The Historical Importance of the Wild and Free Roaming Horses of Fort Polk, Peason Ridge & Kisatchie National Forest
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 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 livestock of 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 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 first arrived with French settlers as early as the 1690’s 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 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.”
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” Funded by the United States Department of Defense. Read on line version with photographs, pictures, maps and illustrations here:
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
The group 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.
We hope that the army will cease the elimination of the Fort Polk and Peason Ridge equines as these captures and removals do not fulfill the interests of humane animal welfare, or those of area citizens, whose ancestors were a part of early Louisiana.
There have been approx 40-50 commanding generals in Fort Polk’s history. PEGA and many citizens contend that the misjudgment of a temporary general (McGuire), should not have determined the equines’ potential demise. He relinquished his command to General Brito in May of this year, yet as of August 22 , 2016, the army has not fully complied with providing information as specified in 3 FOIA requests from PEGA, Tulane Law School and Animal Legal Defense Fund’s legal council staff. The seemingly sketchy and incomplete responses the army provided include information that could be dated, as opposed to more current information that is needed.
Equally concerning is that multiple advocates submitted proposals and offers to help these animals August of 2015 and it was announced that no decision would be made until after the first of the year. Yet, some hold the opinion that a few officials have continued to allow captures and removals. Additionally, the army may not have updated this list of advocates/potential adopters for close to a year now. And now, in the wake of the flooding in south central Louisiana, rescues (who normally don’t handle wild or range bred horses) are already beyond filled to capacity. There are still hundreds of misplaced animals, some are injured. Recovering from the flood disaster will take months. This could put the horses at Fort Polk in grave jeopardy if “given away…to any citizen” or sold at auction to anyone…for meat prices, should the army formally carry out it’s plans as specified in the Environmental Assessment (EA) here:
PEGA and other advocates would like to be a resource to document their numbers and to provide humane, responsible management of the animals that are in need of adoption or care, using low stress livestock handling techniques. Because there are 604,000 acres, the horses could be transported to another area, where they and other wildlife can live more peacefully and there, they could be responsibly and humanely managed. PEGA could also help facilitate any needed legitimate adoptions or placement of animals in sanctuaries.
Here is some history that brought us up to present- September 2015, PEGA submitted a request for public records including “statistics regarding the number of accidents that occurred as a result of the free roaming horses on the Fort Polk Base” pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A response dated February 23, 2016 indicated no record of training accidents involving any horses. This is likely because during rotations, the migratory equines and other animals do not stay in these areas because of the loud blasts and activity. Instead they seek quieter areas that span over some of 604,000 acres that is their home. The army intentionally uses livestock in their villages (in the training areas) for an element of “realism” during rotations, yet they wish to rid the horses from their home?
While PEGA understands that under General McGuire’s command, the army determined a need to reduce the herd numbers on its land within Kisatchie, Federal and State Animal Cruelty laws have remained the legal mandate for humane handling of equines. Because the army nor it’s civilian agents are exempt from compliance to these laws, PEGA sent cease and desist request letters to stop removals on October 2015 and December 2015 in an effort to communicate to the Government that PEGA’s belief is that its Equine Capture Program (that has been in effect since 2010), is in violation of state and federal regulations. Also, many reports allege removals occurred years before and during the army’s “capture program”.
There are pens and corrals on both Fort Polk and Peason Ridge areas; however it is unclear if individuals are using them or even the barriers of the training villages for captures, or if they are purely for the army’s Environmental Services use, possibly for reported sterilization or removals to control populations. It is important to note that Gelding or sterilizing horses living in the Wild as a solution for population control is a MISTAKE. It also skews the gene pool which could result in inbreeding, health defects and less hardiness in the horses that are left to survive on their own in the Wild. The “domesticated” point of reference to gelding or sterilization is not applicable for horses left in the Wild, they need ALL of the hormone driven instinct and genetic diversity that nature has given them for procreation, natural selection and survival.
The support of our elected officials, law enforcement and the public’s engagement is needed to help insure open dialogue with the army, its agents or U.S. Forestry, to determine best practice strategy and actions, that will insure humane treatment and responsible management of all equines. PEGA seeks to implement practices toward preserving their habitat, to facilitate legitimately needed adoptions and to document the future welfare of the equines, with the safety of the public and those enlisted at Fort Polk being paramount
Additionally, some have the opinion there is an imbalance in budgetary priority at Fort Polk. Concerns include the disrepair of a 6’ fence (erected after 9/11) that surrounds the base. Some ask if the army’s own Forestry Division plans for rotational burning of tree stands on tens of thousands of acres of land it owns or manages “for aesthetics” each fiscal year, why can’t they budget for fences to be kept in good repair for the safety of all? One elected official concerned citizens can contact is Charles W. Boustany Jr., at 202-225-2031 (Ways and Means). Although this area is not his district, he may be influential with some of his peers in other districts.
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.
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.
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.
- KCS edited 08/27/2016 This note will be updated as needed