It's late morning on Wild Horse Island and I'm staring at a half moon print in the dust. Some tracks point in one direction, some in the other, and it's hard to decide which ones to follow. On the trail near an old corral, day-old horse droppings sit in slightly dried piles. Dave Bennetts, park ranger for the Flathead, peers into the Ponderosa stands of the lowlands and then turns and squints up the grassy ridge underlining the clear blue sky. He's not sure which way to go.
We're searching for the last wild horse on Wild Horse Island, a black gelding that was brought to the state park with four others about 15 years ago. Two of the horses died a few years back of natural causes. Last winter brought cold snaps to the usually mild banana belt of the area, killing off a third old horse. The fourth died of old age this spring, leaving the black horse alone. A regular visitor to the island recently reported the last horse dead. After all, he hadn't seen it for two months. Bennetts hasn't seen the horse in over a month, but fresh sign tells him it's still here, somewhere.
"Every once in a while you see him on the saddle," Bennetts says. "I'm sure this last year has been pretty traumatic for him. I'm sure he's probably lonely. A few times this summer when I came out and did see him he would neigh a little bit."
Wild Horse Island is the largest island on Flathead Lake, which is the largest lake in Montana. It's been protected as a state park since 1978. For centuries, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d' Oreille tribes used the 2,146-acre island to pasture horses and keep them hidden from enemy tribes. According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), horses have occupied the island since the early 1700s, when they were first introduced to the Northern Rockies. In the 1880s, when tribes were pushed onto reservations, the island landed in the hands of white settlers. And the horses on the island? They'd gone wild, hence the name.
Wild Horse Island provides a glimpse to Montana's past, one that's easy to romanticize. It's a rare sanctuary, a state park that serves as an oasis for wild animals and native flora. It also showcases a landscape with specific management more or less unfettered by the push and pull of the rest of the world. Now, with only one horse left on Wild Horse Island, FWP has made the decision that wild horses must be brought back in order to make the landscape complete. In its quest for horses, the agency plans on adopting steeds descended from Montana's famed Pryor Mountain herd, which roams the state's eastern range.
But the management of wild horses is hardly ever this simple. Even with the animal's storied cultural past and modern day status as an icon of the West, the wild horse is often relegated to an administrative afterthought. In the end, they have become more a symbol of America's land management nightmares than one of the unbridled freedom of the West.
Wild horses first earned full legal protection under the Free-Roaming Wild Horse & Burro Act of 1971. The act states: "Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses...are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses...are fast disappearing from the American scene."
It wasn't always this way. In the 1800s a whopping 2 million mustangs roamed the Western range. Conquistadors had let some of them go wild. Later, pioneers and farmers cut loose horses they no longer needed. Eventually, mustangers began killing the unprotected horses for payment or sport. A market for horsemeat sprung up in America, specifically for dog food and chicken feed. Over the next century, the wild horse population plummeted to 20,000.
In the early 1950s, Velma Johnson—aka "Wild Horse Annie"—conducted a letter campaign to save wild horses in Nevada. The campaign produced more letters to Congress than any single subject up to that time apart from the Vietnam War. Eventually, Johnson's efforts led to the 1971 act. When Richard Nixon signed it into law, it officially designated the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with the responsibility of "protection, management and control of wild free-roaming horses...on public lands."
Over the last four decades, the BLM has managed wild horse populations through helicopter roundups and other gathering methods. Some horses get returned to the wild, while others never make it back. Those not returned to herds are auctioned off, sold through the agency's adoption program or put in long-term holding. In rare cases, state parks like Wild Horse Island volunteer to relocate some of the horses.
The BLM's approach to management has created tension between the agency, horse advocacy groups, scientists, public land users and politicians for decades. Despite the 1971 law stating that the horse is a symbol of the West and should be preserved, nothing about the way it's preserved and managed—or to what extent—seems close to being settled. Wild horse advocates say the BLM uses inhumane tactics to manage the herds and that the agency mismanages its wild horse funding by putting it mostly into roundups and not other population control methods. They argue there are better options. The BLM, on the other hand, contends wild horses lack natural predators and need to be culled by humans because their overpopulation negatively impacts public lands. The agency says it's doing the best it can.
The Cloud Foundation has emerged as one of BLM's loudest critics. The nonprofit keeps its eye on a roaming band of about 130 wild Spanish mustangs just south of Billings, in the Pryor Mountains. Ginger Kathrens, the Cloud Foundation's executive director and an Emmy-winning filmmaker, raised national awareness about the Pryor horses with her PBS documentary, Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies.
The Pryor Mountain herd is said to extend back to the 1700s. In the mid-1990s, scientists began studying the horses and found they have a high genetic diversity—in other words, low levels of inbreeding—and that their genetics lacked traits associated with draft horses and thoroughbreds. They were consistent, in fact, with Spanish horses brought over 500 years ago by the conquistadors with features that include zebra stripes on the legs, dorsal stripes and dark coats with shimmering red highlights.
The Cloud Foundation says the birth control methods used by the BLM for the Pryor herd is ineffective and causes trauma to the mares. The group also says the BLM ignores alternative management options. For instance, it would like to see mountain lion hunting permits denied so that these natural predators can reduce horse populations naturally. The Cloud Foundation also criticizes the BLM in regard to a direct statement in the 1971 act, which states that wild horses be managed "where presently found," meaning the range they utilized at the time the act went into effect. Currently, the foundation argues, the designated range in the Pryor Mountains does not include parts of Custer National Forest and Demi John Flat—areas the group say the Pryor herd utilized at the time the act was signed.
The BLM manages 258 million acres for multiple-use, which is more than any other federal agency. It manages 40,000 wild horses that roam in 200 management areas located in 10 Western states. The BLM's Adopt-A-Horse Program has declined over the past few years, resulting in a rise of culled horses held in long-term holding pens. Horse advocates say the BLM puts more money, resources and attention into the roundups and neglects marketing the adoption program. The BLM says the bad economy is part of the reason adoptions fail and that, regardless, herds have to be pared down even if it means holding them.
A roundup of the Pryor Mountain herd on Sept. 9, 2009, led to the gathering of 146 of the 195-horse herd. Of those, 57 were sold at a Wyoming auction a couple of weeks later and the other horses were returned to the wild. Some of the mares were given birth control.
"The reason we gathered was there were more horses than the range could support," says Mary Apple, a BLM spokesperson in Billings. "We've done quite a bit of monitoring...and it showed the range was in a degraded condition in many areas. The only way to help it recover is to remove some of the horses."
The BLM wants to further reduce the herd to 120, a number they say is the upper limit for that range.
"This will always be an issue because the advocates don't want horses removed and we feel we have to remove horses so the range can improve," Apple says. "Our goal is to manage for healthy horses on a healthy range."
Writer and wild horse advocate Deanne Stillman says she is not against the management of wild horses. Stillman, who contributes to, among other publications, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Rolling Stone, agrees that wild horses populate fast due to lack of predation. But she claims in her book, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, that the BLM doesn't follow the wild horse law correctly.
"The problem is that due to budget problems and bureaucracy, a lot of the studies that are supposed to be carried out according to the 1971 law aren't carried out," she says in an interview with the Independent. "Or the numbers that determine how many horses are in each herd area are out of date or are, often, planted in favor of the cow lobby."
According to documents Stillman acquired, two scientists in the Department of the Interior resigned in 2005 after claiming that they were pressured by the Bush administration to fix the findings of a grazing study by saying wild horses had the most negative impact regarding range degradation.
"Lets stop having the fox guarding the henhouse," Stillman says. "The Bureau of Land Management...is a multi-use agency in charge of a lot of resources on public land, including timber, minerals and oil, and it refers to wild horses as natural resources. Well, a wild horse is not a natural resource. It's not a cash crop. Some people think that wild horses should be managed by a different agency and, in fact, an agency that doesn't have so many competing interests."
Despite her acknowledgment of the need for management, Stillman calls for a moratorium on all roundups pending a congressional investigation of management practices. She wants to see all studies up to date on every herd and every herd management area before the BLM proceeds with roundups.
"Yes, there does have to be management," she says. "But not right now. What needs to be managed at this point is policy. Study after government study shows that on the range it's really cattle doing most of the damage, not wild horses. The big question I'm asking is, 'Why are we, a cowboy nation, destroying the horse we rode in on?'"
University of Montana history professor Dan Flores equates management issues involving the wild mustang to those dealing with bison. "We tend to kill off the things we love," he says. But Flores also believes our romance with wild horses has become an inextricable part of our identity.
"I think nobody felt romantic about horses, including mustangs, until the early 20th century," he says. "Horses were a source of revenue, like any other resource of the West—nothing more than staples in the economy. After that, though, we had what historians call 'frontier anxiety' where Americans suddenly realize the frontier is gone and they're anxious about not having a place to recreate themselves. And it's that wave of nostalgia for the old West where suddenly you start looking for horses like mustangs and they become these romantic symbols. It's a 20th century phenomenon."
Wild Horse Island was once home to a homestead and, besides the corral and the hollowed out farmhouse, there's an orchard that still bears apples and pears. Bennetts leads me down to the grove and offers me a pear before realizing they're all gone, even from the ground. But one tree still holds apples and he shakes it, and 10 or so thump to the ground. Almost instantly, at the edge of the orchard, large horns appear and a fat, shiny-coated mule deer steps out of the shadow of the timbers and into the light. He sees us, but he's zeroed in on the apple tree, and we step back as he gallops toward the tree, halts, and begins gnawing on the fruit.
Bennetts says the wildlife on the island, including the last wild horse, love eating at this orchard. He recalls climbing up into one of the apple trees to pick apples only to look down and find himself surrounded by a herd of large, horned mule deer.
"I was a little nervous," he admits.
Nearby the orchard, remnants of the homestead's insides rust in the grass—a spiny bed frame, the shell of a stovetop.
"Historic junk," says Bennetts, who grew up in Butte. "I'm used to seeing all the old mining camps where you'd find all this junk that we saw as treasure. That's the way we approach it here too. People like to see this stuff. It lets them paint the story for themselves about what happened. If it wasn't here, you'd never stop to think twice about the history."
FWP manages Wild Horse Island based on both cultural and environmental history. They keep the homestead's wooden structures and orchard preserved for the benefit of the 17,000 visitors they get annually. The rest of the island they keep in "primitive" shape, encouraging native grasslands and forests to flourish as much as they can. But unlike a wilderness area or a national park, they can't let natural fires burn since 56 cabins populate the island's beaches—all private lots established before it became a state park. Without natural management like fire, says Bennetts, the island's forests require thinning projects to deter things like pine beetles from moving in and killing trees. And, he says, such management choices never please everybody.
"You've got to have a little bit of management," he says. "We keep it natural as much as we can, but when you've got an island like this that's so popular, we've got to be good stewards. Otherwise, when it comes time to propose whatever the next project is, we may not have that public backing."
Same goes for wildlife. Horses don't need much management at all. FWP only adopts mares and geldings for Wild Horse Island, to help keep the population in check. But other animals can reproduce and FWP works to maintain the approximately 120 bighorn sheep and 120 mule deer at their current numbers. When the sheep do go over their limit, they're netted from a helicopter one by one and transplanted to places like the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge. As for the animals allowed to stay on the island, they live—and die—naturally. Huge deer sheds can be seen decomposing into the ground. Coyotes and worms scavenge the bodies, which end up back in the earth.
And the same goes for the wild horses. When they're young, Bennetts says, they usually run along the stretch of Palouse Prairie. When they get old, they stay in the cover of the lowlands. At the end of their life, the horses often lose their teeth and die of starvation. With no veterinarians, there's no preventative care for decay. It's a small price for wildness.
After searching the orchard, Bennetts returns to the boat and cruises from Skeeko Bay to the south of the island. Modest cabins line the shore and we look to see if the horse is wandering somewhere behind the properties in the shade of the forest. We pull into a dock at Driftwood Point and, from there, set out on foot. I'm anticipating the moment when that horse and its shiny black coat appears on a ridge, or gallops across a field. As we walk, sunbeat and parched from hours of traversing the hillsides and forests, we yo-yo between resigned disappointment and renewed hope. I will the horse to appear. I hallucinate that the shadow under a tree branch is a long snout. I am certain that the black speck on a precipice is surely not a rock but a horse with its mane blowing in the breeze. But finding one horse in over 2,000 acres of a primitive island suddenly seems absurd.
"Needle in a haystack," says Bennetts, shaking his head.
In her book, Stillman writes about the conquistadors' journey to America with shiploads of horses. When they would come upon the "doldrums," between 30 and 35 degrees north or south of the equator, a lack of easterly winds mired them for days until they had no choice but to lighten the cargo load. It was the horses that went first, straight over the gangplank and into the ocean. Afterward, that area of the Atlantic became known as the "horse latitudes."
"I used to think it was just a charming name until I found out this terrible history of it," Stillman says. "But here we are in the 21st century and we're still throwing horses into the horse latitudes, so to speak, in order to lighten our load. Horses are always the first to go."
The question of whether or not the wild horse belongs in the West has been affirmed on legal grounds. Supreme Court rulings in the late 1960s stated that, by virtue of their long history in the West, wild horses belong here. The 1971 act is based on the same idea.
"I certainly think wild horses belong in the West," says UM professor Flores. "I think we've determined that wild species have an innate right to exist and they don't have to really serve some human function."
The long-term history of wild horses from which those laws are based has also been put to rest. Local filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr, for instance, made the argument in their 2001 documentary, El Caballo: The Wild Horses of North America, which explores the genetic history of wild horses. According to scientific evidence, horses lived in North America millions of years ago during which time they spread to other parts of the world via the Bering Land Bridge. They went extinct in North America around 9,000 years ago, and it wasn't until the conquistadors re-introduced them that they became the wild horses they are today: different, but not a different species, genetically speaking.
In fact, says Flores, that's why their populations explode and become management problems. The horses are resilient in this landscape.
"An animal that has 56 million years of evolutionary history here is going to do extremely well without some sort of regulatory mechanism," he says, "and the regulatory mechanism was always predators."
But legal "belonging" doesn't answer the question of how to manage populations, especially when the nation's individual perspectives on the wild horse spans the spectrum from seeing them as utterly useless pests to being one of the West's greatest treasures. Proper management of wild horses, depending on who you talk to, can include sending "excess" horses to slaughter even if they're healthy or, on the other hand, it can mean that horses should only be removed from herds if they go to a good home.
In 2004, Montana's then-Sen. Conrad Burns added a rider to the federal appropriations bill that allowed slaughterhouses to kill wild horses culled from BLM herds for overseas consumption. Public outcry led to an amendment stating wild horses couldn't be resold from adoption to slaughter. But the BLM admitted they couldn't enforce such an amendment since following the trail of individual horses after adoption isn't easy.
Earlier this year, a similar loophole emerged when the Montana Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, that encourages the construction of horse slaughter plants in the state. Before the bill went into effect Oct. 1, Butcher said he'd been courting Chinese investors to build plants in Montana to supply overseas horsemeat markets. Once again, BLM would be unable to track whether auctioned wild horses ended up at the facilities.
But a solution may be in the works. After the BLM stated last year that it was considering killing a large number of horses from the rangeland, some politicians took action. The Restore Our American Mustangs Act (ROAM) passed the House on July 17, and is now in committee in the Senate. The bill seeks to prohibit the killing of healthy horses, as well as remove "outdated" limits on the areas where horses can roam freely, strengthen the BLM adoption program, allow more public involvement in wild horse management and facilitate the creation of sanctuaries for populations on public lands—sanctuaries like Wild Horse Island.
In the meantime, Wild Horse Island stands as an exception to the ongoing wild horse debate. In a few months, FWP plans to release four more horses in the state park. Dave Landstrom, regional parks manager for Flathead Lake, says the agency is looking at receiving horses descending from the Pryor Mountain herd that now live adjacent to First People's Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls. Landstrom says FWP had considered buying horses at the recent Wyoming auction, but the Buffalo Jump horses would be free and require a shorter transport. He's eager to get them on the island soon.
"From a historic standpoint it's kind of exciting to see them there," he says. "The setting is really dramatic. What I've noticed in the past when we've had four or five horses there at a time is they tend to become a little more active. You're more likely to see those scenes that you envision when you hear the name Wild Horse Island. Occasionally, on a chilly morning, you'll see them running across the plain together."
I never saw the island's last wild horse. As Bennetts and I left the shore I still found myself scouring the line of trees and grassy clearings for a shape or a sign. Nothing. It didn't seem fair. And yet, when I considered all of the island's features—the shadows and crannies and layers of hills—the horse's elusiveness made perfect sense. Needle in a haystack, indeed.
The same goes for long-term management of wild horses in the West. Come November, if all goes according to plan, Wild Horse Island's last horse will have much-needed company, and the park will succeed in providing some small relief to a larger problem. But a permanent solution may be as hard to find as that last wild horse.