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New Funding Pays For Wild Horse Island Maintenance

Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island.
Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island.

Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake is getting a facelift. A work crew is rehabilitating trails, but also cutting some new tread and installing other long-term infrastructure. The projects are possible thanks to a new funding effort aimed at helping the state maintain parks on the lake

Wild Horse Island is one of six units that make up the Flathead Lake State Park system. The island’s namesake holds true with a handful of wild horses roaming about, but it’s also home to mule deer and bighorn sheep.

In fact, the world’s largest bighorn came from Wild Horse Island in 2016. The Wild Sheep Foundation sold replicas of its skull for over $100,000. On a tour of the island Thursday, Executive Director of the Montana State Parks Foundation Coby Gierke said some of those proceeds are now funding work on Wild Horse.

"So they sold, I think, about 10 replica skulls. And the portion that we got from it, which was approximately a third, was about $37,000. And these are replicas, not the real thing."

Gierke says those dollars helped launch the foundation’s Flathead Lake Action Fund last month. The Mule Deer Foundation and the federally funded Montana Recreational Trails Program also made donations.

With input from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the foundation is using that money to fund trail work, replace wooden trail signs with long-term metal ones and the construction of a new kiosk information center.

Coby Gierke, executive director of the Montana State Parks Foundation, at Wild Horse Island, Sept. 2019.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio
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Coby Gierke, executive director of the Montana State Parks Foundation, at Wild Horse Island, Sept. 2019.

These are projects FWP simply can’t afford or doesn’t have the staffing to accomplish. The agency has over $20 million worth of backlogged maintenance projects statewide, and that’s been apparent on Flathead Lake State Park units.

"Things like the dock at West Shore [State Park] broke up in the ice a couple of years ago; having a major problem with sewage at Yellow Bay not too long ago," Gierke says.

On a hike up a ridge to see groups of bighorn sheep, Flathead State Park Manager Amy Grout says the foundation’s efforts are a big boon for her limited staff and volunteers.

"We don’t have any paid staff assigned to this island besides myself and the assistant manager. And so with the workload, it’s nearly impossible to do any sort of work."

A fifth of Grout’s $100,000 budget for five units of Flathead Lake State Park is taken up by the garbage bill alone. Large projects usually take a back seat, especially on Wild Horse Island where only about $5,000 is spent annually.

A short hike from the group of bighorns is the Montana Conservation Corps work crew. Their 10-day contract costs about double what FWP spends on the island each year.

They’re taking a break from replacing a problem social trail with some new switch backs leading to the top of a scenic overlook where two lone ponderosa pines serve as a natural waypoint. Water flowing down the informal trail has eroded some of the natural grasses sheep and deer depend on.

A Montana Conservation Corps work crew doing trail rehabilitation on Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island, Sept. 2019.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio
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A Montana Conservation Corps work crew doing trail rehabilitation on Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island, Sept. 2019.

"We’re basically gonna to take it up the ridge edge a little more," Grout says.

At the top of the unfinished trail, Grout adds that dollars from the State Park Foundation’s Flathead Lake fund will pay for another crew to reduce the density of the encroaching ponderosa pines below. FWP last removed trees over 10 years ago. The agency used chainsaws then, but Grout says crewmembers will simply lop saplings in the spring.

"So, a lot easier to take care of them when they’re this big, than when they’re above our heads. So we’re going to lop those and kind of control the population, again mimicking what fire might do to kind of clear those out."

In total, the projects on Wild Horse Island this fall and in the spring will cost about $21,000, funds that would be hard to come about without the State Parks Foundation. Its executive director Gierke says the Flathead Lake fund will target other park units.

"I think there’s some really amazing visitor enhancements that can be made to the system," Gierke says, "and I think in order to get there, we have to build a strong coalition of funding that can help us do that. And this is a step in the right direction to doing that."

Currently, the fund has about $118,000, money Gierke says will be spent in just the next year or so. The foundation also hopes to simultaneously replenish those dollars and will work closely with FWP to identify future projects.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.