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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.