The first battery of blood tests are complete, and state and federal officials are cautiously breathing a sigh of relief that a deadly disease might not have infected eastern Utah's wild horse herds.
As of Monday, the state veterinarian had examined blood samples from 152 wild horses captured on public lands in the rugged Tabyago Canyon area. None of the animals tested positive for equine infectious anemia, commonly referred to as"swamp fever."An additional 111 free-roaming horses from adjacent Ute Indian lands have also been tested, and only one horse tested positive for the disease.
"It has gone remarkably well," said Utah BLM spokesman Don Banks. "It has been a difficult, complex task, but the horses are coming in in very good shape and are being well cared for. So far it has been nothing but good news."
The BLM, which manages wild horses on public lands in Western states, is using low-flying helicopters to herd the wild horses into traps. Because of the risk that foals could become separated from their mothers, Banks said the helicopter pilots have gone to extraordinary lengths to move the herds slowly.
In the only case when a foal did become separated, Banks said the pilot landed the helicopter, gathered the foal into his arms and carried it to the corral where it was united with its mother.
"I can't say enough about the efforts of the pilots to allow the animals to move at their own pace," Banks said.
The BLM is now awaiting the results of blood tests on more than 50 additional wild horses captured since the roundup began last week in the 72,000-acre Tabyago area. Once tested, the 150 or so wild horses now held in temporary corrals will be released back into the canyons.
Banks said the roundup and testing has been shifted to the Bonanza area early next week where an additional 50 to 70 wild horses roam public lands. The first blood tests from the Bonanza herd are expected Tuesday.
Although the test results from Tabyago public lands and adjacent lands in the Hill Creek area on the Ute reservation are encouraging, Utah Department of Agriculture spokesman Larry Lewis is urging caution. The wild horses to be gathered in the Bonanza area are much closer to where the herd of infected horses was discovered last March.
"We are expecting a higher rate of infection" among the Bonanza herds than further south in the Tabyago, Lewis said.
A third area is also targeted by BLM managers for a wild horse roundup. The Agency Draw area, located between Bonanza and Tabyago, has about 150 wild horses that may be tested depending on whether the wild horses in the Bonanza area are infected. In all, there are an estimated 500 wild horses in the rugged canyons of eastern Utah near the Colorado border.
"It is our intention to capture and test as many horses as possible, but it is unrealistic to think all wild horses would be gathered," Banks said. "The terrain just doesn't permit it."
In addition, there are roughly 150 to 200 free-roaming, privately owned horses on nearby Ute reservation lands, most of which are being gathered by tribal officials and tested by the state veterinarian.
The disease was first detected in March during routine testing of a herd of 200 privately owned horses on the Ute reservation. Some 29 horses were found to have the disease, an unprecedented 14 percent infection rate.
Statewide, about 7,000 horses are tested for the disease every year, but only one to three animals a year test positive. Only one wild horse in the 20-year history of the wild horse adoption program has ever tested positive for the disease.
Equine infectious anemia, which is carried by mosquitoes and horse flies, kills about one-third of the horses that are infected. The survivors become carriers of the disease and can infect other horses in the herd.
The BLM has come under criticism by animal rights advocates for conducting the roundup during the foaling season. But Banks said the roundup has caused minimal stress on the horses, and only one fatality has occurred.
One mare injured her neck running into a trap and had to be killed. "The vet treated her on the scene for two hours, but it was decided the most humane thing was to put her down," Banks said.
The mare's foal was not injured, and the BLM is now entertaining numerous offers to adopt it. "I guarantee it will have a good home," Banks said.
The BLM has continued to receive criticism over the roundup. In response, the field crews have been equipped with cellular telephones to respond to questions and concerns on a daily basis.
"We have opened up the lines of communication, and we want to be as forthright and factual as to what is going on out there," Banks said. Threats of legal action against the BLM have not yet materialized.
The BLM has scheduled a town meeting on May 30 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Vernal City offices to brief the public on efforts to eradicate the disease. Uinta Basin owners of domestic horses are being encouraged to have their animals tested for the disease, but as yet testing is not mandatory.
"We are not asking that they do have them tested, but we are telling them it would be prudent," Lewis said.