The Historical Importance of the Wild and Free Roaming Horses of Fort Polk, Peason Ridge & Kisatchie National Forest, Louisiana

While free roaming wild equine herds in early settlement regions of the United States are quickly disappearing from our American landscape, they can still be found in Kisatchie National Forest (KNF), Louisiana. While each herd member is an integral part of their family band, many are also unique remnants of early horses that inhabited the Kisatchie region with homesteaders and indigenous people well over a century ago. Generations of herds were self sufficient with the lands’ fresh water, grass varieties and the seclusion of dense and vast stands of trees to shelter them from the elements, long before there ever was a Fort Polk. And they are still there, living with their families and herd bands that make this region their home.

Many were descended from Native American tribes, heritage families, settlers and farmers in the area that had been used for many purposes as they toiled to carve out a rugged existence in the early years, long before Louisiana became a state in 1812. Yet Fort Polk Army Base wants to eliminate them. The herds, previously estimated by the military to be at least 600, have roamed in Kisatchie National Forest for well over a century. But now, (since September 2015) there may be hundreds less. Referred to by generations of locals as Range Horses, Choctaw Horses, or Piney Woods Horses. They have peacefully grazed in the wide open grassy and remote wooded areas for as long as they can remember…many are descendants of horses that had been there much longer.

Horses arrived with both Spanish and French settlers as early as the 15th & 16th century in the Sabine Parish area. View “The Arrival of Horses into the Americas” to see that horses were distributed in early America, right across the Kisatchie Region: http://www.galiceno.org/history-of-horses-in-the-americas.html

Louisiana Conquest Trails

The Caddoans (a group of Native American tribes) traded horses with other existing tribes and settlers to the north and eastward past the Mississippi.  “Caddoan sites, although not abundant, occur on most districts of the Kisatchie National Forest.” 

http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/kisatchie/landmanagement/resourcemanagement/?cid=fsbdev3_024697

galiceno horses.PNG
The Arrival of Horses into the Americas – http://www.galiceno.org/

Hundreds of range bred small, compact horses (regarded in modern times as Spanish Colonial Horses), were brought or migrated north and east ward, across Louisiana and toward the western states, where wild horses also can be still be found.

For Native American and settlement history, reference “A Good Home for a Poor Man: Fort Polk and Vernon Parish, 1800-1940”  and for additional reference,  “A Soldiers Place in History: Fort Polk, Louisiana” both funded by the United States Department of Defense.

Both reference horses, Spanish and Indigenous Tribes.  Here are a few excerpts:

There are at least 56 references to to Horses in, “A Good Home for a Poor Man: Fort Polk and Vernon Parish, 1800-1940” , here are 2 significant references to horses:  

“The Spanish provided horses, cattle, and Indian slaves (Bolton 1962:39; Jeter et al. 1989:253; Webb and Gregory 1986:23).” Pg 30

“The first Anglo-American settlers often found wild horses and cattle in the woods,” Pg. 50

There are at least 70 references to to Horses in, “A Soldiers Place in History: Fort Polk, Louisiana”

“The National Guard fiasco during the second maneuvers in August 1940, when the 23rd Cavalry Division’s rented horses became so exhausted they had to be abandoned,” Pg. 51

“Some cavalry horses escaped permanently during the maneuvers and mated with local herds. In the late 1990s, wild offspring of the cavalry’s horses still roamed Peason Ridge.” Pg. 85

“Political horse-trading helped boost the chances for yet another reopening,” Pg.183

Thousands of horses and mules served as locomotion to support the area’s massive logging industry that is historically recorded as the foremost business for Vernon Parish and surrounding areas in the early 1900’s. Read about the area’s rich logging history that spans almost a century back and a 6+ acre corral site area that housed cattle, horses and mules in the southeast section of Sabine Parish, LA. Reference: http://www.sfasu.edu/heritagecenter/7552.asp

While there were others, one sawmill town in the Sabine Parish area alone had over 2000 inhabitants. Some 90 years ago, loosed horses and mules ran in Peason Ridge and other areas of Kisatchie, along with existing wild horses after wide spread logging work ceased.

In later years, loosed livestock remained after heritage families and sharecroppers were forced to leave their land, taken for Camp Polk’s military training use in the 1930’s. Additionally, while Thoroughbred cross military mounts were produced through the United States Breeding Program and imported into Louisiana to serve at Camp Polk, a smaller more compact Spanish type horse, owned by local families near Camp Polk and Peason Ridge areas have never been given their due credit for their roles as military training mounts at Camp Polk. Hundreds of local heritage families’ horses not only helped to colonize and farm Louisiana, but they also helped to PROTECT Camp Polk soldiers and our country during Camp Polk training operations, due to the shortage of imported Cavalry horses in WWII era. Reports further indicate loosed equines into the in the Kisatchie Forest during and many decades after the WWII era. Reference: http://www.livestockconservancy.org/index.php/heritage/internal/colonialspanish

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Pegasus Equine Guardian Association (PEGA) formed to unify efforts to preserve and protect these free roaming herds. PEGA asserts that the free roaming herds of Kisatchie have been a part of Louisiana’s local culture since its early beginnings, and therefore should have Heritage standing, as descendants of the animals that toiled alongside homesteaders that shaped the early history of parishes in and around Kisatchie National Forest.

Follow PEGA here: https://pegasusequine.wordpress.com.

PEGA contends that while the army has use of Kisatchie National Forest land, National Forests are for the Public. The Multiple Use Sustained Yield (MUSY) Act of 1960 named multiple uses: including recreation, range, timber watershed, wildlife, and fish. The Act stated that no specific use could predominate. This carried over to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, in which scenic drives were often mentioned under Recreation. PEGA asserts that the proposed “elimination” of the Kisatchie area free roaming equines, does not fulfill the interests of the citizens who cherish their natural beauty and recognize that their ancestors were a vital and important part of Louisiana history. A common ground that allows for public interests (which include enjoying the beauty of the free roaming equines) to be preserved in the Kisatchie region, needs to be explored.

There should be a better set of solutions available, that may, in the end, include a mix of finding good adopters for some horses, non- permanent fertility control for others, and remain in place for yet others, along with some herd control measures to keep horses away from sensitive areas of the fort property. But the only way to find the best solutions is to engage in honest and open consultation with as many experienced humane organizations, equine welfare organizations and experts, as well as local stakeholders. We do not want this to continue without first fully and ethically considering the potential effects on the welfare of the horses, as well as the potential effects on the cultural landscape per section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, a complete Environmental Impact Statement, work to find sanctuary with Kisatchie’s 604,000 acres and there should be an organization included whose sole purpose is to protect the welfare of these animals.
The horses should be protected and their long-term welfare considered regardless if they have been abandoned, if they are generationally wild or otherwise wild, their welfare is at stake.

The capture “program” the army has had in place for years left the animals at high risk for injury. A ranger indicated in August of last year that attempts at captures and loading by individuals who brought portable panels had been largely unsuccessful; leaving the animals more skittish and prone to injury during future attempts. While all equines at Fort Polk and Peason Ridge areas should be treated humanely, some escaped rough and painful capture attempts last year and were photographed. Disturbing images included multiple ropes pulled tightly around a horse’s neck. Another horse roamed with an arrow dart stuck in it’s body. At least one young horse died from injuries an/or possible lethal dose sustained during a “dart” capture attempt.

While a civilian contractor army “public relations” spokesperson coined captures as “adoptions”, once separated from their families and they leave Kisatchie National Forest, these animals have been openly advertised for sale or trade, leaving them lost to any accountability for their future welfare or whereabouts. There are pens and corrals on both Fort Polk and Peason Ridge areas, however it is unclear if some individuals are using them or even the barriers of the training villages for their rough captures and removals. In past years, foals from Kisatchie were orphaned when their dams (mothers) were captured and reportedly sent to slaughter.

In fact, every year, thousands of America’s wild and domestic equines are shuffled through the hands of multiple individuals in the horse trader business. They are pulled from everything they know and some eventually pass through wrong hands into the dangers of legal sale into the horse slaughter industry. While the number of animals designated on paperwork as “pleasure” instead of “slaughter” animals, that go across our US borders for the purpose of slaughter is unknown, >147,000 (2014) and >130,000 (2015) United States equines are documented to have perished to the horse slaughter industry. They suffer from stress and dehydration in crowded trailers and disease ridden feedlots that many others before them were kept in; where they compete for food and water, and often contract contagious viruses and respiratory illness, fever, colic, fungal, mange or bacterial skin infections from wounds they have endured, before meeting heinous, brutal practices in Mexican non European Union regulated slaughter plants.

“Dr. Sponenberg supports the Plaintiff’s efforts to compel the Defendant, the Army, to study the impacts of Choctaw Horses being removed from Fort Polk.

The Choctaw Horse is a genetically rare and important strain that is vulnerable to extinction. Extinction does not threaten only the sort of wild and exotic species featured in documentary films. There are also specific, genetically rare and important strains within otherwise larger populations of creatures. Some of these strains, such as certain domesticated or feral horse strains, are vulnerable to extinction. The Choctaw Horse strain is one such genetically rare and important strain, and it is threatened with extinction. In this case, extinction threatens to not only destroy a culturally significant organism, but also to reduce the genetic diversity of horse populations worldwide.

The direness of the ongoing loss of genetic diversity in domesticated and feral horses
cannot be understated. The last of the true wild horses went extinct in what is now modern Poland in 1627. Thus, the need to conserve the remaining unique genetic characteristics among domesticated and feral horse populations is essential. Once a strain dies off, the genetically unique characteristics associated with that strain and related phenotypes are gone forever as well.

Congress enacted NEPA and NHPA to provide a procedural safeguard for when federal action threatens vulnerable populations like the Choctaw Horses at Fort Polk. The Plaintiff has already briefed the NEPA and NHPA issues in its Complaint (Compl., ECF No. 1) and the Plaintiff’s Memorandum in Support of its Motion for Partial Preliminary Injunction (Pl.’s Mem. Prelim. Inj., ECF No. 44-1), and amicus supports the Plaintiff’s arguments. Amicus presents here an entirely new facet of the Plaintiff’s case: the Army’s failure to consider the environmental and historical impacts that the horse removal operation will have on the Choctaw Horse strain and overall impact on worldwide horse genetic diversity

The Fort Polk horses, evaluated by Dr. Sponenberg through photographs, have an appearance—or type—consistent with the Colonial Spanish type. Dec’l at ¶4(a). Based solely on the photographs it appears that the population at Fort Polk contains Choctaw Horses.

It may seem odd that wildlife would fit within a law expressly dedicated to preserving historic “places” and “properties,” but federal courts hold that the NHPA does indeed protect wildlife like the Choctaw Horse as statutory “historic properties.”

The Army failed to properly consider the historical and cultural significance of Choctaw Horses or their eligibility for inclusion in the NRHP. It is clear that the Choctaw Horses at Fort Polk are eligible for inclusion in the NRHP and the Army’s failure to even consider the horses’ eligibility amounts to a violation of the NHPA and the APA.”

Read the entire Brief here: Amicus Brief Filed By Dr Phillip Sponenberg in support of Louisiana’s Unique Wild and Free Roaming Horses 

A few notes: Unlike ruminant species such as cattle and white tailed deer that completely break down ingested seeds, migratory equines that are non ruminants deposit plant seeds in their droppings, helping to proliferate ground cover that helps prevent erosion. The modern horse, E. caballus, an originally *native species to North America became extinct 8,500-11,000 years ago and was re introduced by the Spaniards to the coastal islands and mainland of the southeastern United States by the early 1500’s. Trails carved by animals like bison and deer, in their seasonal migrations, were followed by explorers, pioneers, and Native Americans into the American Wilderness; that brought numbers of these highly adaptable horses from the South and East, to the Great Plains. After Smallpox outbreaks among early settlements and Indians, loosed horses known as Mustangs increased in numbers and reverted back to the wild. Although their numbers reached 2 million by the early 1800’s, tens of thousands were removed, killed or sent to slaughter up until the present. Since the early 1970’s, many species of wildlife and plants have been excessively hunted or eliminated, forever changing our ecosystems’ fragile dynamics and our American landscape. Since the Free Roaming and Wild Horse and Burros Act of 1971 was passed to protect our country’s free roaming equines, their numbers are now estimated to be less than 30,000 due to roundups from Public Lands, to make way for grazing cattle leases and energy agenda that only a few profit from. With the loss of wildlife, our country’s wild horses and burros and degraded ecology, what legacy will be left for our children?

A lil video inspiration

Author’s note: Research references for this writing include Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., http://equinewelfarealliance.org/Equine_Datal.html, Louisiana Historian Rickey Robertson, numerous scientific articles and historical periodicals regarding the establishment of early Louisiana

By Kimberly Sheppard edited 08/27/2016 This note will be updated as needed 

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