SKULL VALLEY, Tooele County — The blistering heat and thirst were greater enemies than the people lingering next to the watering trough.
A solitary, gray stallion fought through his instincts to flee and instead wandered closer and closer, beaten down by perhaps days upon days without life-sustaining water.
"His thirst has made him bold," said Kevin Lloyd, the West Desert wild horse specialist with the Bureau of Land Management in Utah.
"Under normal circumstances, these horses would leave; they would move off right away."
But life has been anything but normal this summer in the desolate expanses of Skull Valley in Tooele County, where the Cedar Mountain herd of wild horses is enduring a second straight year of drought. The springs and seeps that normally support the herds just aren't enough.
Since late June, the Bureau of Land Management has orchestrated the delivery of water to troughs some 22 miles into the hills off state Route 196.
The herd of about 570 animals was draining the trough, which operates on a float system — a float valve that controls the water coming in — and is fed through a pipe.
Lloyd said the protracted heat is taking its toll — and even though there may be another spring with some water about eight miles away, the horses won't seek it out.
"Horses are creatures of habit. They will wait at a dry site. There'd be horses that would stay there and die."
The Cedar Mountain herd is healthy. The horses remain muscled up and their bellies aren't drawn in from poor condition.
Lloyd wants to keep them that way.
Although he lives in Fillmore, more than three hours away, he makes the trip to the BLM's Muskrat Fire Station four or five times a week to load up with 1,000 gallons of water and venture out 90 minutes west.
Sometimes he goes to the troughs twice in one day, and it isn't uncommon for him to see 50 to 60 animals at the troughs at any given time.
"It's a good day when I get there and there's not a horse at the trough," he said, which means the horses have already had their fill of water.
The BLM in Utah is trying to avoid the untenable situation that has confronted its counterpart in Nevada, where many members of the Seaman herd are in extremely poor condition and at imminent risk of dying.
Nevada has been hauling water to its horses, too, but many are too skittish to get near strange troughs and so thirst-deprived they ignore what is in front of them.
"It's not pretty and it is not an easy thing to see," Lloyd said. "They will stand in dry water until they die."
Lloyd said the hope for Utah's Cedar Mountain herd is to keep the weekly waterings up to stay ahead of the problem posed by the drought.
Just Wednesday, the BLM hauled out three more round troughs to give all the herd a better chance at getting water.
"They will all come in at the same time and they will fight. They have their pecking order. When you have a lot of horses and a little bit of water, there is conflict and the babies will be driven back."
The BLM has put in another trough two to three miles away to help counter the fights among the herd, which includes about 30 to 40 new foals.
Like the gray stallion that ventured in alone, Lloyd said other bold and desperate animals that didn't get a chance to drink with the herd often brave his company.
When he first arrives to fill the troughs, the horses scatter. Minutes pass, and the deprived animals come forward.
"They care more about the water than they do me."
Nevada's BLM is as desperate as the horses the agency is trying to save. It has had the herd evaluated by veterinarianss. The agency has placed tubs, pans and troughs, but the horses will not drink from them. It has tried to water trap them, and that didn't work.
If the agency conducts or roundup, the stress will exacerbate the horses' already poor health. Utah's BLM is bracing to possibly get as many as 50 Nevada horses next week because the state's holding facilities are full, but Lloyd said they don't know if the animals could survive the trip or survive their stay once here.
"They've been shutting down. Despite everything we are doing, it may not be enough to save them. It may be too late before they even get here."
Lloyd will keep this up, with the Cedar Mountain herd, well into September when the weather cools and the rains come.
Nearly every day, a 1,000-gallon water tank will trail behind his truck on a trailer bouncing over a dusty, rock strewn two-track road that steadily winds its way up into the hills, far away from anything.5 comments on this story
Some nights, Lloyd just sleeps in his truck, rather than go home just to make the trip again the next day.
"Some people say we should just let nature take its course," he said. "But when Mother Nature takes its course, it can be slow and it is not pretty to see that. This is the right thing to do."