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Wild horses gather near the reservoir outside Cody on Tuesday. The Cody-based wild horse advocacy group Friends of a Legacy has partnered with the Bureau of Land Management and Marathon Oil to build reservoirs on 110,000 acres of BLM land, ensuring that the herd of roughly 150 horses has a sustainable water supply.

CODY, Wyo. — A black mustang shook its nose while lumbering along the edge of a fence outside town.

Ada Inbody, 76, pulled her truck to a stop on the side of the highway when she saw it.

“I think that may be Tucson,” Inbody said Tuesday. “I need to see his face.”

Inbody twisted around in the driver’s seat and saw the white star on the horse’s nose. It was Tuscon, a stud she named on one of her hundreds of days spent among the horses. A swarm of stinging nose flies had flown into his nostrils.

“They drive him crazy,” Inbody said of the insects, shifting her truck back into gear. “Bless his heart.”

Friends of a Legacy

Inbody is one of several members of Friends of a Legacy, or FOAL, a Cody-based advocacy group fighting for better water for Tucson and the 150 other wild horses living on federal land between Cody and Powell.

The only water source in the area is a creek downstream from several major Marathon Oil fields.

For years, produced water from the fields — suitable for animals but not humans, Inbody said — has sustained the wild horse herd. Recent regulation changes limited the amount of contaminated water Marathon could send down the stream, causing water levels in the creek to drop and FOAL to form.

Now, the group hopes to help Marathon and the Bureau of Land Management construct a series of pipelines for water on the land.

Tricia Hatle always thought Dry Creek was a perennial water source.

The narrow gulley runs through most of the 110,000 acres of federal land designated for wild horse management outside Cody. Most years, it’s full of water, Hatle said.

That changed in 2010, when for the first time the creek went dry.

Around that time, Marathon changed the way it disposed of the water it uses to extract oil from the ground in the nearby Oregon Basin, said Mike Williams, a senior environmental professional and hyrdogeologist for Marathon.

Less water to Dry Creek

To comply with Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality regulations, Marathon began injecting more and more water back into the oil formation and lessened the amount of water it treated and released down Dry Creek.

New permits limited the amount of produced water the company could discharge down the creek by about half, Williams said.

“It being beneficially used either putting it out on the surface for wildlife,” he said. But injecting it is useful, too

Hatle, a BLM range specialist, began investigating the source of the dryness. Marathon came forward to say what had happened, she said.

Marathon didn’t have to get involved — it is not drilling on the herd’s land — but it did, Williams said.

“It’s an incredibly valuable supply of fresh water in this arid landscape,” he said of the water produced by Marathon and other oil producers in the area.

Oil production in the Oregon Basin began about the time of World War II, Williams said. Since then, herds of wildlife and other ecosystems have evolved near the reliable discharges of produced water.

“We had this change in water management philosophy,” he said. “We recognize that the less water we are able to discharge to the surface, it affects the grazing lessees, the wildlife, along these otherwise dry stream beds.”

The urgency for sustainable water is simple for Hatle, whose job is to oversee the management of the herd.

“Without water, they die,” she said.

FOAL applied recently for funding from the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust to drill at least two new wells, said Warren Murphy, the president of the group.

“We’re, in a sense, saving the federal government money here,” Murphy said. “And at the same time, they’re better at their job of looking out for their horses.”

But the BLM is limited by funding and resources, and FOAL members help where they can, Murphy said.

He wants to make sure the horses don’t just become a legend, existing only in our memory.