Wild horse Island State Park

Parks Welcome an Opportunity to Tap Creative Funding

The warmer months are a time to explore our state, and at Prairie Populist we’re joining the thousands of Montanans visiting the amazing lands, lakes, and historical sites that make up Montana’s state parks. We hope you’ll check back regularly and join us as we explore what these parks mean for the people of our state and how they help make Montana a place unlike any other.

A bighorn sheep carcass discovered on Wild Horse Island State Park in the fall of 2016 is the reigning world record holder — and it is continuing to draw attention to the park from a variety of visitors, including the bighorn conservation community. Assessed by the record-keeping Boone and Crockett Club (a non-profit dedicated to hunting and big game conservation), the ram’s horns scored 216 ⅜  points, shattering the previous record by seven inches.

“This was the kind of sheep that lives large and dies young,” explained Kevin Hurley, vice president of conservation and operations for the Wild Sheep Foundation, offering some insight into the bighorn population of Wild Horse Island.

According to Hurley, bighorns are assessed based on three criteria: genetics, nutrition, and age.

“They’ve got just the right combination of genetics and nutrition, and they’ll grow big at a very young age,” said Hurley, although he acknowledged the size of this particular sheep is uncommon at such a  young age. “Wild Horse Island is a bit of a microcosm.”

A microcosm that deserves stewardship at the highest degree.

This record-holding sheep died of natural causes. A couple of hikers found the animal. Hunting on Wild Horse Island is illegal, as is harvesting the horns of a dead animal on state lands. Park staff stored the ram in a freezer until they were prepared to study it further.

“[These Sheep] are largely descendants of a wild sheep herd from the Sun River [region] on the Rocky Mountain front. For whatever reason, this particular herd at this particular time, is growing some impressive males,” said Dave Landstrom, the region one parks manager. “There is a lot of interest as to why that is.”

An estimated one to two million bighorns once roamed the Western Plains. In the 1800s, various stressors, including a major influx of settlers from the East, caused wildlife populations, including bighorns, to decline dramatically. By the mid-1950s, bighorn populations had dropped to record lows of under 25,000. Today, with the help of conservation initiatives, that population has increased to 65,000.

Restoring the population of a declining species is no small effort, especially when the source restoration herd lives on a heavily visited island, where both environmental and recreational pressures may inadvertently impact the animals and their habitat.

A step into the past

Wild horse Island State ParkThe culturally significant site that is now the state park was first used by Native Americans who swam their horses to the island to protect them from other tribes. The island was also a source for food. The Ponderosa pine scattered throughout the island today still bear scars left by Native Americans who stripped away the bark to collect a sap-like substance known as Cambium.

By 1910, homesteads began popping up on the island, including farms, personal cabin retreats, and even a commercial lodge. When Burke McDonald took ownership of the entire island in 1962, he expanded development, but ensured everyone had access to the shoreline.

During this period, people were not the only creatures populating the island. Bighorns were first introduced in 1939. Within eight years, what started as 10 sheep had expanded to 90. Today, approximately 120 bighorn sheep roam the island. Park officials estimate at least another 560 have been removed from the island since 1954. Transported to other regions of Montana, as well as other western states, the sheep helped establish new herds in historic habitat regions.

Wild horse Island State ParkWhen McDonald passed away, his family donated half the land to Montana State Parks. The Nature Conservancy and The Land and Water Conservation Fund helped the parks secure the rest. Today, Wild Horse Island is a popular primitive day-use area for boaters and wildlife enthusiasts recreating on Flathead Lake. At 2,160 acres, the park is the largest island on a freshwater lake west of Minnesota.  

Wild horse Island State ParkA microcosm unto its own

Kevin Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation wasn’t exaggerating when he referred to Wild Horse Island as a microcosm. The entire park is dominated by a palouse prairie ecosystem. Only three of these ascribed biomes exist in Montana, and this one is threatened by cheatgrass. The nasty invasive species can quickly overcome native plants by absorbing more water and nutrients, due to its shallow root structure. This not only damages the health of the soil, but also makes it more susceptible to wildfires.

“The last thing I have time for is to research this cheatgrass epidemic,” said Amy Grout, the manager of Flathead Lake State park, a complex of six state parks that includes Wild Horse Island. “The logistics involved are astronomical.”

And, with five other parks to manage, Grout already has plenty of logistics to juggle.

Budget Woes

“We don’t have anyone who routinely goes out to Wildhorse Island,” explained Grout, noting that the park use to have a staffed position, but funding cuts have left the park largely unmanned. “[The park] gets neglected because of that.”

With an operating budget of less than $20,000, it is a challenge for Amy and her staff to do routine checkups on the island more than twice a month.

Funding and staffing cuts are stretching Grout’s management team, leaving them spread thin. Time spent on maintenance tasks, like cleaning bathrooms, makes it hard to focus on larger issues, like managing this rare ecosystem for the proliferation of one of the most important bighorn sheep restoration herds in the country.

Lucky for Grout, and Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and parks as a whole, the Wild Sheep Foundation has their backs.

Wild horse Island State ParkWild Sheep Foundation to the rescue

The Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) has a few projects underway to support bighorn restoration projects in state parks, starting with cheatgrass.

“The state parks are on their own to come up with their operating revenue, but we are trying to help,” explained Hurley. “We . . . raise the funds for the agency. We saw a way forward, we saw a need, and so we stepped up. Which is what we do.”

Normally, conservation efforts are funded through taxes on sporting goods, hunting licenses, and Pittman Robertson match funding. However, Wild Horse Island’s no hunting rule limits the park’s ability to generate revenue for necessary conservation and restoration initiatives, such as the mitigation of Cheatgrass invasion.

WSF recently funded Stewart Jennings, a mine reclamation specialist, to experiment with a “micronutrient fertilization” treatment in the park. He hopes the special fertilizer will mitigate the spread of cheatgrass. WSF is considering taking the project to scale if proven successful.

Additionally, WSF hosts an annual auction in Las Vegas where folks can bid on the “governor’s tag” for a chance to harvest a bighorn sheep in Montana. The record payout for this tag was more than $480,000. The Foundation retains a 10 percent commission on the winning bid. The remaining funds go to support bighorn conservation efforts in state parks.

WSF has also commissioned 20 replicas of the world record ram’s skull to be auctioned off at various fundraisers around North America. These sales act on a 50/50 split after the WSF recoups the cost of producing the replica. Half of the money goes to the organization that hosts the auction, and half goes to the Montana State Parks Foundation to fund future conservation efforts in the parks.

“It’s a great relationship,” said Gout. The park’s partnership with the Wild Sheep Foundation is another example of how parks across the state are responding to a budget deficit within the parks system by getting creative and securing funding from outside sources.

“I think that’s going to be the model we are going to pursue moving forward,” said park manager Dave Landstrom. As the Wild Sheep Foundation shows support in Wild Horse Island, friend groups and other nonprofits statewide have been stepping up to help manage the parks system-wide. It’s good to know Montana has the state parks’ back.

Writing and Photos by August Schield 

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