A negotiated deal between federal land managers, animal rights activists and the state of Utah has spared a dozen foals gathered in a massive roundup of horses aimed at stopping a deadly equine disease.
The foals - which faced euthanization at the order of the state veterinarian - were shipped to a veterinary research facility affiliated with Oklahoma State University where they will be quarantined and studied.The move marks the official end of the unprecedented roundup, which saw 115 horses destroyed and pinned the Bureau of Land Management in a dilemma over its desire to save the foals and its reluctance to fight state officials who wanted them killed to protect a $350 million horse industry.
"This is the medically sound, compassionate solution we were all hoping for," said Don Banks of the Bureau of Land Management.
Sealed trucks carrying the foals left Utah two weeks ago. The horses were gathered as part of an unprecedented BLM roundup of more than 1,300 horses roaming hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland and mesas in eastern Utah.
"The knowledge that will be gained from this project could greatly benefit the horse industry in Oklahoma as well as the worldwide equine population," said Dr. Rebecca McConnico, principal investigator on the project.
The roundup began in March after the Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands abut the BLM horse range, reported an outbreak of equine infectious anemia among its herds. Upwards of 14 percent of the Ute horses were infected with the incurable disease - also known as swamp fever - which is carried by biting insects. Infection rates in the dry grasslands are normally below 1 percent.
Roughly a third of infected horses die. The remainder become carriers.
State veterinary Dr. Mike Marshall ordered the roundup, which eventually brought in 1,364 horses, according to state figures. Of those, 428 belonged to the BLM. The remainder were privately owned by the Ute tribe or its members.
A total of 127 horses tested positive for the virus, including the dozen foals and their mares. Marshall had insisted all of the positive-testing animals be killed, despite research showing that healthy foals often test positive to EIA because of antibodies passed on by their infected mothers. It can take up to eight months for the antibodies to be flushed from their system.
McConnico said investigators hope to find a more accurate screening method. "To do this, we must understand more about the virus and its nature, as well as the immune response of the host animal," she said.
The 115 remaining infected horses, including the mares, were euthanized. Almost all of them came from herds living adjacent to Ute lands where the outbreak was discovered.
The foals will become part of a research project into equine infectious anemia at the Boren Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.