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POLSON - For some people who love the largest island on Flathead Lake, the news last April - that, for the first time in more than a century, a wild horse had given birth on Wild Horse Island - seemed almost miraculous.

It's not supposed to be able to happen, after all.

But the real miracle may not be the pretty young filly that's already nearly as big as the smallest adult horse on the island.

No, it's the so-old-it's-almost-ancient wild horse that, at times during the past three or four years, has seemed like he's been just days away from death's door.

Each succeeding winter has seemed more and more likely to be the old horse's last.

Instead, the old man is still kicking.

"At least, he still was the last time I was out in October," says Jerry Sawyer, who manages the seven state parks located on Flathead Lake for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"Maybe he's found the fountain of youth out there," Sawyer says. "I ought to figure out what he's eating. He's like the Jack LaLanne of the horse world."

And so far, his latest winter on Wild Horse has been a mostly mild one.

***

Wild Horse Island, most of which is a primitive state park, has a management plan that calls for up to five wild horses to share the 2,164 acres with hundreds more bighorn sheep and mule deer.

FWP, which has to transplant bighorn sheep off the island to keep their population in check, has one major rule for the wild horses, which are present solely to honor the island's name.

They can't reproduce.

That's meant the males on the island, like the oldest horse, must be geldings.

The previous herd had dwindled down to the lone old man in 2009 when FWP began restocking.

A wild Mustang was brought in on Christmas Eve that year, in part because FWP was concerned the last horse standing from the previous transplant, back in 1992, wouldn't make it through another Montana winter.

But he did.

When four wild black mares - the first females FWP had ever transplanted to the island - joined him and the Mustang in June of 2010, Sawyer says FWP thought it was only the matter of one more winter before the old one died a natural death.

At that point, Wild Horse's wild horse population would settle back to the agreed-upon five.

No one ever dreamed it would jump up to seven.

***

There was no immaculate conception on Wild Horse. Unbeknownst to anyone, one of the mares transplanted to the island in 2010 was already pregnant.

She had obviously, as Sawyer put it, been "fiddling around" prior to the transplant.

No human witnessed the birth. One day there were six wild horses on Wild Horse, and the next time someone spotted them there were, as Sawyer put it, "6 1/2."

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The little foal was a site to behold, too. The new arrival was a Paint - a spotted white horse, this one with rust-colored areas - that stood in stark contrast to her pitch-black mother.

Either the sire was a Paint, Sawyer said at the time, or one or both parents had Paints in their lineage.

"I guess it can skip a generation, too," he said.

There is absolutely no problem with the population exceeding what the management plan calls for by one or two horses, Sawyer says, and none of the horses will ever be removed.

"Five was just an arbitrary number plucked out of the air," he explains. "It seemed like a sufficient amount to reflect the island's namesake."

***

You can find varied estimates for the average life span of a wild horse - from 12-14 years to 20-25 - and Sawyer has been estimating the island's oldest horse's age at "about 30" for a couple of years now.

"My best recollection is they were all 9 or 10 when they were brought out in back 1992, and that will be 20 years ago pretty quick here," he says.

Almost three years ago he said the last horse from '92 appeared to be in terrible shape, with ribs clearly visible beneath its hide even though the island was lush with vegetation, and guessed the old horse's internal organs were starting to shut down.

"And he looked so bad last spring I figured it was just a matter of days then, too," Sawyer says. "He was just skin-and-bones, and really shaggy. But he recovered during the summer."

Once again, Sawyer says, "If it gets really cold I wouldn't put money on him making it to spring, but you never know - he's fooled us so far."

Like the totally unexpected birth on Wild Horse in 2011, his long-anticipated death will likely be witnessed by no human.

But one thing about the old horse - he lived long enough to see Wild Horse truly live up to its name when the little Paint appeared last spring, much to the delight of the island's handful of residents and many visitors.

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