Some horse advocates want to see compromise in a plan being mulled by the U.S. Army over Fort Polk's "trespass" horses.
They are also calling for a moratorium on the permits being issued by the Army through its "public capture program" until a final decision is made.
The Army, in early August, published a "Notice of Intent to Conduct an Environmental Assessment for Proposed Action to Eliminate Trespass Horses at Fort Polk, LA." Officials received over 700 public comments and have said a decision won't be made until January.
According to the Army, the capture program has been underway for five years. An individual with a permit can check-in, enter Fort Polk lands to capture horses and then check-out. Individuals must sign a hold harmless agreement and limited right of entry statements. They must also promise not to sell the horses or allow them to be used as rodeo stock.
Army officials said as an added safeguard, no more than four trespass horses can be caught per person, per year. In a Sept. 23 news release from the Fort Polk Public Affairs Office, officials said, "This makes it economically unfeasible for someone seeking to profit to capture Fort Polk trespass horses."
But advocate Mary Brocato said there are concerns with that process. She said it's easy for the horses to fall in the hands of "kill buyers" and into the lucrative "slaughter pipeline." Advocates suspect, in some instances, that's happening.
"Well, it's big business and especially with these horses because they're getting the horses for free," Brocato said.
Brocato, a retired university professor and former investigative reporter, works with the Louisiana Horse Rescue Association and Fort Polk Horses of Kisatchie. She said advocates think there's a better way and they're attempting to appeal to the Army. Some call for responsible herd management or an adoption program with more safeguards.
"Please don't consider us just an annoyance because we are against the horses being eliminated. Let us find a way to all work together. Let us work out a compromise plan. We'd like to find a better plan and work with the Army so that the soldiers are safe, the people are safe and the horses are safe," Brocato said.
The horses are classified as "trespass" and are not protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
In 2000, the Coalition of Louisiana Animal Advocates, represented by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, filed suit in federal court, claiming the horses are protected. They were aiming to stop a proposed roundup of the horses amid fears, at the time, about Equine Infectious Anemia, or "swamp fever."
A year later, the COLAA's lawsuit was dismissed when the court upheld a decision by the U.S. Forest Service that said the horses were not wild.
That ruling was appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the appeals court upheld the suit's dismissal. A settlement, among other things, stipulated the horses are "trespass."
In 2004, despite the ruling and even though state lawmakers do not have regulatory authority over the horses, the Louisiana Legislature weighed in during a regular session. Members adopted a House Concurrent Resolution, authored by then-Rep. Warren J. Triche Jr., D-Thibodaux, expressing, "legislative support for federal management of wild horses on federal lands."
A section of the measure reads, "WHEREAS, there are hundreds of such unclaimed and unbranded horses living in free-roaming bands on the public lands of the Kisatchie National Forest and the lands of the Fort Polk Military Reservation, which horses, in most cases, were not only born on those lands, but are the progeny of generations of such horses, according to residents of the area; and WHEREAS, the U.S. Army has effectively managed these wild animals for decades and has and should retain the authority to continue to do so in a manner that is best for the well-being of the animals ..."
Army officials have long said the horses -- with a herd estimated at around 700 -- pose risks to soldiers.
Officials have said the horses themselves are at risk because of training devices such as concertina wire, live ammunition and military vehicles.
The horses also wander onto airstrips and into drop zones, creating a danger to both troops and aircraft, said Col. David "Gregg" Athey, Fort Polk Garrison Commander, who spoke with the West Central News Center at a public meeting in August.
"The horses tend to congregate on our drop zones, so they impact airborne operations. They also impact landing zones or landing strips for our fixed wing aircraft as well as in our rotary wing aircraft. Consequently, they represent a pretty significant safety risk to our soldiers, to the aircraft and equipment themselves, and frankly, they also are a hazard to the safety of the horses as well," he said.
Officials say there are no documented injuries to rotational soldiers because of the trespass horses. However, the Sept. 23 news release from Fort Polk quotes Athey: "The prevention of accidents and injury is important to the Army. The time to take steps to prevent a future tragedy is now."
State Rep. James K. Armes, D-Leesville, said he supports action by the Army because the horses pose a road hazard for motorists traveling La. 117 in the Peason Ridge area where the horses tend to roam.
"We're trying to do something to keep these horses off of the doggone roads for our kids. Especially the ones who go to Northwestern. As you know, a deer you can see their eyes, a horse you can't see their eyes. Most of these horses are all brown in color. So, at night, when they are on the road or on the side of the road, you can't see them," Armes said.
Brocato said she has researched the number of accidents involving horses and found that according Vernon Parish Sheriff's Office records, there were six road accidents logged in 2014-2015 involving horses. She said more road accidents were recorded involving deer or cattle.
Many people see the horses as part of the area's culture and heritage. Some believe they are descendants of old farm and pre-World War II cavalry horses, abandoned after the Louisiana Maneuvers. Army officials, however, maintain they are strays and are the result of an open range period in the state.
No one disputes that over the years, people have abandoned horses, dumping them with the herd.
Athey said there is no documentation that supports that the horses are connected to Polk's cavalry days.
"I will tell you there is no strong evidence, especially the number of horses that we have, that they are strongly connected to the heritage aspects," Athey said.
That supposed cavalry connection has been noted, however, in at least one historical publication funded by the Army. "A Soldier's Place in History, Fort Polk, Louisiana," by Sharyn Kane and Richard Keeton, was written in 2004. It was funded by the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk. The book was administered and published by the Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service.
In a chapter that covers the Louisiana Maneuvers, an article reads: "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."
Brocato said it doesn't matter if the horses are cavalry-linked or not. Horses, in general, she said, played a key role in the country's history -- and in the military.
"It's particularly painful to me, as an animal advocate, to see the military, which has utilized horses so much throughout history, decide to 'eliminate' ... that's their words ... horses," she said.
Brocato said she is hoping Army officials consider suggestions outlined by advocates and the public regarding the fate of the horses -- as well as their possibilities. One suggestion has been to implement a therapeutic program for soldiers using some of the horses.
"I grew up on a ranch. I raised and showed Arabian horses. My husband grew up in the thoroughbred business and I've always been a horse lover. I can tell you, there's nothing more therapeutic when you are anxious or depressed than getting around a horse and taking care of that horse -- feeding, watering it, brushing it and training it. I think if Fort Polk embarked on a program like this, it would become a model Army base to the rest of the country for a project like this," she said.
The resolution that lawmakers passed in 2004 suggests that the horses could be used to enhance certain training exercises.
"... adding an additional element of realism to real-world simulations which are part of the Army's training regimen, and because of this, Fort Polk Commanding General Samuel S. Thompson wrote in May, 1999: 'I don't want to lose those herds ...,' " it reads.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who heads up the Louisiana environmental advocacy group, the Green ARMY coalition, commented on the horses on Thursday through social media.
In a post, Honoré wrote, " ... the commanders at Ft Polk come and go about every two years, it appears previous commander allowed the horses and the new General want the horses gone, and we understand he may have good reason to thin the herd, but how its done is of great concern as many believe by giving the horses away they are being subjected to abuse and on the road to mexico slaughter house ..."
But Athey said Fort Polk has indeed eyed various alternatives and scores of assessments over the years. A catch-and-sterilization program has been ongoing, he said, but has proved to be ineffective. That's on the long list of reasons why officials are seeking out other options, he said.
"Because we do not think that sterilization is going to solve the immediate problem we have with the numbers. Because even with the sterilization program, the experts tell us it's going to take at least 30 years, even if that program is successful," Athey said.
A decision will ultimately be made by the installation's commanding general, Brig. Gen. Timothy P. McGuire. Officials have said the public responses gathered during the process "will help determine the appropriate scope of the Environmental Assessment (EA)." The comment period closed last month.
"The primary purpose is that we reduce and eliminate the risk for the safety of our soldiers and the units that are training here, but then also to ensure that the training mission is also not impeded as well," Athey said.