Herds of wild (more properly called “feral”) horses roam the United States under many jurisdictions, and they’re not always welcomed with open arms. One of the most unusual–and contentious–flareups has been the fight over the fate of a herd in Louisiana that chooses to range the US military base at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The US Army wants the trespassers to leave. The horses’ defenders want the Army to keep their hands off them. The next range they’ll roam will be the US court system, as advocates sue to protect the rights of the wild horses most of us never even knew were there.
An advocacy group called the Pegasus Equine Guardian Association (PEGA) is rounding up support for its day in court with the US Army at Louisiana’s Fort Polk. The struggle between advocates and the military goes back to the first roundups in the 1990s. At that time, state officials were accused of pressuring federal interests to the horses off their land.
When they stand before the judge, the advocates will have legal assistance from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), a group that prestigious Tulane University describes as “Louisiana’s premier public interest environmental legal services organization”. In the meantime, the first group of 50 rounded-up Fort Polk horses has been transported to the Humane Society of North Texas, where they will be put up for adoption.
The formal legal action was filed on December 14, 2016, on behalf of those who believe the horses should stay–and have every right to do so. The legal defense is built on the implied protection of the horses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). PEGA claims a historic standing for these horses, based on the existence of feral horses in this part of the state dating back to the days before Louisiana became a state in 1812. Early settlers in the area mentioned the feral horses. A genetic cross-populating of Native American and Spanish Colonial horses is believed to be at the root of the herd’s ancestry; the lawsuit claims that these horses are “a critical component of the cultural history in Western Louisiana”. In the years just before World War II, the land at question–feral horses and all–was appropriated as a military base and became known as Fort Polk.
In the latest attempt to oust the equines, the US Army called for public comment on the possible removal of the horses. In May of this year, according to the lawsuit, the military issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (“FONSI”) regarding removal of the horses. As a result of the FONSI, the military declared that an Environmental Impact Statement would not be necessary, and the horses could be collected by base personnel in groups of 10 to 30 horses at a time. Outside agencies would have a short window of time to claim these horses for adoption, with any leftover animals being sold to a bottom tier of contacts for public sale.
The suit names the U.S. Army, Brigadier General Gary M. Brito (in his official capacity as Commanding General), the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC), and Fort Polk itself as defendants.
The military has been rounding up and removing horses from the base since at least 1993, according to a timeline for the herd. Back in 2002, the TELC was instrumental in gaining a court order that stopped a planned roundup on Fort Polk until the Army could develop a management plan. As a result, in 2010, the Army decided to attempt sterilization of the horses, to return them to Army land, and to allow them “to roam free” rather than to remove them. That lawsuit named the Army, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Forest Service as co-defendants.
Fast forward five years, and they’re headed back to court again.
At the heart of the matter is whether the horses are indeed “trespassing” or if they have a right to be there. Are horses truly at risk, as the Army claims, when the military undertakes night training on the base? Or, should the military plan to work around the horses as long as they decide to stay? Are they part of the environment or an impediment to military operations?
It may be up to a judge who has never seen the horses or the land or the military base to decide.
No two herds alike
While most publicity is given to feral herds that roam on tracts of federal land administered by the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the fate of our feral horses is actually decided under a tapestry of jurisdictions, some of which may or may not have official policies on how to handle the horses that live on their land, or that may wander onto it.
The National Park Service makes decisions about the horses roaming in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over feral horses on the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in such strikingly different places as the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. Some feral herds fall under managed by state wildlife or coastal management departments. On the island of Vieques off Puerto Rico, wild horses roam the abandoned U.S. military base, but are being helped this winter with a contraception program from the Humane Society of the United States, at the request of the local mayor.
But how many are facing decisions made by the Pentagon? Possibly, only one.
In the more conventional jurisdictions, federal agencies work on management plans to monitor the growth or attrition of herds and to gauge the effects that the horses have on other species and on the ecosystem. Horses are longtime residents on these lands, but their status has changed over the years, and thanks to public pressure, for some.
In most cases, government policies contend that feral horses are a non-native, or even invasive, species, since horses were re-introduced to North America in colonial times. Advocates believe that they deserve protection as a legitimately re-introduced species–and that if horses are not native, then cattle certainly have no more rights to graze on the land than they do.
Pubic pressure is not always a positive force for the future of horses, since influence can be felt from agricultural, mining, hunting or recreation lobbyists who want more access to more land for their sponsors, and who have plenty of bargain powering at the state levels, as well as in Washington. Horses are not their priority.
Feral horses don’t have lobbyists. Their route to salvation is through direct public pressure, of the “write to your congressional representative today!” type.
The problem for feral horses is one of public relations. Their future is often not an issue until they or their habitats are threatened, triggering publicity campaigns by advocates to build public support and legal funding on behalf of the horses. Sometimes advocates have small volunteer-only organizations with limited resources and political access. These campaigns may be based as much on emotion as on facts, since there may be little time to educate the public on the history and ecology of a group of feral horses in a remote location, and because horses–especially the idealized concept of “wild” horses–appeal to many people as a part of nature that should be protected and even revered.
In the case of the horses at Fort Polk, a precedent may be set for other feral horses who migrate onto public or military land, or for how the government may proceed when appropriating or acquiring land that is home to feral horses. It might be the biggest decision yet about a herd of horses no one ever heard of, until today.
How many more are out there?
Read the text of the lawsuit here: