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.
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
New South Wales’ proposed brumby legislation – which abandons plans to cull feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park – is a dangerously reckless policy that will escalate environmental impacts, escalate costs, and put horses at risk of extreme suffering.
But the evidence regarding feral horse (brumby) impacts on the environment in the Australian alps makes it clear that large numbers of feral horses are incompatible with maintaining the ecological values of Kosciuszko National Park.
Reports to both the Victorian and NSW governments have expressed concern over the impact on threatened species unless horses are culled. In NSW, horses directly destroy the habitat of already threatened species, including two species of critically endangered corroboree frogs, the critically endangered smoky mouse, endangered reptiles like the alpine she-oak skink and Guthega skink, and several plant species.
In its report, Parks Victoria suggested that native mammals such as wallabies and kangaroos are also out-competed and driven away by feral horses.
The threat posed by feral horses to native species and communities is so great that the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee has released a preliminary determination to list feral horses as a key threatening process. This report demonstrates that feral horses have well established environmental impacts and that action to reduce this threat is now urgent.
What’s more, there may be no “safe level” of feral horse numbers, below which the environment can cope with the damage. In a new report for the Victorian government, the impacts of feral horses on the Bogong High Plains was found to be cumulative, meaning that the damage caused by even a small number of horses accumulates over time, because the rate of recovery in alpine conditions is extremely slow.
Contrary to the “brumby bill” which would leave thousands of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and contrary to the draft management plan that would reduce feral horses down to 600 over 20 years, to prevent horse damage, all of the horses must be removed.
Removing all of the feral horses from Kosciuszko National Park is also a value judgement. NSW sets aside only 9.2% of its land in protected areas. That’s less than 10% where nature conservation has priority, and more than 90% where people and our livestock and crops take precedence. This is already an extreme compromise, and does not even reach international targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity to have 17% of land area in protected areas.
The brumby bill will worsen this already below-par compromise by reneging on commitments to protect Australian native species, and transforming our national park into a playground for escaped exotic livestock.
The bill proposes to move horses from sensitive areas into less sensitive parts of the national park. But this is likely to fail, for two reasons. First, there is no clear way that this could be achieved without great cost and horse suffering.
Trapping horses has been experimented with since 2008, with, on average, 450 horses removed from Kosciuszko each year, at a cost of more than A$1,000 per horse. This was from open woodland habitat with good road access. But many of the most sensitive environments are in the least accessible areas, such as the main Kosciuszko range.
Without culling, it is not clear how parks staff could remove horses from these areas. At best, it would be expensive because it would be so labour-intensive. It would require new infrastructure in remote areas (which is undesirable for several reasons), and could require mustering with helicopters, also very costly. Mustering, trapping and trucking horses have serious animal welfare concerns, making them a crueller alternative than culling.
Second, moving more horses into areas that are already overrun by these quadrupeds places the horse population at risk of ecological collapse. Horse populations can increase at 20% or more every year. There were 6,000 horses in Kosciuszko National Park in 2014, so there could be more than twice that number by now.
By moving horses from one part of the park to another, the brumby bill will inevitably lead to unprecedented horse densities relative to the food available. There would be a real risk of mass horse starvation. By ignoring these basic ecological processes, the bill is likely to preside over more horse suffering than would be caused by a cull.
The proposed legislation is bad for horses, disastrous for the environment and, if relocations are actually implemented, extremely expensive. There are less cruel, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly solutions to this problem. Cull the horses in the national park (the least cruel of the range of viable methods), constrain brumby herds to the many private properties around the park to foster innovation in ecotourism, and invest in other environmentally friendly cultural activities to celebrate brumby culture, such as horse events outside the park, signs such as those around Victoria’s alpine huts, sculptures, poetry and movies.
This is the win-win solution we should be aiming for, not the reckless version on the table at the moment.
This article was amended on May 22, 2018, to clarify that the brumby population in Kosciuszko National Park was 6,000 in 2014, not 2016 as previously stated.
Victoria’s new draft feral horse management plan, released on the last working day before Christmas, will be open for comment until February 2. But will it protect the Alpine National Park? The answers are yes on the Bogong High Plains, and no in the eastern Alps.
The government deserves congratulations for planning to remove all horses from the most sensitive alpine areas around Falls Creek by 2020. These areas of the Bogong High Plains have fewer than 100 horses, but also rare snow-patch and bog communities that are extremely vulnerable.
But elsewhere, the goal of removing 400 horses a year from the eastern Alps doesn’t seem to go far enough. And by refusing to countenance the idea of culling, the state government is passing up the only realistic chance of getting feral horse numbers under control.
The bulk of the plan provides grounds for cautious optimism. It acknowledges that feral horses threaten a range of native mammals, frogs and lizards, as well as displacing kangaroos and wallabies. Horses have enormous impacts on vegetation in alpine bogs and streams, and in many other ecosystems too.
The plan also makes clear that reducing horse numbers is a legal requirement. Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 lists “degradation and loss of habitats caused by feral horses” as a threatening process. The Victorian National Parks Act 1975 calls for “exotic species” such as horses to be exterminated or controlled within national parks.
The plan also sets a realistic time frame for review (annual reviews and major review after three years), and suggests that management plans will be altered if adequate environmental protection is not achieved. All of this is extremely promising, suggesting the state government is genuinely interested in delivering tangible environmental benefits.
But while the aspirations are good, the details present some problems. The draft plan promises to “explore all possible control options” to deliver a low horse population in the eastern Alps.
But the proposed reliance on trapping and removal, rather than culling, suggests the government is reluctant to enter what would be a tough debate against the often vocal pro-brumby lobby groups. This reluctance is to the detriment of our native species and apparently at odds with legislation.
The problem is that the New South Wales government has already tried trapping and removing horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and it hasn’t worked. Horses have continued to spread northward onto the main range, where environmentally sensitive alpine tarn and snow-patch communities occur.
It is unclear whether Victoria’s “aspirational goal” of removing 400 horses each year over three years will actually be enough to reduce horse numbers, or even to stabilise them. The report mentions modelling showing that the population can be stabilised by taking 200 horses per year, and that it would start to decline if 400 were taken per year.
But none of this modelling is published, so it can’t be evaluated in detail. And simple calculations suggest that these figures are incredibly optimistic.
The report says there were 2,350 horses in the eastern Victorian Alps in 2014. Horse populations can increase at up to 20% per year, so by now there could be more than 4,000 feral horses.
This means that even if the government does manage to remove the full quota of 400 horses each year, it would only take a 10% population growth rate for the numbers to keep rising. At a rate of 20%, there could be well over 5,000 horses by 2020, even with trapping and removal.
Based on this rough calculation, the plan needs to eradicate many more horses. The draft plan claims that feral horses in the eastern Alps are “well established and are considered beyond eradication using currently available control tools”. Yet this claim ignores aerial culling, which is the cheapest, most effective, and most ethical way to reduce feral horse numbers.
Highly trained sharp-shooters and helicopter pilot teams can destroy more than 50 horses per day (based on previous culls in NSW, in which three teams of three people destroyed 606 horses over three days). Three teams could solve the feral horse problem in the Victorian alpine country in a month, and at lower cost.
It cost taxpayers more than A$1,000 for each horse trapped and removed from Kosciuszko National Park. Using the NSW cull as a guide to the resources required, and assuming A$300 per day per person, and A$10,000 per day per helicopter, it might have cost around A$150 per horse using aerial culling. That’s roughly 15% of the cost of trapping and removal.
Despite the risks to wildlife canvassed in the draft plan, and similar reports from NSW, there is no peer-reviewed research that defines the threats to native animals. A revised plan must include research to understand both the impacts of feral horses on native animal populations and their welfare.
The debate over culling horses typically ignores the unseen suffering that horses cause to native animals. Quantifying that suffering will be crucial for making informed decisions around feral horse management.
It is great that we have a plan for managing horses in the Victorian Alpine National Park – albeit one that seems unlikely to work in the eastern Alps. But the Victorian government needs to show courage and leadership on the issue of culling feral horses. Our alpine natural heritage will continue to decline until horses are taken out of our national parks, and that will only happen when managers can include culling among their suite of management tools.
In NSW, the feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park are growing in number, and doing real damage to Australia’s highest mountains. Hopefully both states can take back the reins of feral horse management from single-issue lobby groups and exercise some real control over their feral horses.