The approximately 800 horses that roam freely on Fort Polk, and what to do about them, if anything, has been a topic of conversation for years. The topic has moved from talk to action, and that has generated still more talk.
The primary mission of Fort Polk is to support home-stationed units by providing superior training opportunities at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). With this mission in mind, there are some questions that the Army had to consider regarding the horses.
Are these animals interfering with, or degrading, the mission of JRTC? How are the horses' quality of life being affected by the trainings that take place on Fort Polk? Is the impact extreme enough that action must be taken to eliminate the problem?
According to the Final Environmental Assessment for the Elimination of the Trespass Horses, as they are officially called, "a population of trespass horses exists at Fort Polk. As their population has grown over time, the horses are now roaming all over the Army base, creating conflicts with training activities, and safety concerns for Fort Polk and surrounding communities, as well as causing injuries to the horses."
Due to these particular concerns, it has been determined that action must be taken to remove the horses from the base in order to resolves these issues.
Based on the moniker of the process, "Elimination of the Trespass Horses," many people are worried about the well-being of the animals upon their removal. As indicated in countless letters and emails from concerned local citizens, the word elimination was particularly alarming.
According to Garrison Commandern Colonel David "Gregg" Athey, the word elimination was specifically decided upon to make it clear that the problem is what is being eliminated.
Athey made certain to convey that the horses will not be euthanized or harmed in any way. In fact, one main objective in this process is to humanely place horses with caring owners. He pointed out that he "is a horse lover, rider, and comes from a Cavalry lineage."
The proposed action plan is being implemented in order to reduce safety risks, training impacts, and threats to the health of the horses posed by their presence on Army-owned property at Fort Polk.
Other issues that arise are public safety and property damage, various possible equine infectious diseases, as well as hygienic concern, such as mass quantities of manure in areas frequented by soldiers who are potentially running, crawling, or even sleeping in the areas.
Colonel Athey sais there have been times when soldiers sleeping on the ground at night have awakened in the morning to find themselves surrounded by these horses, which can be quite dangerous.
There are many large, open spaces on the base, such as drop zones, landing strips, and the Digital Multi-Purpose Battle Access Course, which are maintained for training purposes. They are often reseeded with grasses to combat erosion due to training activity.
For a significant portion of the year, the horses congregate and graze in large numbers on these areas which are heavily utilized during training. This can pose a significant danger to the horses and a hinderance to the soldiers' ability to train effectively and safely.
The horses have become so accustomed to training activity, that "they are unfazed and desensitized to combat simulation," said Athey. They do not necessarily abandon the drop zones or landing strips simply because they are being utilized.
Clearing the horses from these areas has proven only a temporary solution, as they generally reassemble immediately after being cleared. Soldiers parachuting into the drop zones risk landing on or among the horses and being injured as a result. The same goes for aircraft attempting to utilize landing strips.
The presence of horses is a continual threat to safety, needlessly endangering lives and resources, hence the decision to remove them, officials said.
The horse population also poses a risk to civilians as they routinely cross public roads when they migrate between Fort Polk and adjacent properties. Automobile/horse collisions can be particularly dangerous due to the size of the animals.
The Garrison Commander said police reports showed there was a particularly shocking incident where "three horses were killed on the highway as they were accidentally hit by a recreational vehicle (RV)." The horses have also been known to travel onto nearby private areas, causing damage to the landowners’ property.
In order to gather public opinion regarding the trespass horses, a "town hall-type meeting was held in Leesville at City Hall with Mayor Rick Allen," Athey reported. "Over 180 emails and letters were received during the comment phase of this process, and they were used in the development of various action plans," he said.
Some of the commenters questioned whether the animals may be descendants of Army Cavalry horses from World War II, or horses owned by families that had to leave Fort Polk when it was established in the early 1940s. Others suggested that a contraceptive drug be used to sterilize horses, preventing reproduction and growth of the population. In conjunction with Louisiana State University (LSU), according to Colonel Athey, "the sterilization idea was utilized to curb reproduction" but this was a temporary fix as the "darting of female horses only lasts two years."
The overall public consensus was genuine concern for the horses after their removal from the base. No one wants to see them sent to a slaughter house, as numerous emails/letters stated, or harmed/killed for any reason.
Many members of the local community had valid concerns, which were received by Fort Polk, who evaluated, researched, and considered them in great depth.
Some people were worried that the horses "would be sold and cruelly slaughtered in Mexico." Others expressed that they felt "wild" horses, or those who are "historic descendants of the World War II Cavalry" should be left alone. Some conveyed that with over "100,000 acres [on Fort Polk], the horses do not need to be removed."
A number of citizens raised the issue of whether the horses are covered under the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Protection Act of 1971. A court found that these are indeed "trespass" horses, that have roamed from adjacent ranches and farm areas onto military and Forest Service lands. It was determined that there is no credible evidence showing that they are or ever were "wild horses," hence they are not covered by this Act.
Other than this, any negative response to the removal of the horses was for concern over any historic connection. As it turns out, the majority of these animals are qualified as trespass horses due to local dumping of personal horses. Many of these horses are clearly domesticated, being found wearing bridals, some are branded, and they often exhibit behaviors of domestic animals, officials noted.
Colonel Athey stated that "a museum historian determined that the Army had a process for decommissioning cavalry horses." They were not just abandoned, but "were sent to centers to be auctioned off." He stated emphatically, "these horses are not descendants of the cavalry."
Seven courses of action were developed, with the input from the local community and various experts on the matter. Along with safety of personnel and the horses, it was important to assess whether any of the proposed courses of action would pose environmental consequences.
Wayne Farris, Fort Polk Range Control, explained that "water, soil, and air quality were considered and evaluated, along with the possibility of effect upon other species of animals in the area." It was determined that none of the presented courses of action would have significant impact on the environment in any notable or detrimental way.
With many years of research, observation, personal accounts, and data, Gary M. Brito, Brigadier General at Fort Polk, decided on August 8, 2016, to implement the seventh course of action (COA), the only one that "does not involve euthanizing any horse, but will satisfy the purpose and need for this action within a reasonable time period. The horses will no longer interfere with training activities or pose safety concerns for Fort Polk and surrounding communities."
This course of action states that the horses will be adopted, given away, sold, and relocated.
In a partnership with the LSU, 25-35 horses at a time will be corralled into, approximately, two-acre lots. They will then be offered to nonprofit organizations who will take ownership of the horses and administer an adoption program for private individuals.
Any horses which still remain will be offered to the general public on a first-come, first-serve basis. Interested parties will be vetted to ensure they have good intentions and are equipped to properly accommodate the horses. This cycle will be repeated as many times as necessary.
Fort Polk will continuously reassess the process to determine its effectiveness, and the time frames necessary to work with willing nonprofit organizations.