By Jeff Gurney

(CBS4) – Veterinarians tell CBS4 that an equine influenza is likely the cause of death of 95 formerly wild horses at the Bureau of Land Management’s facility in Cañon City. They say the influenza is highly contagious.

The Wet Mountains overlook the pens of the East Cañon City Prison Complex. (credit: Mark Neitro, CBS4)

“In short term (holding facilities), the animals are naïve, and they are going to get exposure. The severity of outbreaks is reduced by our vaccination protocols,” John Neill, Bureau of Land Management off Range Pasture Contractor Representative said. Neill spoke with CBS4 in general terms about the BLM’s disease outbreak mitigation protocols for wild horses in BLM holding facilities, he could not comment about the Cañon City incident specifically.

Neill said that the vaccination program does not 100% prevent outbreaks. But he says, “It can keep it controlled. And additional vet care can come in and be administered as needed.”

The BLM tells Kati Weis that horses are not exposed to equine diseases when they are wild on the range. More than 2,500 horses are currently kept at the facility in Cañon City.

The illness became apparent late last week among horses mostly gathered from the West Douglas area west of Meeker in Western Colorado, according to the BLM. In addition, some of the ill horses were gathered in the Sand Wash Basin to the north in northwest Colorado.

The BLM says it tested several horses.

Veterinarians also found some of the horses had herpes.

Wild horse advocates say the outbreak demonstrates inadequate care at the Cañon City facility.

“The situation at Cañon City is shining a light on the unsanitary and inhumane conditions that America’s wild horses are being forced to live in after being ripped from a life free on western public lands,” said Suzanne Roy, American Wild Horse Campaign Executive Director.

If the horses survive in Cañon City, and are not adopted out, they are transported to other long-term holding facilities across the country, potentially including one in eastern Nebraska.

Weis visited the facility in Maxwell, Nebraska. Taxpayers spend $78 million a year to care for wild horses in long-term and short-term facilities nationwide. Watch CBS4 and CBS News Colorado for follow up reports from Weis in Nebraska next week that will further examine the use of taxpayer dollars on the controversial wild horse program.

Jeff Gurney