LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — On a Nevada range, a desperate young mustang with a broken leg tried but failed to escape a government roundup and had to be put down.
Deaths and serious injuries of wild horses have become a predictable consequence of the BLM’s often brutal helicopter operations. The public rarely sees what happens next.
Wild horse advocate Jerry Reynoldson describes the scene: “Horses, shoulder to shoulder, tail to tail, I mean literally no room to even move. You couldn’t put humans in that situation and expect them to not get sick.”
When a mysterious illness erupted in late April, it generated a brief public uproar as dozens of wild horses in government corrals died. But after the media attention dissipated, the deaths continued, and critics say this is likely just the beginning.
Reynoldson has spent decades working on behalf of the mustangs and wasn’t at all surprised to hear that captive horses were dying of a mysterious illness at a BLM facility in Colorado. The number of dead horses kept rising.
“It started out with 67 and all of the sudden it was 85, and then 100 and the last count I saw was 149, though I’m sure it is more than that by now,” he said.
The facility at Cañon City relies in part on prisoners to care for the mustangs, but even with that help, Reynoldson says, the facility is woefully understaffed and overstuffed, with twice as many horses as it was built to handle, a direct result of BLM’s accelerated program of roundups.
“It takes just one horse to get sick in a crowded condition like that,” Reynoldson said. “It’ll spread like wildfire and that’s what’s happened.”
Professional photographer Carol Walker’s iconic images of horses in the wild are known all over the world. She not only photographs them but has adopted mustangs from the Cañon City facility and is appalled by the conditions she’s witnessed there and at other BLM pens.
“In August I found a lot of thin horses, emaciated horses,” Walker said.
Like the rest of the public, Walker is barred from getting anywhere near the facility. But she’s learned the mystery disease that killed more than 140 horses — likely a version of equine influenza — was allowed to spread because the mustangs were never vaccinated, even 10 months after their capture. That’s a violation of BLM policy, one of multiple failures documented in BLM’s own internal reports.
“And this is not just a problem just at one or two facilities but across the board,” Walker said. “This is happening at other facilities and it’s been happening for years. And the idea that BLM is going to round up another 23,000 more horses this year, where are they going to put them?”
At the same time mustangs were dying in Colorado, a huge BLM holding pen at Wheatland, Wyoming, was also off limits to the public because of an outbreak of a disease with an ominous name — strangles. Eleven mustangs are known to have died, but it’s not over. BLM acknowledges that more than half of the 2,700 horses at Wheatland are now infected. Jerry Reynoldson says the disease is aptly named.
“They die in the most horrible way, you know, it’s dehydration and they basically strangle themselves. They die for lack of oxygen and circulation and dehydration. You can’t imagine a more miserable way for an animal to die.
Despite the overcrowding and disease at multiple facilities, BLM plans to round up a record number of mustangs in Nevada and across the West this year.
For Carol Walker and others who come to know individual bands of mustangs and their bloodlines, the sight of horses living and dying in BLM pens is soul-crushing.
“It’s the most heartbreaking thing I can imagine, seeing these horses who had their families in the wild and were healthy and proud and free, and then they’re in these filthy holding pens with nothing to live for, really,” Walker said. “I mean, they’re just standing there and the light has gone out of their eyes.”
The I-Team requested an interview with the BLM. That request was denied. Mustangs rounded up in Nevada do end up at both of the BLM corrals mentioned in this report.