NEW ORLEANS — Fort Polk can keep rounding up and getting rid of feral horses while waiting for trial of a lawsuit attempting to stop the roundups, a federal judge has ruled.
However, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote also said a group formed to protect the horses may argue that some of the Fort Polk horses may be descendants of those brought to the New World by Spanish colonists and then bred by Choctaw Indians.
The Army contends that "trespass horses" are a safety risk in training areas.
Foote, in Shreveport, accepted a magistrate judge's findings that Pegasus Equine Guardian Association has not proved that people whose families lost land when the Army base was created in 1941 would suffer irreparable harm if more horses are sent away.
Most of the horses are on about 48,000 acres (19,400 hectares) in the Kisatchie National Forest — part of 90,000 acres (36,400 hectares) of forest land that the base uses for training, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Jim Caldwell has said.
Pegasus concedes that horses would remain in the Forest even after all of the horses are removed from Fort Polk, and has not proved that the Army will eliminate every horse on its land before the case is decided, Magistrate Judge Kathleen Kay wrote.
She wrote that the Army removed more than 100 horses from October 2016 through January 2018, placing them with nonprofit groups, and estimated that 500 to 700 remained in January. "The Army expects to be able to capture only between ninety and one hundred twenty horses in the next six to nine months and that it will take approximately three years to remove all the horses," she wrote in March.
Foote's order was signed Wednesday and put online Thursday.
Pegasus Equine Guardian Association sued the Army in 2016.
In April, the group filed papers saying Dr. Philip Sponenberg, an expert in Choctaw horses, could provide "an entirely new facet" of the case: arguments that the Army failed to consider that its roundups could destroy a rare group of horses.
Photographs of some Fort Polk horses "show physical traits typical of the old Colonial Spanish type, which is rare among other horses in the United States," Sponenberg wrote, noting that horses with those traits generally turn out to have DNA that proves their heritage.
If these are colonial Spanish horses, he wrote, "this population would be a high priority for conservation as a genetic resource that is otherwise rare in North America."
Foote's order said that Sponenberg may file his friend-of-the-court brief, making it part of the record.
She also stepped aside from further hearings in the case, turning it over to an "unassigned district judge."