Alone on the Range 

Only one wild horse remains on Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island. As officials look to repopulate the park, the government wrestles with the larger challenge of managing these icons of the West.

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY

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.

click to enlarge A scene from the 2001 High Plains Films documentary El Caballo: The Wild Horses of North America shows BLM helicopters rounding up a herd of wild horses. The 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act protects wild horses as icons of the West, but each year thousands are removed from public lands. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HIGH PLAINS FILMS
  • Photo courtesy of High Plains Films
  • A scene from the 2001 High Plains Films documentary El Caballo: The Wild Horses of North America shows BLM helicopters rounding up a herd of wild horses. The 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act protects wild horses as icons of the West, but each year thousands are removed from public lands.

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.

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