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Working for better management options and cohabitation through compromise and communication for the American Wild Mustang

4 horses released on Wildhorse Island

Posted by Texas Mustang Project on June 18, 2010

4 horses released on Wildhorse Island

By VINCE DEVLIN | Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2010 11:42 am | (1) Comments

When they last released a group of wild horses onto Wildhorse Island, almost 20 years ago, the wide-eyed animals shot out of the horse trailer like they were bred to take an early and commanding lead in the Kentucky Derby, and raced into the forest in an instant.

Wednesday, when they did it again, was a different story.

It was a long day for the four wild black mares, which had been loaded into the trailer earlier in the morning in Great Falls and towed to Flathead Lake.

The trailer was pulled onto a barge donated for the afternoon by Cromwell Island owner Robert E. Lee, and Cromwell manager Scott Smith gave the horses the first boat ride of their lives.

But when the barge nudged onto a gravel beach at Skeeko Bay and the trailer door was opened wide to reveal their wondrous new island home, the horses initially wanted nothing to do with it.

It took a lot of “Heys!” and “Hos!” to even get the animals to turn around, and another couple of minutes before the bravest of the bunch poked her head out of the trailer, eyed the gravel beach with suspicion, and finally took a tentative first step out of the trailer.

Even then, she kept her hind legs firmly attached to the trailer for a few moments, as if she expected the beach under her forelegs to melt away in yet another twist to what had to be the strangest day of her life.

But step out she finally did, and one by one, the other three gingerly followed.

They stared warily at the 20 or so humans there to help with or witness the release.

And then they noticed the grass.

“It was like,” said Wildhorse resident Barry Gordon, who had boated around the island to watch, “they decided, ‘OK, we’re home, this’ll do just fine.’ “

Rich, green and luscious, fed by a seemingly never-ending series of June rain showers, the grass took their minds off everything else.

In fact, well over half an hour after they’d stepped ashore, the animals were not even 50 yards up the path their predecessors had quickly disappeared on two decades ago, more interested in chowing down on the delicious grass than in escaping the humans or exploring their new surroundings.

The old horses _ there’s just one of them left alive _ and now these new ones, are here for one reason and one reason only: What’s an island named Wildhorse without wild horses?

Ever since local Indians kept herds here _ and out of reach of rival tribes _ horses have been a part of Wildhorse’s history.

Today, all but a handful of the island’s 2,164 acres _ 99 percent _ are owned by the people of Montana, and managed as a primitive state park by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The state’s management plan calls for five wild horses to mingle among the large populations of bighorn sheep and mule deer that also call the island home.

“Five is somewhat of an arbitrary number,” says Jerry Sawyer, who manages all the state parks on Flathead for FWP, “but we wanted enough to maintain the namesake of the island.”

Wednesday’s additions actually brought the wild horse population to six; a lone wild mustang was transplanted to the island last Christmas Eve to join the last horse standing from the 1992 release.

“He’s pushing 30,” Sawyer says of the old one, “and we anticipate he won’t survive through next winter _ I’ll be really surprised if he gets through another one.”

Until that one dies of old age, visitors to Wildhorse will have their best chance in years of spying a wild horse among the island’s wildlife, with six of the animals now running free.

The four mares were donated to the state by state Sen. Brad Hamlett of Cascade and Lyle Heavy Runner of Great Falls.

Many years ago, the two men acquired a stallion from the famed Pryor Mountain wild horse herd. Genetic testing showed that the horse descended from the Spanish Barbs that arrived in the Americas with the conquistadors of the 16th and 17th centuries, according to FWP.

The stallion was placed on land adjacent to the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park near Ulm that the men leased from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

They then added wild mares from BLM land in Nevada. Several colts and fillies have been born since, and Wildhorse’s four new mares, all 6 or 7 years old, are some of those offspring.

It’s the first time the state has placed mares on the island. The other two already here are geldings.

And for the gelding that arrived last December, Wednesday was quite strange, too.

While the four mares were being loaded in Great Falls, Gordon headed toward town to purchase a halter, a rope and some grain.

A couple of hours later he coaxed the mustang close with the grain, got the halter and rope over its head, and veterinarian Jack Skonitz administered drugs to calm it down and trimmed the horse’s hooves.

That, too, may have been a first, Sawyer says. Normally, once horses are on Wildhorse, they’re never touched by human hands again.

But the abundant green grass that the new mares found so appealing has threatened to wreak havoc with the mustang.

“There’s so much food he’s only eating, and not moving,” Sawyer says, “and he was having a problem with foundering.”

In other words, the mustang was spending too much time in one spot, munching away, and not near enough time on the move and keeping his hooves worn down. After Gordon caught the horse, Skonitz trimmed 3 1/2 inches from his hooves before letting him go.

The mustang and the old horse had teamed up within two weeks of the mustang’s arrival on Wildhorse. Now, the pair will have four new mares to keep them company.

They’ll all discover each other pretty soon, and most likely, the only ones who will witness the event will be bighorn sheep and mule deer.

They’re all on an island called Wildhorse, and it will probably be 20 to 25 years before any other wild horse will call this place home.


8 Responses to “4 horses released on Wildhorse Island”


    This is a wonderful story and so appropriate for the wild horses. Thank you for `giving the horses to the island of their namesake.

    • Shirley,
      I loved this story for the same reason. I wanted to share it with you guys because of that, and because it shows that even though they’re not a reproducing herd they can still be “wild” in a sense in a place where there were once wild ones just like them. I guess it almost feels like the lesser of two evils. But at least these wild ones will be able to stay wild 🙂

  2. sandra longley said

    Yes, it seems like a feel good story until you realise this is a non reproductive group..not different from the salazoos at all..add a stallion and it will be a wild horse band..other wise it is hospice island..I am sure BLM would like to remove all stallions from public lands so that they could have non reproducing herds then as they die out they could pull some horses out of longterm holding and throw them back out..even tho they no longer have the skills to survive..whoops those are also non-reproductive herds-in 20 years they will be extinct as well.

  3. sandra longley said

    I find it amazing, as one who lives in the west, the sheer multitudes of places named for the wild horses..where wild horses were obviously seen and known to inhabit,- canyons, streams, lakes, meadows,gullys, washes, plains,peaks, mountains, crossings, towns,and islands- many of those places no longer have wild horses-so prior to the 1971 law “where they are currently found” they existed across the land-and settlers saw them and named places after them for that reason.

    • sandra longley said

      Equal time: I do know of 1 cow creek and 1 cow canyon and 1 cow camp and then of course-there is the song “cow Pattie”

    • jan eaker said

      in direct corollation to all the Native American place names that no longer have Natives on them, or even near them,
      and yes, this is a non-reproducing herd, but I am thankful for the freedom for THESE horses,

  4. sandra longley said

    the newest release..calico horses VI, the shell game of numbers..another excellent piece of investigation

  5. Jan said

    i invite you to come to apple valley, calif – we have thousands of acres of open land – places where wild horses could live in peace and quiet – roy rogers lived here – now he is gone but it still bears his influence – there once was a huge horse ranch here – now it stands empty – we need horses in apple valley – any ideas??

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