Guardians Fight the Army to Save Wild Horses

Kelsey Jukam

BATON ROUGE, La. (CN) — Horse-lovers have already saved 50 of them, but a Louisiana conservation group is suing the Army for its plan to remove hundreds more free-roaming horses — some of them descended from herds brought by Spanish conquistadores — from Fort Polk military base and Kisatchie National Forest.

The Pegasus Equine Guardian Association says the “Kisatchie horses” play a “significant historic and cultural role” in the landscape of Western Louisiana and that the Army’s plan to remove them all will “likely result in the slaughter” of many of them.

The Humane Society of North Texas has adopted 50 of the animals, and said it will take as many more as it can handle.

From 400 to 700 wild horses roam Fort Polk and the adjacent Kisatchie National Forest. There are two herds: undomesticated Kisatchie horses that have lived without significant human contact for generations, and recently abandoned domesticated horses.

Pegasus says on its website there is evidence the Kisatchie horses are descended from those brought by Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s, and from horses brought by settlers in the 1800s. Some are related to U.S. Cavalry horses released after World War II.

While many community members call the horses wild, a Louisiana federal judge ruled in 2002 that the horses are not wild, but “trespass” livestock.

Wild horses are protected from capture and death by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The Army decided last year that the horses must be removed because they interfere with military training and pose health and safety concerns to soldiers and civilians. It began removing the horses in November as trespass animals.

Pegasus asked the federal court to enjoin the Army from removing any more horses until it prepares an environmental impact statement, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Fort Polk did an environmental assessment this year on ways to eliminate the trespass horses and concluded that none of the proposed courses of action, which included sterilization and euthanization, would have a significant impact on the environment.

Brigadier Gen. Gary Brito, commanding general of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center, said in the environmental assessment that he chose a plan that allows organizations or people to adopt the horses before they are sold at auction.

This “does not involve euthanizing any horse,” he said, but will keep the horses from interfering in military training and protect them from accidental injuries.

According to the environmental assessment, the horses “frequently wander on to the numerous weapons ranges while those ranges are active for live fire exercises.” The horses also roam onto public highways.

But in its Dec. 14 lawsuit, Pegasus says the Army committed to its plan without “assessing the harm to horses themselves,” without assessing “the adverse effects on historical and cultural resources,” and “without including the most basic baseline data in the analysis,” including such a simple fact as how many horses are on Fort Polk.

The Army’s plan relies primarily on nonprofit animal welfare organizations adopting the horses. The Army will sell unadopted horses at auction.

But Pegasus says that because many of the horses are undomesticated, “they are not attractive to individuals seeking to adopt a riding horse” and are unlikely to be adopted. It says horses sold at auction are often bought by “kill buyers,” which take them to slaughterhouses in Mexico in Canada.

Many of the Kisatchie horses have already been saved from such a fate.

The Humane Society of North Texas is at top of the list of nonprofit animal welfare groups that Fort Polk contacts when horses have been rounded up and are ready to be retrieved.

The organization has already retrieved 50 of the horses and plans to take as many as the Army rounds up from the area.

Sandy Shelby, executive director of the organization, said the horses will stay in the Humane Society’s care until they are adopted by vetted adopters. She said the horses retrieved from Fort Polk are in “great health” and “settling in really well.”

Shelby understands why community members would want to “protect their heritage” by keeping the horses in Louisiana, but said the animals have “a better life” in North Texas, where they have a protected 10-acre pasture, shelter, fresh water, daily meals and “no one is shooting at them.”

“From an animal advocate’s standpoint, I think that I would just be happy that they’re with a reputable organization that’s going to do right by them,” she said. “We feel a very protective role here in making sure we do what’s right for them.”

Shelby said it’s commendable that the Army is reaching out to “legitimate, respectable horse rescue organizations,” instead of letting kill buyers take them.

“It could be a lot worse,” Shelby said.

Fort Polk spokeswoman Kim Reischling said the base “stands behind” the “democratic right” for Pegasus to fight the Army in court.

“It’s our job now, as it is for every American citizen and organization, to allow due process to run its course,” Reischling said.

Pegasus is represented by Tulane Environmental Law Clinic student attorney Samantha Pfotenhauer and supervising attorney Machelle Hall, in New Orleans.

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