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Bennetts says the wildlife on the island, including the last wild horse, love eating at this orchard. He recalls climbing up into one of the apple trees to pick apples only to look down and find himself surrounded by a herd of large, horned mule deer.
"I was a little nervous," he admits.
Nearby the orchard, remnants of the homestead's insides rust in the grass—a spiny bed frame, the shell of a stovetop.
"Historic junk," says Bennetts, who grew up in Butte. "I'm used to seeing all the old mining camps where you'd find all this junk that we saw as treasure. That's the way we approach it here too. People like to see this stuff. It lets them paint the story for themselves about what happened. If it wasn't here, you'd never stop to think twice about the history."
FWP manages Wild Horse Island based on both cultural and environmental history. They keep the homestead's wooden structures and orchard preserved for the benefit of the 17,000 visitors they get annually. The rest of the island they keep in "primitive" shape, encouraging native grasslands and forests to flourish as much as they can. But unlike a wilderness area or a national park, they can't let natural fires burn since 56 cabins populate the island's beaches—all private lots established before it became a state park. Without natural management like fire, says Bennetts, the island's forests require thinning projects to deter things like pine beetles from moving in and killing trees. And, he says, such management choices never please everybody.
"You've got to have a little bit of management," he says. "We keep it natural as much as we can, but when you've got an island like this that's so popular, we've got to be good stewards. Otherwise, when it comes time to propose whatever the next project is, we may not have that public backing."
Same goes for wildlife. Horses don't need much management at all. FWP only adopts mares and geldings for Wild Horse Island, to help keep the population in check. But other animals can reproduce and FWP works to maintain the approximately 120 bighorn sheep and 120 mule deer at their current numbers. When the sheep do go over their limit, they're netted from a helicopter one by one and transplanted to places like the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge. As for the animals allowed to stay on the island, they live—and die—naturally. Huge deer sheds can be seen decomposing into the ground. Coyotes and worms scavenge the bodies, which end up back in the earth.
- Photo courtesy of Fish, Wildlife and Parks
- Wild horses on Wild Horse Island grew old and died over the past few years, leaving a single black gelding alone. “Horses are social and I think that it’s certainly got to be feeling a little bit lonely right now,” says Dave Landstrom, regional parks manager for Flathead Lake. “That’s one of the reasons we’re anxious to get some of the other animals out there.”
And the same goes for the wild horses. When they're young, Bennetts says, they usually run along the stretch of Palouse Prairie. When they get old, they stay in the cover of the lowlands. At the end of their life, the horses often lose their teeth and die of starvation. With no veterinarians, there's no preventative care for decay. It's a small price for wildness.
After searching the orchard, Bennetts returns to the boat and cruises from Skeeko Bay to the south of the island. Modest cabins line the shore and we look to see if the horse is wandering somewhere behind the properties in the shade of the forest. We pull into a dock at Driftwood Point and, from there, set out on foot. I'm anticipating the moment when that horse and its shiny black coat appears on a ridge, or gallops across a field. As we walk, sunbeat and parched from hours of traversing the hillsides and forests, we yo-yo between resigned disappointment and renewed hope. I will the horse to appear. I hallucinate that the shadow under a tree branch is a long snout. I am certain that the black speck on a precipice is surely not a rock but a horse with its mane blowing in the breeze. But finding one horse in over 2,000 acres of a primitive island suddenly seems absurd.
"Needle in a haystack," says Bennetts, shaking his head.
In her book, Stillman writes about the conquistadors' journey to America with shiploads of horses. When they would come upon the "doldrums," between 30 and 35 degrees north or south of the equator, a lack of easterly winds mired them for days until they had no choice but to lighten the cargo load. It was the horses that went first, straight over the gangplank and into the ocean. Afterward, that area of the Atlantic became known as the "horse latitudes."
"I used to think it was just a charming name until I found out this terrible history of it," Stillman says. "But here we are in the 21st century and we're still throwing horses into the horse latitudes, so to speak, in order to lighten our load. Horses are always the first to go."