by Steve Browne
Wild horses are tough animals, but they need water like every other living thing.
A coalition of a federal agency, an oil company and a non-profit advocacy group are continuing efforts to ensure a reliable water source for the wild horse herd in the McCullough Peaks.
Dry Creek runs from Oregon Basin and across the BLM Horse Management Area and then drains into the Big Horn River north of Greybull. Since the 1940s wild horses and other wildlife have depended on water from Marathon oil wells, until changes in water management cut off the flow.
“Dry Creek is an ‘ephemeral drainage,’” said Mike Stewart, field manager of the Cody BLM office. “Water only flows during spring runoff and storms.”
Water often is found with oil and in the past was regarded as a biproduct. The water from Marathon’s producing wells is good quality and after treatment some was discharged into Dry Creek, causing it to flow year-round. That is, until pressure in the wells started decreasing.
“Engineers say the best way to reduce risk and recover more oil is through increased injection of water into the wells,” said Mike Williams, Marathon’s senior environmental professional.
Increased injection means Dry Creek reverts to its natural state, and wildlife dependent on the flow of produced water is at risk in dry years.
“Water used to run down Dry Creek and made it wet – that’s why the Horse Management Area was established,” said Warren Murphy, president of Friends of a Legacy (FOAL). “FOAL has created an agreement with the BLM and Marathon to drill several wells in the area.”
In the two years since the memorandum of understanding creating the project was signed, Marathon has drilled two wells and equipped them with solar-powered pumps.
The water flows into a concrete structure called a “guzzler,” which provides a shallow drinking pool for wildlife.
Spillover is allowed to percolate back into the water table.
The BLM also has restored six of the larger stock ponds in the area that have silted up, or been breached and fallen into disuse.
“We plan to drill more wells and pipe water from the FOAL well to existing reservoirs on BLM land,” Murphy said.
The goal is to provide dispersed water sources, according to Stewart. Concentrating water in a limited area would stress the surrounding land by overgrazing and possibly cause conflict among horse bands.
Funding for the project comes from Marathon, the BLM, FOAL and grazing leaseholders. Marathon donates the expertise, equipment, materials and contracting.
“This project is the poster child of ecosystem management,” Stewart said. “For Marathon to come in and want to be part of the solution to this problem is remarkable.
“FOAL has been a partner for many years. For the BLM to do it alone would take decades.”