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Crew cleans Wild Horse Island trail

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WILDHORSE ISLAND – Not everyone sees the wild horses that roam on an island on Flathead Lake.

A small group of volunteers loaded into a boat on Saturday at the Big Arm State Park docks with Montana Fish, Wild and Parks employees and went out on the island with hopes of seeing the horses and other wildlife. They brought work gloves, shovels, and hand-held saws to do some trail work to celebrate National Trails Day.

“The idea of preserving what we have is really important to me,” said volunteer Eileen Barnes of Bigfork as she got ready to get into the boat provided by the FWP.

The boat propelled quickly over the lake towards the island. The hills surrounding the lake were a bright green color created by spring grass. The outline of the Mission Mountain Range was straight ahead.

As the boat passed Cromwell Island, several passengers talked about what a person might do with a house as big as the mansion built on the island.

Several minutes later, the boat slowed as it maneuvered towards the shoreline on the Flathead Lake State Park, where Ponderosa pine trees cover the rocky shoreline. The group anchored in at Skeeko Bay, put their gloves on, and headed for the trail loop.

FWP Park Ranger Chris Boedeker warned of the importance of keeping a safe distance from wildlife if folks should see any. He said the horses look like common horses, but they should be treated as wild animals.

The 2,300-acre island is also home to about 120 bighorn sheep, about 50 mule deer, coyotes, cougars, and birds.

“It should actually be called Bighorn Sheep Island,” Boedeker said of the much larger sheep population.

In years past, sheep have been taken off the island by helicopter to keep the herd from getting too large, but recently, a cougar is working to keep the population under control.

Montana State Parks AmeriCorps member Anna Dudley explained that a man named Lewis Penwell introduced many animals to the island in 1939. He wanted to create a game ranch, but the island is now mostly a state park with a few private locations.

The group split up into three smaller groups and headed to separate sections of the trail. They each worked on digging a shallow path to direct rainwater around the water bars, which are actually logs across the trail anchored into the ground so the trail doesn’t wash out. They also removed brush and limbs from the trail.

Dudley pointed out the flowers and their names, noting Balsamroot is all over the island. She stopped near a shallow hole in the ground near the trail about the size of a dinner plate.

“This is one of the divots from the horses,” she said, explaining that they dig for minerals.

Five wild horses currently live on the island, which is at maximum capacity due to the fact that horses will dig up the ground and trample vegetation.

One filly was born on the island a few years ago, but the horses are generally kept from reproducing to help sustain the habitat. The horses on the island are now all female.

“The gelding had to be put down,” she said. He had a condition that caused his hooves to overgrow, which makes it difficult to walk.

Along the trail, an antique horse-drawn hay rake sits as a trace of the past. Homesteaders once grew crops and forage grasses on the island. The group noted the rocky terrain and decided that farming on the island would require a lot of hard work.

“Imagine living sun up to sun down without a TV,” said volunteer Eileen Barnes.

She got to the top of the trail and looked out over the lake, shielding her eyes from the bright sun.

“I think I will consider this for the rest of my life,” she said of the day. “This is a memorable trek.”

Two of the groups met up on the trail. They stopped to look at a flowering Bitterroot plant for a moment.

Montana State Parks AmeriCorps member Sara Anderson said as she walked that people don’t have to stay on the trails in this park.

“The trails are nice to help keep the impact consolidated,” she said adding that a trail map is available. “Our goal is to get people aware of trails and out using their public lands.”

The trail continued down off the hill into a shaded area. Back through the trees, and standing alone, seemingly asleep, was a young paint horse. Her mother was standing a few feet away next to three other horses.

The trail crew stood and observed. The horses didn’t seem to mind being watched as they swooshed their tails and scratched their backs on trees, but their docile behavior can be misleading. A few years ago a young hiker was kicked after trying to feed one of the horses.

“We put up signs warning people to keep a distance,” said Ranger Boedeker.

The horses are wild, but they are not related to the original wild horses on the island.

“Historically horses have been out here,” he said. People often have different accounts about why the original horses were put on the island. He said he dug into the history to find out.

“It was the Kootenai that first had horses out here,” he said adding that horses were hidden on the island more than 100 years ago to keep different tribes from taking them.

And in honor of the island’s history, the parks department continues to keep wild horses on the island brought in from different locations.

On the way back to the boat, Boedeker said the parks work with a limited budget that isn’t keeping up with the increased amount of visitors, which is a problem for many parks.

He said an ideal situation would include more funding to keep up with a backlog of maintenance issues, including dock repairs. It would be nice to have enough employees to provide a constant presence at the park to help protect the island, inform the public, and work on maintenance, he said.

“If we had a constant presence out here, the fire last year from an illegal camp site might have been prevented,” Boedeker said. Thankfully, the fire was quickly contained.

With a small staff, parks rely on volunteers through programs like AmeriCorps and private citizens.

“These guys are the face of Montana parks,” Boedeker said, pointing to the volunteers.

JoAnn and Glen Roe are volunteering to spend time out of the island this summer to help continue to maintain the trails. The couple is originally from Indiana. They travel all over the United States to volunteer their time with different parks.

“I thought ‘wow’ when I first saw this place,” JoAnn said. “It’s so beautiful out here. I count Wild Horse Island as one of the great places I’ve been.” 

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