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Late Thursday, Governor Jared Polis finally issued a statement following the disease outbreak that has resulted in the death of 142 horses at the Cañon City Wild Horse and Burro Facility. The mysterious virus was originally reported around April 29, but the growing toll of equine deaths among the wild mustangs has required a quarantine while the cause of the deaths is investigated.

Photo courtesy of Facebook

“I am deeply concerned about the tragic death of these iconic animals,” said Gov. Polis. “I’ve directed our Department of Agriculture [CDA] and the state veterinarian to re-engage with the Bureau of Land Management to review the situation and evaluate what can be done to avoid this situation in the future. We have long advocated for the health, safety, and wellbeing of Colorado’s wild horses, and will continue to do so as we seek a humane future for our mustangs.”

The wild horses were being held in the federal Cañon City Wild Horse and Burro Facility at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after being rounded up during a seasonal culling on public lands in the state.  Managing the number of wild horses on Colorado’s open ranges is part of sustainable management of herd sizes.

According to a field veterinarian with the CDA, immediately after receiving notice of the outbreak, the CDA conducted a site visit at the BLM facility and reviewed biosecurity measures with BLM and the Department of Corrections (DOC) staff.

On Thursday this past week, the BLM implemented a voluntary quarantine of affected horses. Tests showed that a strain of the virus, known as H3N8, was likely the cause of the outbreak and related horse deaths.  Although the question has come up, the virus does not appear to be related in any way to the recent bird flu that has popped up around the world. In this case, although the virus was identified,  no vaccines were administered, while the number of wild horses sickened and dying has continued to climb. The situation thus makes the quarantine necessary. The CDA says that it will continue to work with BLM and DOC to monitor the health and wellbeing of the horses at the Cañon City facility.

This isn’t the first time that a virus has killed wild equines. Last March, a facility in Wyoming was closed and an adoption event for wild horses had to be postponed there. The reason? Some of the animals developed Streptococcus equi, a bacterial infection similar to strep throat.

The recent deaths of these iconic animals is another example of the effort to sustainably manage wild horses and burros in the West. The BLM says there are about 86,000 animals roaming public lands. This is more than three times what the lands can support, they say.