SKULL VALLEY, Tooele County — The blackened grass charred by a wildfire is so brittle it crunches like potato chips under the feet.
Where there was once forage, there is devastation. Where there was once promise of winter range to carry hardscrabble wild horses through the cold months ahead, there instead looms starvation.
This summer's plague of drought coupled with wildfires is forcing the Bureau of Land Management to take emergency measures in many of the 10 western states where 31,700 wild horses and burros roam in herd management areas.
Here, on the extreme southern edges of the parched Skull Valley, the 22,000-acre Faust Fire has darkened the landscape. While Utah's drought already left the Onaqui herd with meager pickings, the Faust Fire marched through last month relentlessly, stealing what vegetation would have been left this winter for the 250-member herd.
"The fire compounded already bad drought conditions," said Gus Warr, head of the Utah wild horse and burro program. "Without the fires, they could have gotten along just fine."
The wild animals have been able to weather the drought only because of the wet, lush spring of 2011, Warr said, with the herds surviving on last year's vegetation. Wildfires have been the tipping point.
He points to some rolling hills at the base of the Onaqui Mountains called the Davis Knolls. It is here where the horses typically settle in for the winter, living off the perennial grasses and gulping down snow for water.
The knolls are burned and as far as the eye can see, so are the flat lands. In a few months it will be completely fenced off and reseeded, off limits to the horses and livestock for at least two years while the land recovers.
"It just miles and miles of fire that burned," Warr said.
Another fire destroyed 46,000 acres in the management area of the neighboring Cedar Mountain herd. For them, too, a tough winter awaits because there are too many horses with too little remaining forage.
Next month, the federal agency plans two emergency "gathers" to cull animals from the herds and reduce their numbers. The hope is to water-trap the horses — lure them into a fenced off fresh watering hole — and remove an estimated 300 horses total from both herds. The removed animals will then be shipped to holding facilities in Delta and Gunnison, where many of them will be put up for adoption.
Elsewhere in the state, where wild horse herds are also feeling the effects of drought, gathers are planned in the Milford and Delta areas later this year.
"Statewide, the drought has been really significant," Warr said.
In his 22 years with the program, Warr said he's seen conditions worse — like in 2000 — but it is a close comparison. Nevada, which is home to the nation's largest population of wild horses, is suffering too, with emergency measures taken there earlier this summer to augment water supplies for a herd south of Eureka.
While all the natural ponds for the Onaqui herd have long dried up, the animals are able to quench their thirst from troughs and man-made watering holes fed by the Government Springs pipeline put in by ranchers, Warr said.
While Warr admits the horses may be able to squeak by this winter without intervention, it is not a gamble he is personally willing to take.
"Our charge is to make sure we have healthy, thriving, natural horses," he said. "We're not going to let them die on the ground. I've seen the effects of starvation. It was the worst thing I've ever experienced."
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