A tale of water and fire: Volunteers begin hauling water to horses in drought-stricken herd management area
July 9, 2018
CRAIG — Water is flowing again in the southwestern end of the drought-stricken Sand Wash Basin after volunteers received Bureau of Land Management approval to truck water to three stock tanks to aid wild horses and other animals.
"We have been watching the water all spring, because we know that the water ponds did not fill up in winter, and we knew if we didn't get spring rain, the ponds would start drying out," said Aletha Dove, one of the organizers for the Wild Horse Warriors for Sand Wash Basin — a nonprofit group hauling water under an memorandum of agreement with the BLM.
About 750 wild horses live in the Sand Wash Basin herd management area — a 160,000-acre area area about 45 miles west of Craig — under a federal designation that mandates the land be managed for wild horses and burros.
Wild Horse Warriors started mapping water resources in the basin last year and, in the spring, began working on water improvement projects under BLM guidance. But, by early June, they had grown increasingly concerned about drought conditions in the basin, as reported by the Craig Press.
Though the horses roam free in herd management area, a boundary fence encloses it, preventing the horses from accessing the Little Snake River to the east or Vermillion Creek to the west.
"We need about 8,000 gallons a day for all the horses in the basin," said Cindy Wright, one of the WHW organizers. About half that requirement is being met by natural sources, with the group planning to try to haul an additional 3,000 to 4,000 gallons per day.
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The water is being purchased from two public sources in Maybell. Firefighters also use water from Maybell. If their efforts limit the availability of water for the horses, Wright said she would donate her own water while the group looked to purchase water from water rights holders.
Dove and Wright believe they have enough water and funding — more than $30,000 raised through a Go Fund Me page and direct donations — for hauling to continue through August.
If rain comes early, the unused funds will be used for water project improvements or new water projects, Wright said.
On the other hand, if the water table continues to fall and more springs dry up, or if rains fail to fall in August, the group will have to re-evaluate.
Wild Horse Warriors initially requested permission to haul water in early June, as reported by the Craig Press, but were denied based on the conditions at the time.
"We had set three criteria we were watching for: body condition of the horses, which is related to forage and water; water availability; and horse behavior — not moving for forage or water. The primary concern was the lack of forage on the east side," said BLM spokesman David Boyd.
The unrelenting dry conditions triggered changes that saw BLM giving approval July 3.
"There are still multiple existing water sources in Sand Wash Basin available to wild horses. Most of those locations are on the east side of the basin. We are hoping hauling some water to the west side will help better distribute horses across the basin to lessen the impacts on the forage from concentrations of horses," Boyd said.
A few days later, volunteers began filling stock tanks that had been staged earlier in the basin.
Drought conditions have also promoted BLM to permit partners to haul water in the Spring Creek Basin HMA, near Dolores, Boyd said.
And, while the drought is making life difficult for animals and people across western Colorado, the situation in Sand Wash Basin is especially critical due to the large number of horses.
"The wild horse population in Sand Wash is more than twice the highest end of the appropriate management level and is the highest on record. We will continue to have challenges with water and forage in Sand Wash Basin until we are able to reduce the size of the wild horse population," Boyd said.
The wild horses of Sand Wash Basin have a worldwide following, bringing much-needed tourism to an area still suffering from the economic downturn.
With horse activity now concentrated around limited watering holes, Dove said it is important for visitors to retain the BLM required minimum 100-foot distance from water sources and horses.
"These conditions are really stressful for the horses," Dove said.
Two recent visitors to the basin — Michael Huber and his wife, Carole — have become volunteers for Wild Horse Warriors.
They first made the drive — a 400-mile round-trip from their home in Aurora, Memorial Day weekend, and Michael Huber has returned for six of the past eight weeks.
"The basin, for us, is just a place of magic," Michael Huber said.
During their first trip, the couple spotted a newborn foal and, using protocols established by advocacy groups, named it Savannah, after Carole's deceased daughter.
A new connection to the place and a deep belief in the power to create positive change now motivate the Hubers to "spread the word about the Wild Horse Warriors water project," he said. "It's a miserable place. It's dry. There is hardly any water. There are all these beautiful creatures. They can't leave. They can't travel to find water or vegetation. That hit us pretty hard, what these animals are going through."
During trips to the basin, Michael Huber has lent his muscle to the work of improving spring fed water troughs. On his most recent trip to the basin, July 7, he was credited with helping suppress a fire.
"The strange thing for me is that several things led up to this,” he said. “I filled the fire extinguisher with water — that's not something I ever do — and something told me to go up there.”
On the ridge, he found a small brush fire burning through grass and sagebrush. After, calling in his location, he emptied both water and dry chemical fire extinguishers and was tackling spot fires with his shovel in winds gusting 20 to 25 miles an hour when BLM wildlands firefighters arrived.
"It was scary for me, as I didn't know what was going to happen. The wind was blowing and embers were kicking up," he recalled. "But I was not going to let anything happen to the hurt the horses."
Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.