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WILD HORSE ISLAND — Just a few minutes into her tour of Wild Horse Island, Jennifer Anthony spotted its most famous residents.

“If you want to look, there's a bunch of bighorn right over there.” Her 30-odd fellow hikers turned and gasped. More than a dozen bighorn sheep, mostly ewes, were picking their way through the ponderosa pines near the island’s Skeeko Bay.

It marked a good start to the Montana Preservation Alliance and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Wednesday tour of this 2,163-acre island, tucked into Big Arm on the west side of Flathead Lake. 

The tour was part of the Preservation Alliance’s 2018 Montana Historic Preservation Road Show, a four-day conference showcasing preservation efforts and historic sites around the Flathead Valley.

Some of the world’s largest bighorns, along with deer, a mountain lion and a few remaining horses roam the island’s forests and grasslands, helping draw about 20,000 visitors each year. Wildlife sightings and more await those who make the trip.

Just before Anthony spotted the sheep, Sara Scott, Heritage Resources Program Manager for Montana State Parks, pointed out a surfboard-shaped scar in one of the ponderosas.

It had likely been made in the late 19th century. “This was a practice that Indians did in the spring.” Gouging off the bark, she explained, exposed the tree’s cambium tissues. “They were really sweet, and provided a really nice edible treat for Native Americans.”

The local Kootenai Indians found more than a sugar high on the island, explained assistant park manager Allie McCurry at the 2-mile hike’s next stop. “For many years it was used as a remote pasture,” where the tribes’ horses could graze and be guarded against theft by the Blackfeet.

That use was noticed by the explorers under Washington Gov. Isaac Stevens, who came through the area in the 1850s. The name “Wild Horse Island” survives to this day, as does a small herd of equines, kept at about five horses.

But Kootenai grazing, like so many other aspects of Native American life, came to an end in the decades that followed. The 1855 Hellgate Treaty placed the island within the Flathead Indian Reservation, and the 1904 Flathead Allotment Act opened these lands to homesteading by non-Natives.

So began generations' worth of attempts — most unsuccessful, some tragic — to settle the island. Hiking up from the forest and into grassland, the tour group came to one of these settlements’ few surviving traces: a wind-battered hillside cabin.

It had been built in the early 1910s by Norwegian immigrant John Johnson, McCurry said. The cabin’s door was long gone, and the elements had eaten away at its siding. But “he really enjoyed it apparently, because he was one of the few people who made his home here on the island.”

Johnson, she continued, was a rare success story on Wild Horse. Among hundreds of homesteaders who applied to settle the island, only eight successfully “proved up” their land. The others who came were beaten by the stony soil and lack of a fresh water source.

But later settlers kept seeing potential in Wild Horse Island — and learning hard lessons about its suitability for humans. As the tour meandered through the prairie on a narrow, rut-like trail, McCurry recalled the island’s 20th century entrepreneurs: Col. Almond White, whose real estate speculation on the island drove up land prices around the Flathead Valley, but left him deeply indebted and forced him to sell; the Rev. Robert Edington, who with his wife ran a successful lodge for East Coast socialites before falling into the lake, where he was crushed by boats and drowned; and J.C. Burnett, who paid $30,000 for a single horse as part of a breeding operation.

None of these ventures brought Wild Horse into the Flathead Valley’s tourism or ranching sectors. But another made it something far more unique.

In the 1930s, Lewis Penwell set out to establish a game preserve on Wild Horse. The island proved ill-suited for antelope and turkeys, “but it's truly the bighorn sheep and the mule deer that really took off and thrived here on the island,” McCurry said.

From a single ram and ewe imported in 1939, the island’s ram population has grown to about 100 individuals. They’ve had little friction with cabin owners along the island’s edge, thanks to Bourke MacDonald.

MacDonald, who bought the entire island in 1961, sought to balance development with conservation. McCurry passed around a map showing the 56 private lots he had strung along Wild Horse’s coast. Each is a circular, one-acre property touching the water, but none of the other lots.

That ensured that “there would still be passage for wildlife, and there would still be public access, because Bourke MacDonald not only encouraged research, but he really encouraged public access here.”

MacDonald died in 1973. The island, minus the private lots, passed into state control in 1978. It’s now managed as one of Flathead Lake State Park’s six units. The rams, unbothered by cars and well-fed by the island’s palouse, prairie-like ecosystem, have thrived.

“I used to work at Glacier [National Park],” McCurry said, brandishing one of the ram’s horns, “and I can tell you this is way more impressive than the ones we have up at Glacier.”

The numbers bolster her assessment: A skull from Wild Horse Island holds the current record for world’s largest ram, according to the Boone and Crockett Club.

Supporting the rams requires constant maintenance. With few natural fires these days, park managers use controlled burns and logging to keep ponderosas off the grasslands. Last year, David Landstrom, Region One Parks Manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Daily Inter Lake that this effort has cost $400,000 over the past 10 years. Noxious weeds are also an issue.

Even with this careful management, the island can only support so many sheep. Park Manager Amy Grout told hikers that when the population risks outstripping its resources, some members have to be rounded up, slung beneath helicopters, and flown elsewhere in the state. “Fish Wildlife and Parks uses the bighorns here almost as a nursery herd,” she said.

Learning about the eco-engineering behind today’s Wild Horse Island did little to lessen its charm. As the tour group returned to Skeeko Bay and their boats, Lakeside resident Dean Robbins was impressed.

“It was a marvelous tour,” he said, and his first time on the island. It was “wonderful to see some of the guardianship of Montana State Parks for access by all the public.”

To learn more about Wild Horse Island, visit http://stateparks.mt.gov/wild-horse-island/.

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