Under a canopy of heavy grey clouds, a barge cut through the waters of Flathead Lake. Onboard sat a trailer containing four mustangs destined for release on Wild Horse Island last week. While the morning weather had been less than ideal for boating, the winds had since calmed, taking with them any signs of whitecaps.
Jerry Sawyer, manager of Flathead Lake’s parks, trailed the barge and its live cargo in a speedboat. Having spent the previous 24 hours obsessively monitoring the weather forecast and wave conditions, he hoped the calm spell would hold.
“We’re halfway and this is going good,” he said, giving an enthusiastic thumbs up as he piloted the Sea Runner around the western shore of Wild Horse Island. “It’s not too rough out there.”
Inclement weather would force the barge to return to Cromwell Island, where the barge, donated by the island’s owner, Robert Lee, had departed earlier that afternoon. The horses had been in the trailer for hours, after leaving their Great Falls pasture.
Since the island’s inception as a state park in 1978, the task of maintaining the wild horse population has fallen to the state. While the donation of the animals by state Sen. Brad Hamlett and Lyle Heavy Runner helped to keep departmental costs down, the safe transportation of the animals across the lake has historically been a tricky undertaking.
In 1943, when the island was under private ownership, dismal weather conditions nearly proved tragic for one transport. After the island’s new owner demanded that the wild horses be rounded up and sold, wranglers loaded eight horses onto a small barge.
As the craft made for shore, a wave flooded one side of the deck. The horses, tied to a ring at the deck’s center, grouped together on the opposite side, causing the barge to flip. Fortunately, a man dove underwater and managed to cut them loose. The horses swam back to the island and disappeared.
Wild horses haven’t been the island’s only imported residents. Various critters of note have been introduced over the years, ranging from mule deer, Virginia turkeys, bighorn sheep and a New Jersey heiress. However, the wild horse plays the most storied role in the island’s history.
Local lore says the Pend d’Oreille tribe first kept horses on the island as a natural corral for safekeeping from rival tribes. In 1854, the first Westerner to record seeing the island reported it contained a herd of nearly 70 horses.
When the island opened for homesteading in 1910, settlers were immediately attracted to its natural beauty. With dense pine forests interspaced by rich prairie grasslands, Wild Horse Island is a stunning site. Half a dozen families attempted to farm the land and one even planted a fruit orchard. However, extreme isolation coupled with farming failures led the settlers to abandon their homesteads after several years.
Over the subsequent decades, much of the island passed into sole ownership as a series of deep-pocketed “settlers” arrived from the East. For a brief spell in the 1930s, the island boasted a dude ranch and a three-story lodge. By the early 1950s, one hundred head of horses roamed the island’s 2,156 acres.
Disaster struck in 1955 when a harsh winter killed off most of the horses. The deep freeze extended to further development plans, as the construction of two airstrips, another hotel and a marina never broke ground.
When the last owner of the island died, his heirs sold their portion of the island, excluding a smattering of private cabins, in a complicated 1975 real estate transaction, allowing for the island to remain free of development.
The barge entered Skeeko Bay, where a steep gradient allowed the vessel to pull up against the island’s rocky shore. A snort emitted from the trailer as the horses waited for their journey to end. A light rain sprinkled as veterinarian Scott Smiley gave the mares several last shots. The medication riled up the animals, causing the trailer to shake and the tension to heighten. The collective expectation was that upon their release, the mares would stampede into the island’s depths.
“These are wild horses, there’s no guessing which direction they’ll go,” Sawyer said, observing from a safe distance onshore.
After a call of “Go ahead,” the trailer door opened. The assembled viewers waited, yet nothing happened. A moment or two passed, but the lead horse refused to exit the trailer. The men on the barge began honking the vessel’s horn, smacking the trailer and hollering, trying to encourage the horses to depart. The first mare cautiously set two hooves on the shore, then four. The others followed in similar fashion, until all stood on the shoreline, quietly munching grass and appearing every bit as domesticated as Seabiscuit.
Barry Gordon, one of Wild Horse Island’s residents, boated from his home into to the bay to witness the event.
“I was wanting to see some bucking and kicking, but it was pretty anticlimactic,” he said. “I hope they find the others.”
The others are two wild geldings, one of which has lived on the island since 1992 and one that was released last December. Hoping to avoid maxing out the island’s wildlife capacity, Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials have set the wild horse limit at five animals. Although six currently call the island home, Sawyer expects the oldest gelding, who is nearing 30, may not survive the upcoming winter.
With abundant terrain and lush foliage, the island is a virtual paradise for the horses as a habitat.
“Wild Horse Island is a very special place and the horses are its namesake,” Sawyer said. “Tourists come hiking and one of the things they want to see are the horses.”
The recent transport has tripled a visitor’s odds of such a sighting and allows for the namesake population of Wild Horse Island to endure.
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