95 wild horses died. A virus is the likely cause, officials say.

A equine influenza virus likely caused the mysterious respiratory disease that has killed at least 95 wild horses and forced a federal team facility in Colorado to go into quarantine, the Bureau of Land Management said Thursday.

Tests showed that a strain of the virus, known as H3N8, was likely the cause of the outbreak and related horse deaths, the agency said in a press release, adding that the virus is “not uncommon” among horses.

The identified strain is not related to a bird flu outbreak this year in the United States, officials said.

The agency, which is responsible for tending the country’s wild horses, announced the outbreak Monday, saying at least 57 horses had died since the weekend in Cañon City, Colo., More than 100 miles south of Denver. The death toll reached 95 on Thursday.

This is the second time in recent weeks that the agency has had to shut down a facility due to a widespread disease among horses. In late March, a facility in Wyoming closed and an adoption event for wild horses was postponed because some animals developed Streptococcus equi, a bacterial infection similar to sore throat.

The recent deaths are part of a larger struggle to sustainably manage wild horses and burros in the West. There are about 86,000 animals roaming public areas, more than three times what the agency says the country can support.

In an effort to keep the population in check, the agency gathers thousands of horses each year and offers them for adoption. But the number of people willing to adopt an untrained mustang has almost never matched the number of animals the government removes, so a surplus has been built up year after year in a collection of enclosures and pastures that the agency calls the “holding system. “

The system now houses more than 60,000 animals at a cost of about $ 72 million a year.

The attitude system includes long-term ranches in the high grassy prairie where unwanted horses can spend decades, as well as short-term feeding grounds where overcrowded enclosures temporarily keep horses fresh off the track.

The short-term facility in Cañon City is located next to a state prison in Colorado, where inmates train horses. It acts as a staging post where animals from various herds roaming over 33 million acres of open space in the West gather in enclosures covering only about 50 acres, making it a potential breeding ground for disease. It is intended as a temporary stopover, but due to overcrowding in the team system, horses often stay for many months.

The agency said Monday that there were 2,550 horses in the dusty Cañon Citys maze of enclosures – only a few hundred shy of its maximum of 3,000.

Steven Hall, a spokesman for the agency, said Thursday that the plant would remain in quarantine “as long as necessary” to prevent the spread of the virus.

Most of the horses affected by the disease were removed last year from a shard of sage-spotted mesas in northwestern Colorado known as the West Douglas Herd Area, officials said. This roundup was done to protect the health of the horses, the field and public land from over-consumption of excess horses, the agency said. At the time, part of the herd was being tested for a potentially deadly virus called equine infectious anemia, which can spread through fly bites. Although all tests were negative, the West Douglas horses were temporarily kept separate from other horses, according to the agency.

“This is the first situation that I am aware of that so many horses died so quickly and so suddenly,” Scott Beckstead, director of campaigns for the Center for a Human Economy, a nonprofit animal welfare organization, said Wednesday.

Mr. Beckstead said he thought the eruption was an indication that conditions in the holding facilities were too crowded and dirty. “We’ve seen photographs of the horses in Cañon City,” he said. “It’s cramped. The horses stand close together. It’s just a perfect environment for disease to spread.”

Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said in a statement Wednesday that the agency put the animals at risk. “It’s not domestic animals,” she said. “They are an iconic and federally protected species.” Ms. Roy also called for a full investigation into the agency’s off-range wild horse keeping system.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees some 245 million acres of public land, mostly in the West, and has been monitoring wild horses and burros since they were protected by federal law in 1971.

The agency has been under pressure for decades by both horse advocacy groups and lawmakers to shrink the size of the holding system. This has led to repeated scandals in which thousands of protected wild horses were adopted out of the system to end up in slaughterhouses immediately.

In 2019, the agency began paying adopters $ 1,000 per year. head to take animals from the hands. Adoptions have nearly tripled since the program began, but a study by The New York Times found that a large number of these horses were sold to slaughter buyers almost as soon as the check had been cleared.

Despite increased adoptions, the number of horses stored in the team system has only grown, increasing by about 10,000 since 2020, in part due to an increase in roundups.

The agency has proposed doubling the number of animals it rounds up each year to about 20,000, in an effort to limit populations in the area, but the move would drastically increase the number of horses in the system.

“The U.S. government is campaigning to remove a large number of these federally protected animals for the benefit of the private livestock industry,” he said. Beckstead. He advised that the agency in the short term should stop the mass collections until healthy and safe conditions can be guaranteed.

“The federal government is going to cost the U.S. taxpayer tens of millions of dollars to round up tens of thousands of wild horses,” he said. “It’s an economic boondoggle because the cost of caring for these animals would be astronomical, and it would be far cheaper to leave them in their designated habitat and manage them there in the area.”

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