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Wild horse deaths reach 142 in Cañon City, Polis 'deeply concerned'

The governor said that he ordered the state agriculture department to evaluate the situation at the BLM facility in Cañon City.

CAÑON CITY, Colo. — Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday he was "deeply concerned" over the deaths of 142 wild horses at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) facility in Cañon City.

The BLM has pointed to an equine influenza virus as the probable cause of a highly contagious disease outbreak that started last month in the facility, which holds about 2,550 horses.

“I am deeply concerned about the tragic death of these iconic animals," Polis said in a statement. "I've directed our Department of Agriculture 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."

> Video above: 'Highly contagious' disease kills dozens of horses at Colorado facility, aired April 26.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) and a field veterinarian have visited the facility and reviewed its biosecurity measures, the statement says.

BLM implemented a quarantine of the affected horses at the facility, about 115 miles south of Denver. The CDA was working with BLM and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to monitor the horses' health and wellbeing, the statement says.

"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," Polis said in the statement.

RELATED: BLM identifies possible cause of 129 wild horse deaths in Cañon City

BLM said last month that PCR testing identified two equine herpes viruses. According to the BLM, these commonly occur in healthy horses and it was unclear to what extent these might be contributing to the severity of the illness among the affected group of horses at the facility.

The BLM said it captured 684 wild horses last fall in the Sand Wash Basin, about an hour west of Craig. About 50 of the captured horses were released back into the wild.

The drought has left too little water and too little vegetation for food to sustain the wild horse herd of nearly 900, BLM said.

RELATED: Capture of more than 700 wild horses has emotions running high in northwest Colorado

Credit: Bryan Wendland

The advocacy group American Wild Horse Campaign questioned the need for the roundup and more recently said the affected horses at the Cañon City facility were not vaccinated or partially vaccinated against equine influenza virus.

A BLM spokesman said Thursday that the agency had no further comment on the horse deaths at this time.

Last month, BLM released the statements from Ben Gruber, BLM Colorado acting associate state director, and Dean Williams, state corrections department executive director.

"The Bureau of Land Management will review operations at the Cañon City facility to prevent future outbreaks like this from occurring," Gruber said. "This tragic outcome was influenced by a population of horses that may have been particularly vulnerable, given their time in the West Douglas area and their exposure to last year’s wildfire that prompted their emergency gather."

"This unfortunate event is being taken very seriously by the Department of Corrections and the BLM," Williams said. "We are working in coordination to mitigate the spread of the virus and identify and prevent any potential risk which could lead to future similar events."

RELATED: 'Highly contagious' disease kills 85 horses at Colorado facility

RELATED: Historic Sand Wash Basin wild horse gather ends with questions and concerns

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