By Elsa Gillis as published and seen on KTBS.com
“It hurt my heart because I couldn’t imagine these majestic herds of animals being rounded up…”
FT. POLK, La. – Fort Polk, Louisiana is a sprawling, 240,000 acre army post where wild horses have been running free for decades. But that could soon come to a halt.
The army wants them gone. It says the horse population has grown too big and is creating a safety hazard. But the army is meeting resistance from people who say the horses have played too big a role in our nation’s history to be gotten rid of.
After being alerted to this story, we went to the community where the horses roam – to speak with concerned citizens.
“It hurt my heart because I couldn’t imagine these majestic herds of animals being rounded up, shipped out of there,” says board member of the Louisiana Horse Rescue Association Mary Brocato. “And I knew that many of these horses were going to die.”
Brocato first saw the horse population in may, during a tour with a Fort Polk Commander and local historian.
“We were told that they were descendants of cavalry horses that had been injured or were lame during training exercises during World War II in 1941, and instead of treating the horses, they turned them loose.”
A local historian who has studied Ft. Polk’s cavalry history writes… “Beginning in 1941, the US Army held the largest maneuvers ever held in the history of the army here in Louisiana. Camp Polk was built to support this large maneuver and training area. An important part of this maneuver…was 2 divisions of mounted horse cavalry.”
The says they were eventually turned loose – and over the years have run wild along with horses that are descendants of what are called heritage families. Those are people whose lands were seized by the army years ago, and had to leave behind their animals.
“They’re a treasure, they’re not a pest to get rid of. These horses are part of the heritage, the culture and the history of that area. And they need to stay where they are, they’re not hurting anyone,” says Brocato.
But the army sees it differently. We spoke with Col. Brian Sullivan, Fort Polk’s Chief of Staff.
“They currently present a training distraction to our rotational units going through the training center and a safety hazard,” says Col. Sullivan. “The training distraction is real in terms of the efforts we have to make in order to move the herd to either conduct an air land, or air assault, or airborne assault, into these large open areas where the herds congregate.”
He says there have not been any documented accidents or safety issues related to the horses at this point.
Col. Sullivan says there are an estimated 700 wild horses on or near Fort Polk, a that number’s expected to double in 10 years.
KTBS 3 went out to see if we could find some of the horses, and we did. Right near Ft. Polk property, a small group ran by. All involved parties agree that something needs to be done about the horse population, but the disagreement comes over the solution, and origin of the problem.
First disagreement – whether they are wild horses, protected by federal law from branding, harassment or death. The army considers them “trespass” horses, and not protected.
A federal appeals court has sided with the army.
Second disagreement: where these horses come from.
“There’s no lineage to WWII or connotation associated with heritage horses. Most of these horses are horses that have simply been abandoned on our training area,” says Col. Sullivan.
“There’s a lot of talk about there being dumped horses, and they probably, in all fairness take up a small percentage of the herds..but from photographing them and interviewing other people, a majority of these are wild horses that have been there for years and years,” says Teresa, a Leesville resident and animal lover who’s gotten involved in this situation.
We asked Col. Sullivan how the army knows the horses are not descendants of cavalry horses or heritage family horses.
“Again what’s most important is that they’ve been determined trespass horses by the court and any protection provided by the act does not apply.”
We also asked what happened to the cavalry and heritage family horses.
“We don’t know, but again, it’s trespass horses we’ve had the courts help us categorize these particular animals,” says Col. Sullivan.
While the army has decided to get rid of the horses, a public comment period on how to do it ends the first week of September. And that’s where the real concern comes in.
“These are wild horses. These are not horses that can be domesticated, they can’t be trained, they can’t be broken, they’re not for pets, they’re not for riding,” says Brocato.
Mary and Teresa are concerned some of the horses could end up at slaughterhouses, something we asked Col. Sullivan about.
He says they currently give out permits for people to capture horses on the post—but there is a four horse per year limit, and they must sign an agreement that prohibits slaughtering the animals. But there’s no mechanism to track what happens after they’re sold.
He says capture permits and attempts to sterilize the horses have not controlled the horse population.
Still, Teresa says there are too many unanswered questions to come up with a solution just yet.
“It’s hard to pin down the number of horses, where they came from….you can’t solve a problem if the waters all muddy.”
One thing both sides agree on is the safety of soldiers. How to get there is where they differ. Advocates for the horses would like to see the abandoned ones adopted out, and find a way to keep the wild horses away from training grounds. After the public comment period ends, Fort Polk officials will present options to the Commanding General. He will announce his decision in January and it will be followed by another public input period.