Partnerships help keep island pristine

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Only accessible by boat, Wild Horse Island State Park has long been considered a hidden jewel of Flathead Lake.

Visitors who put in the effort to make the short jaunt to the island that sits just off the west shore of the lake will find an idyllic setting that, in many ways, offers a reminder of the “way it used to be” in the West. Wild horses roam free alongside bighorn sheep, secluded beaches are hidden in the coves and trails through fields of wildflowers meander across the primitive island.

Recently, however, state park managers have been faced with an uninvited and unwanted species that could change the dynamic of this special ecosystem ­— cheatgrass. This invasive plant has emerged in groves in recent years across the island and is threatening populations of native plants that sustain the animals on the island that don’t eat cheatgrass.

Park managers were unsure how exactly to tackle this issue. Finding solutions to problems such as these often require bringing in outside specialists that come with steep price tags that can strain already-tight state park budgets.

Luckily, partners have stepped up to fill in the funding gaps. The Wild Cheatgrass Foundation and the Wild Sheep Foundation partnered with the state park to help fund research addressing the cheatgrass outbreak.

Other partners have emerged to help with other important projects on the island, as well. The Montana Conservation Corps is helping to build a new, more sustainable trail. Volunteers will also help replace signage that has been gnawed away by horses, and with some necessary tree removal.

To help fund these undertakings, the Montana State Parks Foundation recently launched the Flathead Lake Action Fund. The account already holds about $120,000, with the majority coming from the Wild Sheep Foundation. Other contributors include Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Mule Deer Foundation, and the Montana Recreation Trails Program.

The truth is, our state and national parks are often handed insufficient maintenance budgets. We applaud the foresight from Wild Horse Island stewards to create the Flathead Lake Action Fund, and are encouraged to see yet another example of a private-public collaboration benefiting the public.

Unfortunately state decision-makers have yet to address park maintenance with the same gusto they put into encouraging millions of tourists to visit Montana’s natural treasures each summer. And until they do, these partnerships will be key to keeping the maintenance backlog from stacking up.

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