Wheatland Wild Horse Facility Still Closed Due To Highly Contagious Equine Illness “Strangles”

The wild horse facility in Wheatland is still closed to the public due to a number of the horses being infected with a viral infection known as "strangles" and a horse advocacy group is calling on the BLM to rethink its housing methods.

Ellen Fike

May 02, 20224 min read

Wild horses

The wild horse holding facility in Wheatland remains closed to the public due to the infection of a number of wild horses there with an illness known as “strangles” and a horse advocacy group is calling on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to rethink its housing methods as a result.

Brad Purdy, a spokesman for the BLM in Wyoming told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that the facility has been closed for several weeks on the recommendation of a veterinarian.

“Some horses have been diagnosed with strangles,” Purdy said. “No horses can be shipped to or from the facility.”

Strangles is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacteria that crosses mucus membranes in the nose and mouth to infect the lymph nodes, where the illness causes abscesses that can eventually rupture. The infected lymph nodes become swollen and can compress the upper respiratory tract, hence the name “strangles.”

Colorado Equine Flu

Purdy noted that there has been no interaction between the horses in Wheatland and the horses at a BLM facility in Canon City, Colorado, many of whom have been infected with equine influenza and died. More than 115 horses have died from the flu at the Colorado facility as of Monday.

Around 2,500 horses are being housed at the Canon City facility, according to the American Wild Horse Campaign.

The Colorado BLM announced last week that a “bacterial co-infection” was a complicating factor leading the horses’ deaths and that the horses primarily affected were either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated against the flu.

AWHC spokeswoman Amelia Perrin told Cowboy State Daily on Monday that despite the Wheatland horses not being infected with equine flu, the fact that they have another contagious illness points to issues in BLM’s housing methods.

“While the diseases may be different, the root cause is the same,” she said. “Anytime you bring in mass numbers of horses like the BLM does with this mass round-up removal program, disease outbreak is a logical consequence of that.”

Drastic Changes Needed

Perrin said that without “drastic” change to how the BLM currently manages its wild horse roundup program, the lives of 60,000 wild horses and burros in holding facilities across the country could be in danger.

The Wheatland facility can house anywhere from 500 to 3,500 horses. Purdy did not say on Monday how many horses were currently at the facility, but as of one month ago, it was housing around 2,700.

“Last I heard, there isn’t a concern about widespread deaths at Wheatland due to strangles,” Purdy said.

The strangles outbreak at the Wheatland facility began sometime in March, Purdy previously told Cowboy State Daily.

No Adoption

Last month, BLM Wyoming had to cancel its wild horse and burro adoption event at the Wheatland facility due to the outbreak.

The “strangles” disease is the most common infectious illness found in horses between 6 and 10 years old. Horses can catch the disease through inhalation or ingestion of the bacteria, such as through horse-to-horse contact, drinking contaminated water or making contact with infected material.

The disease can have a mortality rate of 40%, but the severity of the disease varies and is dependent on a horse’s immune status and the dose and strain of bacteria.

The AWHC has been vocal about its opposition to the BLM’s wild horse roundups, but the organization noted over the weekend that the program should be halted at minimum until an investigation into the Canon City situation is completed and all necessary preventative measures have been implemented.

“Canon City is not an isolated incident,” Perrin said Monday. “Unless there is drastic change, we’re going to see more types of mass casualty incidents like we’ve been seeing in Canon City. Right now, there are 117 dead. But who knows how many more are sick?”

BLM Wyoming manages 16 wild horse herd management areas on nearly 5 million acres. 

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Ellen Fike