August of 2021. The horses had been at the facility in Cañon City for many months without vaccinations.

“EIA (equine infectious anemia) testing and freeze marking has not always been completed within 30 days. The delays appear to be a combination of management and staffing issues, such as the prioritization of other tasks,” the report from a Comprehensive Animal Welfare Protocol Team said. “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. This appeared to be for several reasons… as well as the attempt to accommodate unusually high-strung animals received from a gather.”

What’s not yet contained in the report is the cause of the spread of the illness. That is to come later with another report out in about a month.

“Where did this isolated bunch of horses get a flu rhino because flu rhino is spread with contact?” asked Dr. Lisa Jacobson, a veterinary advisor for the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group.

Jacobson wondered about the government completing its own report on the deaths.

“There’s no outside oversight. There’s no independent outside oversight. The people we’re getting reports from are from other government agencies.”

She wonders why, if the horses were in rough condition from their time in the wild and exposure to smoke from wildfires as the BLM has suggested, the horses weren’t ill sooner.

“Then they should have been seeing those signs for the last seven, eight months, and there should have been a lot of sick horses, and there should have been some respiratory issues prior.”

There’s been no reporting of significant illness in the West Douglas horses before the onset of the disease that killed them. Vaccinations for flu began only about 10 days prior to the discovery of the illness.

”One thing that we know did happen in Cañon City is we prioritized vaccinating Sand Wash horses over West Douglas horses,” said Hall. “In hindsight maybe we should have approached that differently.”

The Sand Wash horses, he said, had been identified as more adoptable.

The report also terms the facility’s care “compliant.”

“What the report is saying is by and large, BLM did comply with the standards of care that one would expect in a setting like this. That being said, the report also identified places where we can improve.”

Among the recommendations are many repairs, but primarily adding staff as soon as possible. The BLM says it will seek to hire two full time people to help care for the horses.

Jacobson says the reports that have been coming out so far do not give her answers she is seeking and hopes to see reports on the horses that were necropsied.

“We need to figure out what the heck is going on with this disease?”

She questioned the gather in the first place.

“Why do we keep rounding up horses if there are staffing issues and you can’t take care of the horses that are there?”

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