Kaya Klop-Toker, University of Newcastle; Alex Callen, University of Newcastle; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; Matt Hayward, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, University of Newcastle
On an island off the Queensland coast, a battle is brewing over the fate of a small population of goats.
The battle positions the views of some conservation scientists and managers who believe native species must be protected from this invasive fauna, against those of community members who want to protect the goat herd to which they feel emotionally connected. Similar battles colour the management decisions around brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park and cats all over Australia.
These debates show the impact of a new movement called “compassionate conservation”. This movement aims to increase levels of compassion and empathy in the management process, finding conservation solutions that minimise harm to wildlife. Among their ideas, compassionate conservationists argue no animal should be killed in the name of conservation.
But preventing extinctions and protecting biodiversity is unlikely when emotion, rather than evidence, influence decisions. As our recent paper argues, the human experience of compassion and empathy is fraught with inherent biases. This makes these emotions a poor compass for deciding what conservation action is right or wrong.
We are facing a biological crisis unparalleled in human history, with at least 25% of the world’s assessed species at risk of extinction. These trends are particularly bad in Australia, where we have one of the world’s worst extinction records and the world’s highest rate of mammal extinctions.
The federal government recently announced it will commit to a new ten-year threatened species strategy, focused on eradicating feral pests such as foxes and cats.
When you first think about it, this idea sounds great. Why kill some animals to save others?
Well, invasive animals — those either intentionally or accidentally moved to a new location — are one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity.
Fortunately, endangered populations can recover when these pests are removed. Controlling pest numbers is one of the most effective tools available to conservationists.
Killing pests is at stark odds with the “do no harm” values promoted by the compassionate conservation movement.
Compassionate conservationists argue it’s morally wrong to kill animals for management, whereas conservation scientists argue it’s morally wrong to allow species to go extinct — especially if human actions (such as the movement of species to new locations) threaten extinction.
These conflicting moral standpoints result in an emotional debate about when it is justified to kill or let be killed. This argument centres on emotion and moral beliefs. There is no clear right or wrong answer and, therefore, no resolution.
In an attempt to break this emotional stalemate, we explored the biases inherent in the emotions of compassion and empathy, and questioned if increased empathy and compassion are really what conservation needs.
At first, compassion and empathy may appear vital to conservation, and on an individual level, they probably are. People choose to work in conservation because they care for wild species. But compassion and empathy come with strong evolutionary biases.
The first bias is that people feel more empathy toward the familiar — people care more for things they relate most closely to. The second bias is failure to scale-up — we don’t feel 100 times more sorrow when hearing about 100 people dying, compared to a single person (or species).
Evolution has shaped our emotions to peak for things we relate most strongly to, and to taper off when numbers get high — most likely to protect us from becoming emotionally overloaded.
Let’s put these emotions in the context of animal management. Decisions based on empathy and compassion will undoubtedly favour charismatic, relatable species over thousands of less-familiar small, imperilled creatures.
This bias is evident in the battle over feral horses in national parks. There is public backlash over the culling of brumbies, yet there is no such response to the removal of feral pigs, despite both species having similarly negative impacts on protected habitats.
If compassionate conservation is adopted, culling invasive species would cease, leading to the rapid extinction of more vulnerable native species. A contentious example is the race to save the endangered Tristan albatross from introduced mice on Gough Island in the south Atlantic.
Sealers introduced mice in the 1800s, and the mice have adapted to feed on albatross chicks, killing an estimated two million birds per year. Under compassionate conservation, lethal control of the mice would not be allowed, and the albatross would be added to the extinction list within 20 years.
What’s more, compassionate conservation advocates for a more hands-off approach to remove any harm or stress to animals. This means even the management of threatened fauna would be restricted.
Under this idea, almost all current major conservation actions would not be allowed because of temporary stress placed on individual animals. This includes translocations (moving species to safer habitat), captive breeding, zoos, radio tracking and conservation fencing.
With 15% of the world’s threatened species protected in zoos and undergoing captive breeding, a world with compassionate conservation would be one with far fewer species, and we argue, much less conservation and compassion.
In this time of biodiversity crisis and potential ecosystem collapse, we cannot afford to let emotion bias our rationale. Yes, compassion and empathy should drive people to call for more action from their leaders to protect biodiversity. But what action needs to be taken should be left to science and not our emotions.
Kaya Klop-Toker, Conservation Biology Researcher, University of Newcastle; Alex Callen, Post-doctoral researcher, University of Newcastle; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; Matt Hayward, Associate professor, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, PhD Candidate in Restoration Ecology, University of Newcastle
Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University
Only a few decades ago, encountering a bandicoot or quoll around your campsite in the evening was a common and delightful experience across the Top End. Sadly, our campsites are now far less lively.
Northern Australia’s vast uncleared savannas were once considered a crucial safe haven for many species that have suffered severe declines elsewhere. But over the last 30 years, small native mammals (weighing up to five kilograms) have been mysteriously vanishing across the region.
The reason why the Top End’s mammals have declined so severely has long been unknown, leaving scientists and conservation managers at a loss as to how to stop and reverse this tragic trend.
Our major new study helps unravel this longstanding mystery. We found that the collective influence of feral livestock — such as buffaloes, horses, cattle and donkeys — has been largely underestimated. Even at quite low numbers, feral livestock can have a big impact on our high-value conservation areas and the wildlife they support.
In 2010, Kakadu National Park conducted a pivotal study on Top End mammals. It found that between 1996 and 2009, the number of native mammal species at survey sites had halved, and the number of individual animals dropped by more than two-thirds. Similar trends have since been observed elsewhere across the Top End.
Given the scale and speed of the mammal declines, the need to find effective solutions is increasingly urgent. It has become a key focus of conservation managers and scientists alike.
The list of potential causes includes inappropriate fire regimes, feral cats, cane toads, feral livestock, and invasive weeds.
With limited resources, it’s essential to know which threats to focus on. This is where our study has delivered a major breakthrough.
We looked for patterns of where species have been lost and where they are hanging on. With the help of helicopters to reach many remote areas, we used more than 1,500 “camera traps” (motion-sensor cameras to record mammals) and almost 7,500 animal traps (such as caged traps) to survey 300 sites across the national parks, private conservation reserves and Indigenous lands of the Top End.
We found most parts of the Top End have very few native mammals left. The isolated areas where mammals are persisting have retained good-quality habitat, with a greater variety of plant species and dense shrubs and grasses.
This habitat provides more shelter and food for native mammals, and has fewer cats and dingoes, which hunt more efficiently in open areas. In contrast, sites with degraded habitat have much less food and shelter available, and native mammals are more exposed to predators.
Across northern Australia, habitat quality is primarily driven by two factors: bushfires and introduced livestock, either farmed or feral.
Our surveys revealed that areas with more feral livestock have fewer native mammals. This highlights that the role of feral livestock in the Top End’s mammal declines has previously been underestimated.
Even at relatively low densities, feral livestock are detrimental to small mammals. Through overgrazing and trampling, they degrade habitat and reduce the availability of food and shelter for native mammals.
Frequent, intense fires also play a big role. Australia’s tropical savannas are among the most fire-prone on Earth, but fires that are too frequent, too hot and too extensive remove critical food and shelter.
Yet, even if land managers can manage fires to protect biodiversity, for example by reducing the occurrence of large, intense fires, the presence of feral livestock will continue to impede native mammal recovery.
Cats have helped drive more than 20 Australian mammals to extinction. So it’s not surprising we found fewer native mammals at our sample sites where there were more cats.
However, our results suggest the best way to manage the impact of cats in this region may not be to simply kill cats, which is notoriously difficult across vast, remote landscapes. Instead, it may be more effective to manage habitat better, tipping the balance in favour of native mammals and away from their predators.
The combination of prescribed burning to protect food and shelter resources, and culling feral livestock, might be all that’s needed to support native mammals and reduce the impact of feral cats.
Many scientists have suggested dingoes could also be part of the solution to reducing cat impacts — as cats are believed to avoid dingoes. With this in mind, we explored the relationship between the two predators in this study.
We found no evidence dingoes influenced the distribution of feral cats. In fact, survey sites with more dingoes had fewer native small mammals, suggesting a negative impact by dingoes.
But, unlike cats, culling dingoes is not an option because they provide other important ecological roles, and are culturally significant for Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) Australians.
Our study suggests an effective way to halt and reverse Top End mammal losses is to protect and restore habitat. For example, by improving fire management and controlling feral livestock through culling.
It is also very important to conserve the environments that still have high-quality habitat and healthy mammal communities, such as the high-rainfall areas along the northern Australian coast. These areas provide refuge for many of our most vulnerable mammal species.
While there’s more research to be done, it’s crucial we start managing habitat better, before we lose more of our precious mammal species.
The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the support from many Indigenous ranger groups, land managers and Traditional Owners. This includes the Warddeken, Bawinanga, Wardaman and Tiwi rangers, the Traditional Owners and land managers of Kakadu, Garig Gunak Barlu, Judbarra/Gregory, Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks, Djelk, Warddeken and Wardaman Indigenous Protected Areas, and Fish River Station and was facilitated by the Northern, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa Land Councils.
Alyson Stobo-Wilson, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Charles Darwin University; Brett Murphy, Associate Professor / ARC Future Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Graeme Gillespie, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Jaana Dielenberg, Science Communication Manager, The University of Queensland, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University
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.
Today, the federal court ruled feral horses can be removed from the Victorian high country.
The case was brought by the Australian Brumby Alliance against the Victorian Government in 2018. Since then, the strategic management plan for feral horses has been shelved, allowing feral horse numbers to increase without control.
In the northern area of Kosciuszko National Park numbers jumped from an estimated 3,255 in 2014 to 15,687 in 2019, in the absence of any management.
Expanding numbers of feral horses roaming the Australian Alps – which are listed as a national heritage site – threaten the alp’s ecosystems, soils and unique species. More feral horses is also an animal welfare issue, as horses face starvation during droughts and have been hit by cars in Kosciuszko.
The ruling is a victory for national parks, which can once again be managed to protect native Australian ecosystems and species. But it stands in stark contrast to the NSW government’s controversial legal protection of feral horses.
The Victorian Government’s strategic action plan, released in 2017, was to remove all horses from the Bogong High Plains, where around 100 horses caused cumulative damage to sensitive alpine ecosystems.
The plan also aimed to trap horses in the eastern Victorian alps, but at a rate so low it was unlikely to make a dent in horse numbers.
Not satisfied with retaining thousands of horses in the eastern alps, in 2018, the Australian Brumby Alliance took out a court injunction to stop horse removal from the Bogong High Plains and prevent substantial reduction in horse numbers in the eastern alps.
Twenty-five thousand feral horses in Australia’s alpine parks have damaged peat wetlands listed as threatened under federal and state legislation. Recovery will take decades to centuries.
If the court had ruled in favour of the Australian Brumby Alliance’s case, it would have locked in escalating threats to the environment, including threatening already endangered species such as the alpine she-oak skink.
It would also have given at least informal legitimacy to NSW legislation that protects feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park.
And possibly most damaging, it could have emboldened claims by brumby groups that feral horses should take priority over conservation in other contentious horse hotspots, such as Barmah, Oxley Wild Rivers, Blue Mountains, Guy Fawkes and Barrington Tops National Parks.
The Australian Brumby Alliance argued removing horses from the alps would compromise its heritage value. They claimed feral horses are part of that heritage, including part of the mountain vistas, the pioneering heritage and myths and legends such as the Man from Snowy River.
The counterpoint from Parks Victoria was that it’s possible to remove horses from the alps while protecting the area’s cultural heritage.
It would be like taking cattle out of the high country, but nevertheless recognising pioneering exploits by preserving cattlemen’s huts.
So what did Judge O’Bryan make of this? In a nutshell, the Australian Brumby Alliance did not have a legal hoof to stand on.
He rejected the Australian Brumby Alliance’s argument the Bogong High Plains horse population was likely to be genetically different from other feral horse populations in a way relevant to the case, and rejected claims feral horses could be beneficial to alpine ecosystems.
Judge O’Bryan also rejected the contention that the brumbies are part of the National Heritage values of the Australian Alps and accepted the evidence that feral horses cause substantial environmental damage.
The ruling acknowledged Parks Victoria’s strategic plan to control feral horses was consistent with legal obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the federal EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act and the state’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.
Laws and the management of protected areas that reduce their integrity are a global concern. A 2017 study found one-third of Australia’s protected areas had been downgraded, reduced in size or had protection removed to make way for tourism ventures and other developments, like Snowy 2.0 in Kosciuszko National Park.
Kosciusko has faced the brunt of recent downgrading, notably where the NSW government voted to legally protect feral horses in 2018.
The Australian Brumby Alliance’s court case threatened similar downgrading for Victoria’s alpine parks. However, state, federal and international laws, that place obligations on Australian governments to conserve native species and ecosystems in protected areas, have helped restore sensible park management.
Toyay’s federal court ruling upholds the right of state agencies to carry out their legal obligations. And it meets the general expectations of Australian society that our national parks exist to conserve native Australian ecosystems and species, particularly as extinction rates in Australia continue at unprecedented rates.
It also reflects the intent of nature conservation laws. National parks are for conserving our natural heritage, the product of millions of years of evolution on this continent.
Brumby advocates concerned about recent European heritage in Australia can protect horses outside of national parks, an approach pioneered successfully in South Australia.
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.
Feral horse numbers have more than doubled in the past five years in the Australian Alps, according to results just released from the Australian Alps Feral Horse Aerial Survey. In one of the three survey blocks, North Kosciuszko, feral horse numbers have risen from an estimated 3,255 in 2014 to 15,687 in 2019, a near five-fold increase.
Scientists warned the government that very high numbers of horses would be the inevitable consequence of its inaction over horse management.
More than just allowing numbers to increase, the NSW parliament legislated to protect feral horses within Kosciuszko National Park, effectively prioritising the preservation of horse populations over native alpine species and environmental values, where they are in conflict.
This was despite the strong advice from scientists, and amid substantial controversy around the origins and timing of the bill.
High feral horse numbers forced the closure of the popular Blue Waterholes campground in November, after substantial risks and several injuries to visitors were reported. Freedom of information requests were needed to bring to light crashes between cars and feral horses in Kosciuszko.
Despite the NSW government trying to keep this information from reaching the public, several incidents of feral horses being struck by vehicles have now been reported.
The community group Reclaim Kosci has warned it is only a matter of time before someone is killed in a collision with a feral horse unless numbers are drastically and rapidly reduced.
Besides impacts on people, the lack of effective feral horse policy in NSW has now set the stage for another mass animal welfare disaster.
With an estimated 25,318 feral horses distributed across the surveyed area (more than 7,400 square kilometres) of the Australian Alps, many thousands of horses will face starvation when the region next burns. This is predictable, inevitable and tragically also completely avoidable had effective feral horse control been implemented.
The prolonged drought hitting Australia has worsened the impacts of horses in the high country. Plants already struggling to survive are being trampled and grazed, and areas around standing water resemble feedlots.
These impacts will worsen over summer, both for the national park and the horses themselves, with herds suffering in the heat and struggling to survive. Horses starved to death along the snowy river in Kosciuszko in 2018.
Now many more animals are at risk of this fate because scientifically-supported solutions have been dismissed by NSW deputy premier John Barilaro.
Evidence presented at the Kosciuszko Science Conference and research published earlier this year showed how a broad range of Alpine species and ecosystems were being affected by feral horses. These effects will now be more intense and occur across more of Australia’s ecologically sensitive and biodiverse alpine environments.
For example, the native broad toothed rat depends on dense vegetation along watercourses. With feral horses eating out or trampling plants along streams, these delightful, rotund fur-balls may lose their homes, and hence be more exposed to the elements and predators.
Right now, feral horses are reducing the habitat for these animals, causing already threatened populations to become smaller and more fragmented. As these small populations blink into extinction we can expect widespread losses across the national park.
Corroboree frogs will now be under enormous pressure. We already know feral horses destroy the wetlands these iconic yellow-striped black frogs depend on for breeding. This destruction will likely now impact many more swamps, reducing breeding success and reducing options for reintroduction of this critically endangered frog.
Another species, the Stocky Galaxias, teeters on the brink of extinction. This small native fish now only lives in a 3km stretch of stream in Kosciuszko National Park. Feral horses trample the river banks and rip out vegetation that causes silt to accumulate in the stream.
This is disastrous for the fish, which breed beneath boulders in the stream. If silt fills up the gaps beneath boulders, there is no place for the fish to lay eggs.
The high numbers of feral horses in Kosciuszko mean this process of stream destruction will likely worsen, potentially hastening the demise of this species unique to Kosciuszko National Park.
Hope for change now rests with the new feral horse management plan being developed by the recently established Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Community Advisory Panel and the Wild Horse Scientific Advisory Panel. The community panel has expressed interest in working with the scientific panel, and such collaboration will be essential for making progress.
These committees will need to consider all options for resolving this human safety, animal welfare, and ecological crisis. Although trapping is crueller and many times more expensive than aerial culling, if the trapping effort is substantially ramped up across the park, it could potentially limit population growth and reduce horse numbers.
Aerial culling, despite being the most cost-effective and humane method to lower the horse population size and reduce impacts, is misrepresented by the pro-brumby lobby and sections of the media as cruel, and hence has been deemed unacceptable. These costs, and animal welfare and political trade-offs, must be carefully considered by the committees.
The scientific committee said the draft plan for action will be open for comment in February 2020 to meet NSW environment minister Matt Kean’s deadline for a final plan by May 1, 2020. This rapid timeframe is absolutely essential, as the increase of feral horses in the Alpine National Park will not abate any time soon without urgent and substantial control measures.
Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; David M Watson, Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University
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.
Many of Australia’s mammals spend their entire lives imprisoned, glimpsing the outside world through tall chain-link fences and high-voltage wires. There are dozens of these enclosures across Australia. Many are remote, standing alone in the endless expanse of inland Australia, but others are on the outskirts of our largest cities – Melbourne, Perth, Canberra.
Every year there are more of them, the imprisoned population growing, while the wild populations outside dwindle. These are Australia’s conservation fences.
The captives within our conservation fences are adorable – floppy-eared bilbies, tiny hare-wallabies, long-tongued numbats – and they all share an extreme susceptibility to introduced predators. At least 68 native mammal species cannot exist in the wild if either foxes or cats are present. Many of these species once numbered in the millions, ranging from the woodlands of Queensland to the deserts of Western Australia, but predation has driven them to the brink of extinction.
Fences offer these species a future in the wild, and conservation groups have risen to the challenge. Last week, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy completed a new cat-proof fence in their Newhaven Sanctuary, the largest conservation fence ever constructed.
Make no mistake, these conservation fences work. Species that wilt at the sight of a fox, that have been exterminated from every corner of the Australian mainland, will explode in numbers behind fences. Along with offshore islands, inside these fences are the only places in Australia where these species can prosper – a few hundred square kilometres of safety, surrounded by 7.6 million lethal square kilometres.
Environmentalists have never particularly liked fences. Rather than hide behind walls, they repeatedly took the fight to the cats and foxes on the outside.
Their tactics have been diverse, innovative and brutal. Managers have rained bullets from helicopters and poison baits from planes. They have set cunning snares and traps, mimicked the smell and sound of their enemies, and have turned landscapes to ash with wildfire.
Nothing has worked for the most threatened marsupials. Some of the largest and most expensive management campaigns in Australian conservation history have ended in exhaustion and stalemate, and with a retreat back behind the fences.
Fences were once a source of vehement debate in conservation circles. Should they be permanent? Are fenced populations wild or captive? Should they contribute to species’ conservation status?
These arguments have effectively been abandoned. Scientific studies and painful experience has proven fences and offshore islands to be the only reliable method of protecting predator-threatened species http://www.wildliferesearchmanagement.com.au/Final%20Report_0609.pdf. In place of these debates, conservation organisations and governments have turned to more practical questions of fence height, electric wire voltage and skirt depth.
So now, on average, Australians are building a new fence every year, some of them truly enormous. The just-completed fence at Newhaven encloses a staggering 10,000 hectares of red sand and spinifex. By the time the project is complete, this fence will be home to 11 different threatened mammal species.
And Australia is not alone: around the world, from New Zealand to Hawaii to South Africa, an archipelago of fences is emerging from an ocean of predators. It is one of the great achievements of modern conservation and has already averted the extinction of critically endangered species. Although it’s much smaller than our network of protected areas, it offers refuge to species that are long-gone from our national parks and wilderness areas.
However, in recent years a concerning pattern has begun to emerge. While the number and size of fences continue to increase, the number of new species being protected has stalled. In fact, the last five fences haven’t included any new species – they have only offered additional protection to species that were already protected behind existing fences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0456-4.
As an example, the first two marsupials planned for introduction behind the Newhaven fence will be the mala (Lagorchestes hirsutus) and the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur). These two species undeniably deserve more protection. Both are highly susceptible to foxes and cats and will derive tremendous benefit from the protection of this enormous fence. However, both species are already found elsewhere behind fences (four different fences for burrowing bettongs). Meanwhile, yet-to-be-published research from the National Environmental Science Program has found 41 other species that are desperately vulnerable to introduced predators are not protected by any fence.
This problem is not new to conservation. In the 1990s, Australian researchers suddenly realised that our national park system was failing to protect the full range of Australian ecosystems. Despite our best efforts, we had created a system of reserves that was biased towards mountainous landscapes and deserts, and away from the fertile valley floors. The solution was to create new national parks using systematic and mathematical methods.
This discovery – the theory of systematic conservation planning – revolutionised global conservation. In 2018, conservation fences need their own systematic revolution.
Unfortunately, the national park system had natural advantages that fences lack. The vast majority of Australia’s protected areas belong to the state and federal governments. The centralised nature of the protected area network is perfect for systematic thinking and top-down optimisation – picture the Soviet Union’s Politburo. In contrast, the conservation fencing sector is diverse and decentralised – picture the third day of Woodstock.
Fences are built by governments at the state, federal and municipal levels, by multimillion-dollar NGOs like the Australia Wildlife Conservancy, by tiny local environmentalist groups and by profit-making corporations. This diversity is a fundamental strength of the fence network, giving it access to a spectrum of funding and ideas. But it makes it almost impossible to plan in a systematic manner. You can’t tell a small bilby conservation group in western Queensland that they should protect the central Australian rock-rat instead (Zyzomys pedunculatus). It doesn’t necessarily matter to them that bilbies are already protected behind four different fences and the rock-rat has none.
While conservation science tries to work this problem out, new and larger fences will continue to be built at an accelerating rate into the foreseeable future. True, the absence of coordination will make mathematicians break their slide rules, but each fence will do its job. The furry denizens will hop, and scurry, and bounce around, heedless of their precarious safety.
And for us, from the outside looking in, these fences will help us forget the parlous state of Australian marsupial conservation. It will be possible to forget our record-breaking rate of extinctions, to forget the empty forests and deserts, and to imagine what a bushwalk might have been like before Europeans unleashed foxes and cats onto Australia.