Most people probably associate the Australian Alps with skiing and snow. Others might think of the Man from Snowy River legend or the engineering feats of the Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme.
But few people know the region’s history of exploitation and overuse, nor the courage of those who fought to save this precious wilderness area. A new book, Kosciuszko: A Great National Park, tells that important story. The result, by authors Deirdre Slattery and Graeme L. Worboys, is a positive yet cautionary tale.
Today, the park is largely protected – yet threats such as ski tourism, feral horses and the Snowy 2.0 scheme still loom. And climate change has left the region highly vulnerable, as shown by declining snow depths and a massive bushfire that tore through the Snowy Mountains last summer.
The book shows how Kosciuszko National Park is the product of robust science and hard-fought battles by dedicated individuals – battles that continue to this day.
The Australian Alps in southeast New South Wales is the traditional home of three Aboriginal groups: the Ngarigo, Walgalu and Djilamatang people. It is home to Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko.
The book describes how squatters with cattle occupied the region from the 1820s. By 1840, the Snowy region had been stocked with 200,000 sheep, 75,000 cattle and 3,000 horses which grazed in the mountains each summer.
The discovery of gold in 1860 brought another 10,000 people to the Snowy Mountains. By the turn of the 20th century, the mountains were also a playground for recreation. Hotel Kosciusko, with 93 bedrooms, a ballroom, museum, skating rink and tennis courts, catered for an upmarket clientele.
In 1949 the mountains became the site for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme: 16 dams, 80 kilometres of aqueducts and more than 140 kilometres of tunnels.
By then, the signs of overuse were evident. Soils were eroding, streams became silted and unique alpine flora was diminishing.
Tannat William Edgeworth David, a professor at the University of Sydney, was one of the first to document the unique values of the Snowy Mountains and call for their protection.
In the 1800s, the notion that an ice age once gripped Australia was considered preposterous. The book tells how David and colleagues put the matter “absolutely beyond dispute” when they mapped, on Kosciuszko’s main range, the undeniable signature left by glaciers.
In the early 1900s, David urged that the alpine area be preserved:
[I]t would be wise policy, in the interest of people and of science, to reserve from occupation and even from the depasturing of stock, all the highest points of our alpine plateau, so that this floral wonderland may be preserved intact for posterity…
It took almost 50 years before this advice was heeded. Kosciuszko State Park — later Kosciuszko National Park – was proclaimed in 1944. A decade of further scientific research led to the end of summer grazing leases above 1,350 metres in 1958.
One of the first park managers was Neville Gare. As the book notes, Gare quickly learned that feelings over management of the mountains ran deep. Soon after rangers started impounding stock found illegally in the park, an effigy of a park ranger swinging from a hangman’s noose was installed on the veranda of the Jindabyne Hotel.
In 1950, Gare resisted a plan by head of the Ski Tourers Association, Charles Anton, to build a network of ski lodges. The book recounts how the tensions culminated at a public function when Anton snipped Gare’s tie in half to “indicate his indifference to Gare’s authority”. Some lodges were later built.
In his unpublished memoir, Gare wrote “it is not easy to conserve something and use it too”. In future years, this observation would prove all too true.
Gare and the Kosciusko State Park Trust developed the first formal plan of management for the park in 1965. The park was divided into zones for different uses: wilderness, conservation of exceptional natural and historic features, development, hydro-electricity and tourism.
This zoning was radical thinking at the time but has since been widely adopted in park management across Australia.
The plan of management for Kosciuszko National Park has been frequently amended to accommodate more tourism facilities, and the threat of further development is ever-present. As the authors note, further pressure is also coming via Snowy 2.0, a A$5 billion proposal to expand the current hydroelectric scheme.
Climate change is also a threat. Rising temperatures have triggered a 15% decline in the annual maximum snow depth, relative to the 1961-90 average.
Climate change is also making the threat of bushfires worse. In January, the massive Adaminaby Complex fire burned through more than 93,000 hectares in the Snowy region, affecting swathes of bush. It also devastated populations of several threatened species, including the corroboree frog and the stocky galaxias fish.
And the lethal chytrid fungus, introduced to Australia, has pushed the park’s southern corroboree frog to the brink of extinction.
The book reminds us that today, as throughout history, Kosciuszko National Park needs protecting. And key to that are courageous, committed individuals – and robust science.
This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.
On a coastal holiday last summer, I was preoccupied. Bushfires were tearing through southeast Australia, and one in particular had me worried. Online maps showed it moving towards the last remaining population of a plucky little fish, the stocky galaxias.
I’ve worked in threatened fish conservation and management for more than 35 years, but this species is special to me.
The stocky galaxias was formally described as a new species in 2014. Its only known population lives in a short stretch of stream in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. A single event could wipe them out.
On January 2 the bushfires forced my family and I to evacuate our holiday home. As we returned to Canberra, I was still worried. Fire maps showed the stocky’s stream virtually surrounded by fire.
A few days later, I prepared for an emergency rescue.
The stocky galaxias is the monarch of its small stream; the only fish species present. I’ve been trying to protect the stocky galaxias before it was even formally recognised.
Over the last century or more, the species has seen off threats from predatory trout, storms, droughts and bushfires. Snowy 2.0 is the latest danger.
It’s listed as critically endangered in NSW and is being assessed for a federal threatened listing. Before the fires, there were probably no more than 1,000-2,000 adults left in the wild.
As the fires burned, I knew we had to move quickly. I wanted to collect up to 200 stocky galaxias and take them away for safekeeping.
Rainfall after bushfires is major threat to fish, because it washes ash and sediment into streams. Storms were forecast for the afternoon of January 15. So early that morning, myself and two colleagues, escorted by two staff from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, drove to the stocky galaxias stream.
A colleague and I waded in and began electrofishing. This involved passing an electrical current through water, stunning fish momentarily so we could catch them.
After 45 minutes we’d collected 68 healthy stocky galaxias. Woohoo! Further downstream we collected 74 more. By now, fire burned along the stream edge. We packed the fish into drums in the back of my car and drove out.
We headed to the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ trout hatchery at Jindabyne, where we measured each fish and took a genetic sample. I felt immensely relieved and satisfied that we’d potentially saved a species from extinction.
The fish have been thriving in the hatchery building. Stocky galaxias have never been kept in captivity before, but our years of field work told us the temperatures they encountered in the wild, so holding tanks could be set up appropriately.
The captive fish can be used for breeding, but the species has never been captive-bred before and this is not a trivial task.
When they’re reintroduced to the wild, the sites must be free of trout, and other invasive fish like climbing galaxias. Natural or artificial barriers should be in place to prevent invasive fish invasion.
In late March I finally got back to the stocky galaxias’ stream to see whether they’d survived. At the lower stretch of its habitat, the fire was not severe and the stream habitat looked good, with only a small amount of ash and sediment.
Upstream, the fire had been more severe. At the edge of the stream, heath was razed and patches of sphagnum moss were burnt. Again, sediment in the stream was not too abundant. But fish numbers were lower than normal, suggesting some there had not survived.
The stocky galaxias species might have survived yet another peril, but the battle isn’t over.
Feral horse numbers in Kosciuszko National Park have increased dramatically in the last decade. They’ve degraded the banks of the stocky galaxias’ stream, making it wider and shallower and filling sections with fine sediment. This smothers the fish’s food resources, spawning sites and eggs.
Before the fires, plans were already afoot to fence off much of the stocky galaxias habitat to keep horses out. Fire damage to the park has delayed construction until early 2021.
The biggest long-term threat to the species is the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro development. It threatens to transfer an invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, to within reach of stocky galaxias habitat. There, it would compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.
Despite this risk, in May this year the NSW government approved the Snowy 2.0 expansion, with approval conditions that I believe fail to adequately protect the stocky galaxias population. The project has also received federal approval.
The stocky galaxias is unique and irreplaceable. I want my grandchildren to be able to show their grandchildren this little Aussie battler thriving in the wild.
The damage wrought by Snowy 2.0 may not be apparent for several decades. By then many politicians and bureaucrats now deciding the future of the stocky galaxias will be gone, as will I.
But 2020 will go down in history as the year the species was saved from fire, then condemned to possible extinction.
This article is a preview of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a multimedia project launching on Monday July 13. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Sign up to The Conversation’s newsletter for updates.
In late summer, male northern corroboree frogs call for a female mate. It’s a good time to survey their numbers: simply call out “Hey, frog!” in a low, deep voice and the males call back.
This year, the survey was vital. Bushfires had torn through the habitat of the critically endangered species. We urgently needed to know how many survived.
In late February we trekked into Kosciuszko National Park, through a landscape left charred by the ferocious Dunns Road fire.
We surveyed the scene, calling out: “Hey, frog!”. At ponds not severely burnt, reasonable numbers of northern corroboree frogs responded. At badly burnt sites where frogs had been found for 20 years, we were met with silence. The adults there had likely died.
After completing our surveys we collected melted cameras we’d deployed eight months earlier to monitor water levels in the ponds. Some weeks later, these would reveal just what the frogs had endured.
Northern corroboree frogs are tiny – no longer than three centimetres long – and feature distinctive yellow and black stripes. They are listed as critically endangered, but are more abundant than their close relative, the southern corroboree frog.
They’re found only in the high country of southern New South Wales and the ACT. Before last summer’s bushfires, just a few thousand northern corroboree frogs were thought to remain in the wild. Our preliminary post-fire assessment indicates a substantial number might have died where fires were severe.
Of the frogs’ two key habitat areas in NSW, one was burnt by the fires and one was left untouched. Over the border in the ACT, the fire damage was relatively slight, but the worst came later.
After the fires, heavy rain in denuded burnt catchments produced water runoff laden with sediment. Some frog breeding habitat was eroded and filled with silt and ash. Once-mossy ponds were now gravel and ash.
In March 2019, we’d set up cameras to take one photograph a day, to monitor water levels in ponds. The fires melted the cameras, and some were also waterlogged. One of the authors, Ben Scheele, took them home and left them in his garage, assuming the footage was lost.
But several weeks later, bored during the COVID-19 lockdowns, he chiselled open the warped casing and removed the memory cards. Amazingly, most still worked.
They contained a fascinating series of photos. Some revealed how a number of ponds largely escaped the fires, only to be destroyed afterwards by flooding.
The series below shows a pond in Kosciuszko National Park. Watch the transition from autumn to deep winter snow, then to dry earth before the fire and its smoky aftermath (when the camera had fallen to the ground):
Australia is home to around 240 frog species, most found nowhere else in the world.
The expert panel advising the federal government on bushfire recovery has identified 16 frog species likely to be severely affected by last summer’s fires.
All but one was listed as threatened by the IUCN prior to the fires. Importantly, the panel noted not much is known about how Australian frogs respond to fire.
Many Australian frog species have adapted to survive fire. But last summer, fires tore through areas where such events are extremely rare.
This includes World Heritage rainforests in northern NSW, home to the mountain frog, found nowhere else on Earth. How these frogs will respond to the fires remains to be seen.
For species associated with streams, such as the Barred River frogs, the impacts of fire may not be immediately apparent. Males typically stay near streams and may have escaped the flames, but females spend much time away from streams and may have died. These frogs are long-lived, so it may be many years before population declines are detected.
The effects of last summer’s fires on frogs are likely to be felt for years to come. For example, regrowing forests use lots of water, which will affect species in forested areas such as the northern corroboree frogs. This compounds a trend towards less rainfall under climate change, which is already driving their decline.
Annual northern corroboree frog monitoring conducted under the NSW government’s Saving Our Species program has been in place since 1998. This, coupled with the fact about half the known sites were fire-affected, puts us in a good position to better understand the species’ responses to fire by comparing burnt and unburnt sites in coming years.
The NSW government’s Saving Our Species program, and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, have started work on a captive “assurance” population for the species. The project, supported by Commonwealth funding, involves collecting eggs from the wild to safeguard the species’ unique genetic diversity.
Ongoing monitoring of other frog species is also critical. Importantly, anyone can get involved in helping understand frog responses to fire through the FrogID app.
Habitat degradation, climate change and disease threaten frogs globally. In this, they have much in common with humans. Last summer’s severe fires were a direct result of climate change. And of course, COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 people in recent months.
Perhaps humanity should reflect on the fate we share with wildlife, and act.
David Hunter of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment contributed to this article.
Benjamin Scheele, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University; David Newell, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment, Science & Engineering, Southern Cross University; Jodi Rowley, Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum, and Michael McFadden, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong
On Friday I flew in a helicopter over the fire-ravaged Kosciuszko National Park. I was devastated by what I saw. Cherished wildlife species are at grave risk of extinction: those populations the bushfires haven’t already wiped out are threatened by thousands of feral horses trampling the land.
The New South Wales park occupies the highest mountain range in Australia and is home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Many of these species are threatened, and their survival depends on protecting habitat as best we can.
Kosciuszko National Park provides habitat for two species of corroboree frog (critically endangered), the alpine she-oak skink (endangered), broad-toothed rat (vulnerable) and stocky galaxias (a critically endangered native fish), among other threatened species.
As the climate has warmed, the cool mountain habitat of these species is shrinking; bushfires have decimated a lot of what was left. Feral horses now threaten to destroy the remainder, and an urgent culling program is needed.
Australia’s plants and ecosystems did not evolve to withstand trampling by hard-hooved animals, or their intensive grazing. Unfortunately, the New South Wales government has allowed the population of feral horses in the park to grow exponentially in recent years to around 20,000.
I flew over the northern part of the park with members of the Invasive Species Council, who were conducting an urgent inspection of the damage. Thousands of hectares were completely incinerated by bushfires: not a green leaf was visible over vast areas. A cataclysm has befallen the western face of the mountains and tablelands around Kiandra and Mount Selwyn.
Further north and east of Kiandra the fires were less intense and burnt patchily. On Nungar Plain the grassland and peat wetlands were only lightly burnt, and the first green shoots were already visible along the wetlands of the valley floor.
At first, I wondered if the fires may have spared two animals which live in tunnels in the vegetation on the sub-alpine high plains: the alpine she-oak skink and broad-toothed rat (which, despite the name is a cute, hamster-like creature).
But not only was their understory habitat burnt, a dozen feral horses were trampling the peat wetlands and eating the first regrowth.
On the unburnt or partially burnt plains a few ridges over, 100 or more horses were mowing down the surviving vegetation.
Next we flew over a small stream that holds the last remaining population of a native fish species, the stocky galaxias. A small waterfall is all that divides the species from the stream below, and the jaws of the exotic trout which live there.
The aftermath of the fires means the last refuge of the stocky galaxias is likely to become even more degraded.
Over the years, feral horses have carved terraces of trails into the land causing erosion and muddying the stream bank. As more horses congregate on unburnt patches of vegetation after the fires, more eroded sediment will settle on the stream bed and fill the spaces between rocks where the fish shelter. Ash runoff entering the stream may clog the gills of the fish, potentially suffocating them.
Many key wetland habitats of the southern and northern corroboree frogs have also been burnt. These striking yellow and black frogs nest in wetland vegetation.
We hovered over a key wetland for the northern corroboree frog that had not been burnt, deep in the alpine forest. A group of feral horses stood in it. They had created muddy wallows, trampled vegetation and worn tracks that will drain the wetland if their numbers are not immediately controlled.
We saw no dead horses from the air. Unlike our native wildlife, most appear to have escaped the fires.
Flying down the upper Murrumbidgee River’s Long Plain, I saw large numbers of feral horses gathered in yet more wetlands. Displaced by the fires to the south and west, they were already trampling the mossy and heathy wetlands that store and filter water in the headwaters.
The Murrumbidgee River is a key water source for south-east Australia. The horses stir up sediment and defecate in the water. They create channels which drain and dry the wetlands, exposing them to fire.
One-third of Kosciuszko National Park has been burnt out and at the time of writing the fires remain active. Feral horses are badly compounding the damage.
If we don’t immediately reduce feral horse numbers, the consequences for Kosciuszko National Park and its unique Australian flora and fauna will be horrendous.
Responsible managers limit the numbers of livestock on their lands and control feral animals. The NSW government must repeal its 2018 legislation protecting feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and undertake a responsible control program similar to those of the Australian Capital Territory and Victorian governments.
Without an emergency cull of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, burnt vegetation may not fully recover and threatened species will march further towards extinction.
The future management of New South Wales’s national parks is one of the issues on the line in Saturday’s state election. Other states will be watching the outcome closely.
Depending on who wins, the outcome for Kosciuszko National Park spans from restoration and recovery to ongoing environmental decay, with feral horses given priority over native species.
All political parties have been well informed about the science behind feral horses in the Australian Alps. The peer-reviewed literature shows that:
feral horse impacts put multiple species at greater risk of extinction
streams and bogs are degraded, threatening water quality, and will require restoration
even small numbers of horses lead to cumulative environmental degradation
a range of high and low elevation areas are severely degraded by feral horses; it is not clear whether any areas can withstand horse impacts
rehoming and fertility control are not effective control methods when horses number in the thousands and are hard to reach
aerial culling is humane, effective, and cheaper than other methods.
But despite the clarity of recommendations emerging from research, political parties have taken a broad range of approaches.
The Liberal/National coalition has pledged to enact its Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill, which was passed by the state parliament last year and aims to “recognise the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations within parts of Kosciuszko National Park”.
This legislation would ensure several thousand feral horses remain in the park, potentially compromising the conservation goals of the park’s management plan.
This month, Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the government would “immediately” reduce horse numbers by 50%, through trapping, rehoming, fertility control, and relocating horses to “less sensitive” areas. Although he appeared to endorse an ultimate population target of 600 feral horses in front of an audience that was receptive to that idea, under pressure from the pro-brumby lobby, he later clarified that the coalition would aim to keep 3,000-4,000 feral horses in Kosciuszko.
Labor, along with the Greens and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, has pledged to repeal the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill if it wins the election, and has committed A$24 million to restore the national park.
Its six-point national parks restoration plan bans aerial culling, instead proposing to control horses using rehoming, while expanding research on fertility control.
Labor’s plan also mentions active management of feral horses in sensitive ecosystems, and ensuring large horse populations do not starve to death. It plans to achieve these two goals by trapping and rehoming brumbies. Labor also plans to keep a “smaller population” of feral horses in areas within the national park “where degradation is less critical”.
The NSW Greens has arguably the most evidence-based policy, aiming to reduce horse numbers by 90% in three years, with a longer-term goal of full eradication.
This means national parks would be managed for native Australian species. That is important in NSW, where only 10% of the state has been allocated to protected areas, well below international standards of 17%. They would achieve this reduction using all humane methods currently available, including trapping, rehoming, mustering, and ground-based and aerial shooting.
The Greens would also fund rehabilitation of damaged habitat, and has flagged substantial funding for conservation initiatives.
The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party supports immediate action to reduce feral horse numbers using humane methods, including ground shooting, but not aerial culling.
The party, which holds one lower house seat and has two upper house members, has announced no plans for restoration of the national park.
The Animal Justice Party, which has just one upper house member in the parliament, has endorsed “non-lethal control measures” in areas that are clearly being degraded by feral horses. It says this should be achieved entirely using fertility control and relocation. The party has also described brumby culling proposals as “horrific” and called for urgent national legislation to protect them.
There is pressure from pro-brumby lobbyists to keep feral horse populations in Guy Fawkes, Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, the Blue Mountains, and other NSW national parks. In Victoria, a pro-brumby pressure group will take Parks Victoria to the Federal court later this year to prevent removal of a small but damaging horse population on the Bogong High Plains in the Alpine National Park.
When NSW voters decide the fate of Kosciuszko National Park on Saturday, their verdict could have broader ramifications for protected areas throughout Australia.
Brumby activists and environmentalists seem fundamentally unable to understand one another, despite having a lot in common. They share a love of the high country but are divided over the value or threat of wild horses.
Their mutual incomprehension has been fuelled by historically contested ideas about wildness, and the proper ways in which people should interact with and control the natural world.
Wild horses first appeared in Australia soon after colonisation, as horses escaped or were abandoned. According to historian Eric Rolls, brumbies may have originally got their name from the horses that Private James Brumby abandoned in 1804 when he was transferred from New South Wales to Tasmania. Alternatively, the 19th-century pastoralist E. M. Curr suggested that “brumby” may be a corruption of booramby, a Bidjara word for “wild”.
Whatever the origin of the word, pastoral expansion spread brumbies to all corners of Australia during the 19th century.
Settled colonial farmers hated brumbies, viewing them as symbols of the waste and destruction caused by the pastoral industry that the settlers were rapidly displacing. Brumbies also destroyed fences and competed with stock for grass.
Brumbies were destroyed en masse as pests, which also allowed farmers to make a profit from their hides and manes. Sometimes brumbies were even rendered for hog feed. In 1870, the Queanbeyan Age reported that wild horses were “hated and shot by all”. Five years later, it predicted that as Australia’s population increased, pastoralists would lose control of the fine country “where now the wild horse holds almost undisputed sway” to industrious settled farmers.
By the turn of the 20th century, when Banjo Paterson was writing about his pastoralist friends in the Snowy Mountains, the decline of both pastoralism and wild horses was well underway. Paterson’s work is full of a self-conscious nostalgia for a wilder, freer Australia that he knew was under threat.
In Images of Australia, Paterson wrote of remembering the transition from free-roaming pastoralism to fenced farming as the moment when “the few remaining mobs of wild horses were run down and impounded”. His idea of the Snowy Mountains as a special place reflecting a disappearing Australia, and of brumbies embodying this specialness, has become culturally important for high country locals.
The high country bush legend has been used to argue that the mountain country produced excellent mounted fighting forces during the first world war. Snowy Mountain men certainly enlisted in the Australian Light Horse Regiment and some of them may have supplied their own horses, which could conceivably have come from brumby stock.
But there was no wholesale supply of brumbies for war service. Australia did provide many horses during WWI, but they were Walers, a distinctive Australian breed that was well suited to carrying troops in hot and dry conditions. Australian breeders tasked with supplying horses for the war effort regarded brumby stallions as mongrels that should not be allowed to pollute their bloodlines. The president of the National Agricultural Association of Queensland, Ernest Baynes, went as far as to say that the only way to make brumbies useful for the war effort would be to slaughter and export them “to the countries in which people eat horse, and are glad to get it”.
After the second world war, the historian, children’s novelist and high country local Elynne Mitchell further popularised brumbies through her series of Silver Brumby novels. Her work, along with the resurgence of Paterson’s popularity and the inaccurate memorialisation of the Light Horse Brigade, led to the further romanticisation of brumbies and the forgetting of farmers’ earlier antagonistic and utilitarian views of wild horses.
The romantic brumby became a symbol of local identity, of the high country’s way of life and of resistance to state control.
Gradually increasing government control of the high country led to a decline in cattle grazing in alpine areas, more tourism, scientific study, and the end of licensed brumby running in 1982. This process alienated locals who could no longer experience nature as a working landscape. Instead, state control privileged visitors who passively admired the landscape and scientists who rightly worried about the environmental degradation caused by horses.
Successive governments centralised the control of land, and could not see the local brumby culture. This blindness has led people such as fifth-generation local Leisa Caldwell to feel that the “mountain community has been kicked in the guts over and over. They’ve had their cattle taken, their towns flooded for the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme and their history destroyed. The last bit of history to show they even existed is the brumbies. If they go, what’s left?”
Late on Wednesday night the so-called “brumby bill” was passed without amendment in the New South Wales Parliament. The controversial Coalition bill, supported by the Christian Democrats and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, means that feral horses must be kept in Kosciuszko National Park.
It also creates a community advisory panel, with no scientific experts appointed, to advise the minister on how to manage the horse population in the alpine ecosystem.
The NSW government has attracted accusations of a conflict of interest. Former Nationals member Peter Cochran, who now runs a commercial venture offering brumbie-spotting rides through the National Park (and who has donated extensively to Deputy Premier John Barilaro) reportedly commissioned lawyers to draft the bill. Peter Cochran, John Barilaro and Gladys Berejiklian have denied all accusations of conflict of interest and underhanded conduct.
The bill has also been criticised by scientific bodies. In a letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian this week, the Australian Academy of Science noted that the legislation removes consideration of scientific advice, and called for the bill to be withdrawn or substantially amended.
In a rare move, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has also written to the NSW government, expressing concern over the potential degradation of this internationally significant national park.
The NSW Labor Party does not support the bill and has pledged to repeal the legislation if elected next March. The legislation represents a radical change in NSW’s management of feral horses, coming after a 2016 draft strategy that recommenced reducing their population by 90% over 20 years.
NSW now stands in contrast to other Australian states. Last Saturday, Victoria launched its Feral Horse Strategic Action Plan. That plan aims to protect native species and ecosystems in national parks by removing or controlling feral horses and is a welcome step in the right direction. Victorian environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio called on the NSW and federal governments to support a unified approach to feral horse management in Australia’s alpine regions.
The Victorian plan excludes aerial culling but will revisit horse control methods if the proposed trapping methods don’t reduce environmental impacts. Aerial culling is widely practised throughout Australia, including Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland (where culling was used to improve road safety), and the Australian Capital Territory, which borders Kosciuszko National Park.
Barilaro argued against aerial culling when he presented the Brumby bill to parliament, calling it cruel and barbaric. He reiterated that the bill is meant to prevent lethal control in his response to Victoria’s announcement. But surprisingly, the draft legislation makes no mention of control methods, lethal or otherwise.
The deputy premier also referred to the Guy Fawkes National Park horse cull in northern NSW in 2000 to support his argument against aerial culling. But an independent enquiry found that the cull was an appropriate humane response to the situation, where horses were starving to death and causing environmental damage after a fire. The RSPCA and independent reports show that aerial culling is an acceptable and humane way to manage horse numbers.
Further, the brumby bill now locks in the predictable outcome that thousands of horses are likely to starve to death in the next drought or after large fires. It is therefore puzzling that actions likely to increase horse suffering are not of great concern to many within the pro-brumby lobby.
Greater emphasis, instead, has been put on a cultural argument for protecting feral horses: for example, by claiming that feral horses made enormous contributions to Australia’s World War One effort. However, the cultural heritage report prepared for the NSW National Parks Service says “there is no definitive evidence that remount horses were directly taken from the brumby population of what is now Kosciusko National Park”.
The Sydney Olympics opening ceremony was also offered as evidence that brumbies are integral to Australian culture. However, Australian Stock horses, not brumbies, were showcased at the Sydney Olympics – a distinct breed, established by horse enthusiasts in the 1970s.
That said, it is true that horses in the snowy mountains do have local cultural value. But so too does the native fauna and flora threatened by feral horses, many of which only occur in Australia’s high country. This includes species such as the southern corroboree frog, alpine she-oak skink, broad-toothed rat, Raleigh sedge and mauve burr-daisy.
Is a compromise possible, in which both cultural and conservation goals can be accommodated? We think so. The feral horse population can be removed from the national parks and sensitive ecosystems. Brumby herds can thrive on extensive private property in the region, an approach already proven in South Australia’s Coffin Bay National Park.
The brumby bill was written and presented to parliament by groups with at best a perceived conflict of interest, and promoted by using inaccurate information about culling and heritage. It has been roundly criticised by leading national and international scientific bodies for not taking adequate account of science and the key role of national parks in conserving biodiversity.
That this bill has now passed the NSW upper house is a further backward step for conservation goals and Australia’s international reputation for environmental protection, and sets a dangerous precedent by undermining prominent national and state environmental policy. It remains to be seen how this legislation aligns with the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, given that it literally tramples over several matters of national environmental significance.
Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Research Fellow, Deakin University
A proposed Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill that rules out shooting horses is based on a flawed understanding of fertility control. Unfortunately, by ignoring scientific evidence and expert advice horses will be condemned to slow starvation.
The bill, which also proposes relocating horses within the park, or removal and domestication, intends to use fertility control for longer-term population control. But this simply isn’t feasible, and is unlikely to become so in the near future.
Immunocontraceptive vaccines that have been used for fertility control in wild horses in North America include the gonadotrophin releasing hormone (GnRH) vaccine, GonaCon, and porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccines. Administration requires injection: there is no effective oral vaccine. Injection requires either trapping horses and injecting them by hand, or darting them.
Immunocontraception has only been successfully used in smaller and more isolated populations (such as islands). Population modelling has estimated that over 50% of mares would need to be treated in KNP just to slow the rate of population increase within 2–5 years.
Although the precise number of horses in KNP is hotly debated, even at the lowest estimates almost 1,000 mares would need to be treated to have the desired impact on population growth – and it would still take 10–20 years before the population size was reduced substantially through natural mortality. And that is on the proviso that we could actually administer the vaccine to this number of mares.
Trapping enough horses across KNP (an area of about 700,000 hectares) would likely be impossible. Dart administration sounds intuitively appealing but is a complex process and will not be possible for large numbers of horses in difficult, mountainous terrain.
Staff must be extensively trained for licences before they can administer darts. More importantly, darting can only be safely performed within around 40 metres of a stationary horse, and with a clear line of vision. This must be done accurately and without causing ballistic injuries.
Injected animals must be marked (with dye, for example) so that they can be identified for booster shots as needed.
As demonstrated in a recent trial of fertility control darting for eastern grey kangaroos in the ACT, it is extremely challenging to manage all of these goals in the field. Helicopters can be used to dart animals, but this adds animal welfare impacts due to pursuit and lower levels of accuracy.
In other parts of the world where dart administration of immunocontraceptives has been successful, they have been applied to horses that are used to people, allowing staff to approach horses on foot. This is a very different situation to KNP.
Although it is possible to closely approach some horses in KNP, ongoing research has revealed that it is only possible to get within 200–500m of most horses in the larger populations.
Furthermore, it would be close to impossible to both identify and locate the same horses on multiple occasions, as required for booster vaccination injections. In more densely forested areas, it can be challenging to even see horses, let alone dart them.
There is no vehicle access to many parts of KNP where horses live, and long treks across challenging terrain would make attempts to locate all horses very labour-intensive. Furthermore, many areas of KNP are completely inaccessible in winter due to snow, making darting before the spring breeding season even more problematic.
There’s also the question of what exactly the horses would be vaccinated with. GonaCon and PZP are not produced in commercial quantities, are not currently available in Australia and are not straightforward to import. Australian quarantine regulations may prevent the import of reagents derived from animals, such as conventional PZP which is derived from pig ovaries.
There are two alternative GnRH vaccines available in Australia. One has shown less effectiveness than required in a pilot trial and while the other is registered for use in domestic mares, it lasts a relatively short time and is prohibitively expensive.
Most contraceptive vaccines require an initial injection followed by a second injection about one month later to achieve maximum efficacy, and then annual booster injections. GonaCon is promoted as having 3-year efficacy after a single injection, but that significantly reduces after the first 12 months. Long-acting PZP formulations have been investigated in North America; while results appeared promising initially, more recent work showed a contraceptive efficacy of under 60% beyond one year after treatment. Furthermore, the viscous nature of these longer-acting formulations make administration by dart more challenging.
Alternative fertility control options such as surgical sterilisation or intra-uterine devices have even more practical hurdles. For all of these reasons, a recent peer-reviewed study by two Australian reproductive experts concluded that current fertility control methods are not feasible for halting the population growth of wild horses in Australia.
Although some newer technologies are undergoing investigation, realistically it will be a long time before contraception for wild horses becomes an effective reality in Australia.
Without a feasible method for sterilising horses, the newly proposed bill will mean population control is mainly through food limitation.
While “no kill” is seemingly more compassionate, it may ultimately and unintentionally be crueller.
As horse populations reach the carrying capacity of their habitats, they become malnourished and their fertility declines. Horses in very poor condition will not produce foals. When malnutrition persists, many horses will die young and many will die slowly.
This was dramatically demonstrated four years ago, when researchers discovered emaciated brumbies in the Snowy Mountains cannibalising their fellows and more emerging research is further confirming that extreme malnutrition is ongoing in parts of KNP.
In time, the number of horses suffering chronic malnutrition and dying of starvation is likely to increase. Is this truly humane population control?
Andrea Harvey, Veterinary Specialist, PhD scholar (wild horse ecology & welfare), University of Technology Sydney; Carolynne Joone, , James Cook University, and Jordan Hampton, Adjunct Lecturer, Murdoch University