Three wild horse and burro holding facilities in Utah were flagged for issues with biosecurity, facility design and handling, according to first-time animal welfare evaluations.
The Bureau of Land Management’s controversial practice of rounding up wild horses from the range for population control often garners attention from the public, but conditions of the holding facilities where the animals end up typically receive less public scrutiny.
There are three wild horse and burro holding facilities in Utah: Axtell, Sutherland and Delta. The Axtell and Sutherland Off-Range Corrals are privately-owned and operated. This summer was the first time the BLM assessed holding facilities nationwide, through the agency’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program.
Delta Wild Horse and Burro Facility — the only holding facility in Utah owned and operated by the BLM — scored the lowest of the three facilities. Axtell received an overall animal welfare score of 88%, Sutherland a score of 87% and Delta a score of 85%
All three holding facilities in Utah had noncompliance with biosecurity standards, like testing and vaccinating wild horses and burros for infectious diseases.
“There were a few things that surprised me, but I wasn’t surprised in, ‘I can’t believe they’re noncompliant.’ It’s surprising in, ’Wow, I didn’t realize that the [Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program standards] actually said that,’” said Gus Warr, leader of the BLM Utah Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Of the standards that the animal welfare program delineates for wild horse and burro holding facilities, biosecurity is one of the most impactful, according to Grace Kuhn, a spokesperson for the American Wild Horse Campaign, a wild horse advocacy group.
In April, there was an outbreak of equine flu at a Cañon City, Colo., holding facility that resulted in the deaths of 145 captive wild horses. In March at the BLM-operated Wheatland Off-Range Corral in Wyoming, there was an outbreak of strangles, another equine illness similar to strep throat.
“The [Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program] assessments raise serious questions and concerns about the ability of the current holding system to warehouse the approximately 19,000 additional wild horses and burros that the BLM is planning to remove this year,” Kuhn said. “These facilities are already overburdened and being poorly maintained, as these [Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program] assessments show.”
Utah’s holding system
The BLM has been tasked with managing 82,384 wild horses and burros on nearly 27 million acres of rangeland in the American West. Left unchecked, wild horse populations can increase 15 to 20% annually, meaning that a herd can double in size every three to four years.
To curb wild horse and burro populations to that appropriate management level of 27,000 animals, the BLM removes wild horses and burros from the range in roundups.
After being rounded up, these animals are shipped to holding facilities, also called off-range corrals. There, they await adoption, sale or shipment to an off-range pasture, where they will live out the rest of their lives.
In Utah, the BLM manages 19 wild horse and burro herd management areas which span almost 2.5 million acres.
Of the three main holding facilities, Axtell, which is privately operated, has been operational since 2014; there is a facility for horses and a facility for burros there, each under separate contracts with the BLM. There are 1,500 animals at that facility, which has capacity for 2,250.
Sutherland, another privately-operated facility, has been operational since January 2021. It holds approximately 1,200 horses, but can hold up to 1,500.
Delta is the oldest holding facility in the state. It was established in 1976 after Congress passed legislation that declared wild horses and burros federally-protected animals. It is also the smallest facility: it cares for 120 horses and has capacity for 300.
Animals are only meant to be held at these facilities for a short period of time. Warr, who has led the program in Utah since 2002, said that within a six- to eight-month period, 75 to 80% of the horses at a given facility will have been adopted, sold or sent to pasture.
“It’s very common at the end of summer, our gather season, going into the fall and winter that our facilities are going to be at capacity,” Warr said. “By next spring, these facilities are going to be emptied out and will be down to 500 animals or less at both Axtell and Sutherland. And we’re going to repeat that cycle year after year.”
After wild horses and burros arrive at holding facilities, they receive an inspection from a contract veterinarian. Eventually, they are tested and receive vaccinations for equine diseases and other health services.
Since 2018, the BLM has removed 50,000 wild horses and burros from the range. The BLM reports that 26,500 animals have been adopted by private owners since 2018.
A look into Utah’s holding facilities
While the BLM’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program has been in place for years, this is the first time wild horse and burro holding facilities across the West have been evaluated for meeting the program’s standards.
The animal welfare inspections of Utah’s three main holding facilities were conducted in late June by wild horse and burro specialists, holding facility managers from other states and the agency’s Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program lead.
The animal welfare program has standards for all phases of the Wild Horse and Burro Program: when animals are on the range, during gathers, at off-range corrals, adoption, sale, transportation and pasture. The BLM conducted its first animal welfare assessment for a roundup at Utah’s Onaqui gather last summer.
The BLM has developed these standards with wild horse and burro specialists around the country, including Warr, and veterinary and animal welfare experts from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis.
Prior to these reports released in July, Utah BLM officials have been conducting “self-assessments” at holding facilities, Warr said.
The animal welfare assessments at all three Utah facilities found that not all animals were tested for equine infectious anemia (EIA) within a 30-day period, which the BLM mandates. Introducing new horses that have not been tested for this disease can increase the risk of infection or outbreak.
Warr said that testing for EIA within 30 days is an “unrealistic policy” given the number of animals holding facilities can receive at one time. Following this first round of assessments at holding facilities, Warr expects that specific standards will become more or less restrictive based on feedback from facility managers.
Records at all three facilities also revealed that not all animals had received their six-month respiratory boosters, which inoculate horses against rabies, tetanus, equine flu and other diseases. At Axtell, some horses had not received their annual booster in 18 months.
At the Sutherland and Delta facilities, evaluations noted another biosecurity concern: healthy horses being loaded into pens for sick horses. The BLM requires that sick, infectious, injured or weak horses and burros be segregated from the healthy population.
“Honestly, I didn’t even realize that we couldn’t do that, or that wasn’t supposed to be done,” Warr said. “But now we do, and we’re going to change that.”
There were facility design issues cited at all three facilities, like gates and fences being less than the required six feet tall; gates and fences not in working condition; and gaps in fence panels that could lead to escape or injury. The Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program team also observed protruding surfaces and other sharp edges throughout the Sutherland facility that could lead to injury.
The assessment team recorded other practices at Axtell that put animals at increased risk for injury, like moving the animals in and out of pens quickly, not removing neck ropes in time, and not using partition gates during transportation.
Warr said that he expected the BLM-run Delta facility to receive the lowest animal welfare assessment score due to its age and few employees.
At Delta, the assessment team found that some horses had been imported from another BLM facility without the proper paperwork. Warr attributed that to small shipments of horses transferred between Utah facilities, but acknowledged the need to keep paperwork in order regardless.
The team also discovered that the Delta facility only maintained its billing records, not veterinary visits. There were not sufficient records of treatments, prescriptions or other information about animal health. Warr said this was due to the contract veterinarian keeping his records at his home base rather than at the facility itself, a violation that he said can be easily fixed.
The BLM also requires that salt or mineral blocks be provided in holding pens at all times, but there were no blocks in any of the Delta facility pens.
“This has showed us that the Delta facility needs an increased focus on maintenance,” Warr said. “It’s a great facility and they handle the animals well, but when you have an older facility, things are going to have to be repaired.”
Mediating risk for outbreaks
Outbreaks such as those in Colorado and Wyoming this year are a major concern to the BLM and its standards for off-range corrals, Warr said. In the Colorado case, 445 horses were gathered in northwestern Colorado and transported to the holding facility without being fully vaccinated against equine flu, resulting in the 145 deaths, The Denver Post reported.
“You’re bringing fresh animals off a wild environment that are naive to equine diseases and outbreaks, and you’re sticking them in a confined facility that’s like a petri dish,” Warr said.
In context of these recent outbreaks, biosecurity standard noncompliance at three Utah holding facilities takes on increased significance. Failing to test animals for equine infectious anemia and to vaccinate animals against other diseases could lead to outbreaks in the state.
The BLM’s wild horse and burro holding facilities have an agreement with the Utah state veterinarian to shut down off-range corrals after they have received animals from outside the state, Warr said. That means no animals will be shipped out of a facility before the out-of-state animals have been tested for equine diseases. Newly-acquired animals are segregated from those already at holding facilities until they test negative.
Amid these concerns, the BLM announced its plans to increase roundups and fertility control operations for wild horses and burros during the 2022 fiscal year. The agency plans to send 20,000 animals into holding facilities across the West this year.
“It’s inevitable that there’s going to be another mass casualty incident without drastic changes at all levels of the Wild Horse and Burro Program,” Kuhn said.
Warr, too, hopes to see changes in how the program approaches reducing the number of wild horses and burros on the range.
“We need to look at more population growth suppression and we need to have fewer babies born on the range so we have fewer numbers coming into these facilities and having to go through this never-ending cycle that we’ve been doing now for 50 years,” he said. “I think we’re finally going that direction as an agency.”
The challenge, however, is actually implementing fertility control efforts for wild mares. Some wild horses, like the Onaqui herd, are friendly with humans and easier to dart with fertility treatments or treat with IUDs. Other herds with little human experience resist these techniques.
But if the BLM can ramp up such treatments, they might be able to curb the sheer number of wild horses and burros on the range without having to send them to holding facilities.
“I’ve never seen as much emphasis in population growth suppression as we’re doing right now,” Warr said. “It’s too bad that we didn’t do that 20 years ago, or had the opportunity, but hopefully we’ll continue down that road.”
There is no set timeline for when the Utah facilities’ next Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program inspection may be. Between now and then, the BLM will fix problems found in these reports — including conducting maintenance at the Delta facility — and conduct its own self-assessments, Warr said.
Wild horse advocates have criticized the standards that the Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program uses for its assessments because they are internal guidelines put in place by the BLM. Critics also say that the assessment scores do not reflect how serious each noncompliance is; the rubric items are tallied evenly, meaning that more serious infractions are weighted the same as less serious ones.
Kuhn with the American Wild Horse Campaign noted that the holding facilities aren’t mandated to take action on noncompliant items. “They are really just guidelines,” she said. “And most of the time, the agency doesn’t follow them.”
The BLM reported that it expects to implement third-party assessments of gathers and other operations as soon as 2023.
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