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Five horses found shot dead in military training area near Fort Polk, officials say

The military has launched an investigation after Fort Polk personnel found five horses apparently shot to death in a forested area near the western Louisiana Army base, officials said. The animals were found in Peason Ridge, a military training area that's also home to herds of horses that have long roamed free. 

No soldiers were training in the area when the animals were killed, Fort Polk public affairs officer Kim Reischling told CBS News, though hunters are known to frequent the area. The military has launched an investigation, Reischling said.

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In this Sept. 20, 2014 file photo provided by the U.S. Army, feral horses graze in front of a soldier riding in an armored Humvee at the Fort Polk Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. Sgt. William Gore/U.S. Army 40th Public Affairs Detachment via AP

The Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk personnel conduct exercises on nearly 200,000 acres of land in Vernon Parish, with about half owned by the Army and the remainder comprising the Kisatchie National Forest, according to the Times Picayune newspaper. Fort Polk officials in 2016 estimated about 700 to 750 so-called "trespass horses" occupied U.S. Army training lands on Fort Polk and the Peason Ridge Military Training Area. 

While animal advocates say generations of horses have roamed the area for centuries, the military argues they create a potential safety hazard and disrupt training. The Army initiated an environmental review before ordering the horses removed and adopted out last year, a decision that has caused outcry among advocates who say attempting to relocate them will be difficult and that they will likely end up sold for slaughter.

Advocate groups including the Pegasus Equine Guardian Association filed suit against the Army and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2016 in an attempt to stop the removal process, reported the Times Picayune. The paper reports that some of the horses in the Peason Ridge area are believed to be descendants of horses brought to the area by Spanish settlers and traded with Choctaw tribes. The Pegasus Equine Guardian Association on their website call the horses "culturally, historically, and genetically significant."

The group's president, Amy Hanchey, wrote in a press release posted on Facebook Monday that she saw the bodies of the five horses, which were apparently shot from a nearby gravel road. Hanchey said the killings appeared deliberate and "not a case of 'mistaken for a deer.'"

"This intentional malicious behavior must not be tolerated. No true hunter would do something this reprehensible," Hanchey wrote.  "Local and federal authorities in the area should make it clear that killing horses is not allowed."