Alpine cattle grazing – it’s a park, not a paddock
The Napthine Government has again returned cattle to the Alpine National Park, under the guise of a flawed scientific trail.
On 6 March 2014 federal environment minister Greg Hunt approved the Victorian Government's application for a new cattle grazing trial in the Wonnangatta Valley, part of the National Heritage-listed Alpine National Park.
Sixty cattle were returned for a few months as part of a larger three year trial involving up to 300 cattle.
The 'trial' could easily be run outside the national park, but this option was not even considered.
By insisting on putting cattle back into the Alpine National Park the Victorian Government is ignoring the purpose of the law that established national parks: protection of the park's native plants and animals in their natural habitats.
Since all other avenues of protecting the Alpine National Park have been thwarted, the Victorian National Parks Association, with the help of the environment's legal team at Environmental Justice Australia, has no other choice but to take legal action.
Legal proceedings have started
We launched legal action in the hope that the next time you visit Victoria's Alpine National Park you don't run into cattle trampling undergrowth, destroying habitat and trashing wetlands.
On May 16, we arrived at the Supreme Court of Victoria to challenge the lawfulness of the Victorian Government's reintroduction of cattle grazing under the National Park Act. You can read all about it in the media release we released that day.
On June 3 we headed to court for our first directions hearing.
We are expected back in court in early July 2014.You can read our statement of claim for an outline of some of the issues.
The trial is flawed
The VNPA, along with many scientists and members of the community, made detailed submissions arguing against the cattle grazing trial, but they have all been ignored.
The so-called scientific trial is a seriously flawed. Here are just some of the reasons why:
- There has been no call for this trial from the Bushfires Royal Commission, fire managers or the scientific community.
- There is still no peer-reviewed scientific design for the trial.
- There is already considerable peer-reviewed scientific evidence that cattle grazing does not significantly reduce alpine fires.
- The site contains rare native grasslands and A nationally threatened orchid.
- There has been no pre-trial fauna survey.
- There has been no consideration of a location outside the national park.
- More than 60 years of research shows cattle damage alpine wetlands and the headwaters of many rivers, introduce weeds, cause erosion and threaten nationally-listed rare plants and animals.
There has been no on-ground surveys for many threatened and rare species that could be affected by cattle grazing.
The Wonnangatta Valley has been in the Alpine National Park for more than 20 years. It has been ungrazed by cattle since 1988.
National parks were created for the conservation of nature, not as cow paddocks for graziers who want to regain privileged access to the park.
The Victorian Government has now wasted more than $1 million of taxpayers' money on this deeply flawed 'science project' to appease its cattlemen mates. It's like a domestic version of Japanese whaling, using science as cover for an essentially damaging activity.
It is four years since the Coalition first promised to get cattle into the Alpine National Park, but we are yet to see a peer-reviewed scientific design for the project or, indeed, be told if any scientists at all have put their name to the 'scientific trial'.
The full referral is available on the Australian Government website. You can download our submissions on the second trial below:
Decades of science
There is more than 60 years of science that shows cattle damage alpine wetlands and peatbeds, and threaten many endangered plants and animals.
Studies also show that cattle grazing doesn't significantly affect either the spread or severity of fire in the High Country - alpine bushfires are mainly spread by shrubs, which cattle don't eat.
However, there is still a possibility cattle could be returned to the park. The Victorian Government - and the graziers - haven't given up.
Does grazing really reduce blazing?
It might seem sensible to argue that there will be less fire where cattle graze, but it doesn't actually stack up.
There have been two very significant peer-reviewed scientific studies of the relationship between alpine grazing and fire. Both looked at how alpine grazing in Victoria affected real bushfires.
The first study looked at the spread and severity of the 2003 bushfire, comparing grazed and ungrazed areas of the Bogong High Plains. It concluded:
"The use of livestock grazing in Australian alpine environments as a fire abatement practice is not justified on scientific grounds."
The second study looked at satellite data for both the 2003 and 2006 alpine fires, assessing the spread and severity of two major fires right across Victoria's alpine region. It found that:
"...there was no evidence that cattle grazing reduced fire severity.There was some evidence that grazing could increase fire severity by possibly changing fuel arrays."
Many earlier studies have shown the damage cattle cause in the Alps. Read the evidence yourself:
Time to make our parks truly national
The alpine cattle grazing issue has also highlighted flaws in federal environmental laws concerning national parks.
Any attempt by the Victorian Government to return cattle to the Alpine National Park under the guise of science shows that national parks are national in name only.
The VNPA will now ask for clearer national laws to be put in place to ensure that national parks are protected for all Australians, and to fulfil our international conservation commitments.
When state governments walk away from their key responsibilities on the environment, as has happened with alpine cattle grazing, the Australian Government must ensure the appropriate checks and balances are in place.
Cattle were removed from the Alpine National Park in 2005 by the Bracks Government after a thorough investigation by the Alpine Grazing Parliamentary Taskforce. Cattle continued to graze in state forest next to the park.
However, at the end of 2010 the newly-installed Victorian Government, led by Premier Ted Baillieu, controversially returned cattle grazing to Victoria's Alpine National park under the guise of 'scientific cattle grazing', aimed at reducing fire risk on crown land.
This move came despite the fact that there is no scientific justification for the belief that alpine cattle grazing helps with fire abatement.
On April 8, 2011 Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment notified federal environment minister Tony Burke that cattle had been removed from the Alpine National Park.
The move followed months of intensive work by the Victorian National Parks Association to highlight the damage being caused to the Alpine National Park by the State Government's controversial alpine cattle grazing trial, which had begun four months earlier.
The department also assured the federal environment minister that "no decision has been made as to when any future stages of the trial will be conducted, nor have any decisions been made in relation to the nature, duration or location of any future stages".
However, since then Victoria's environment minister Ryan Smith has publicly stated that the trial will continue, and that it will be in the Alpine National Park.
Where were the cattle introduced in 2011?
Up to 400 cattle were introduced to six 'research' sites in the Alpine National Park, all clearly marked on the Department of Sustainability and Environment's cattle grazing sites map.
For details on how the department intended to carry out this project please read its research proposal for yourself.
Scientists call for halt to alpine cattle grazing
At the end of January 2011, 125 Australian scientists called on the Victorian Government to postpone its cattle grazing trials in the Alpine National Park.
In a letter to state environment minister Ryan Smith the scientists said the trials to test whether or not grazing reduces bushfire risks lacked scientific integrity and warned the government it may have broken federal laws.
These species included the Alpine Tree Frog, the only frog known to occur above the winter snowline on mainland Australia, and the Spotted Tree Frog.
The VNPA called for on-ground surveys to determine if other threatened species had been found in the area.
These findings were reinforced in an assessment by Ecology Australia, which found that there is a very high likelihood that threatened flora and fauna species occur within the study sites.
Ecology Australia also found that there was a very high likelihood that threatened ecological communities also existed in the grazing sites.
It said records showed 33 faunal and 29 plant species threatened nationally or at a state level had been found within 10 kilometres of the sites, and that of these at least four animal species were vulnerable to the impacts of cattle.
Protected wetlands trampled
The 2011 cattle grazing trials quickly caused damage to the Alpine National Park, with an early investigation conducted by Dr Henrik Wahren of LaTrobe University's Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology showing Alpine Tree Frogs and their wetland habitat being trampled.
"The wetland habitat of the Alpine Tree Frog is heavily used by cattle, and given the level of damage already observed after just two weeks, it is likely to be severely degraded by the time the cattle are removed for the season in April," Dr Wahren said.
The Alpine Tree Frog and alpine wetlands are listed as nationally threatened under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Advice provided by the Environment Defenders Office in January 2011 confirmed that the Victorian Government must refer any plans to return cattle grazing to the Alpine National Park to the Federal Government for consideration and approval.
The advice outlined that under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) any action likely to have a significant impact on a "matter of national environmental significance" must be referred to Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke.
It would then be up to the minister to determine if re-introducing cattle grazing fitted the definition of a 'controlled action' under the EPBC Act and therefore requires federal assessment and approval.
Biosis report backs up legal advice
In February 2011 leading ecological consultants Biosis Research released a report showing that the Victorian Government's grazing trial was clearly an action under the EPBC Act.
This meant the trial should not go ahead until it has been submitted to the Federal Government for approval under the EPBC Act. Failure to do so risked penalties of up to $5.5 million.
The Biosis report revealed that in all six trial sites there were known and likely matters of environmental significance, and that the proposed trial took no measures to mitigate environmental impacts.
Alpine grazing not recommended by Bushfires Royal Commission
Victoria's 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission was an inquiry of unparalleled thoroughness. It had no limits to the subjects it could address, was granted a $40 million budget, and sat for 155 days between May 2009 and May 2010.
The Commission made ten recommendations for research into fire related matters. The effectiveness of alpine grazing on reducing fire was not one of them.
- The Commission recommended, as a high priority, extensive research into the monitoring of the effectiveness of fuel reduction burning programs across Victoria, and monitoring of the impacts of bushfires and fuel reduction burning on biodiversity.
- The Department of Sustainability and Environment's original Code of Fire practice says that '(domestic stock) grazing is appropriate only for significantly modified habitats', such as roadsides.
- There is compelling peer-reviewed evidence showing that alpine cattle grazing has no significant effect on mitigating bushfires.
By continuing with its alpine cattle grazing trial the Baillieu Government is undermining the final research recommendations of the Bushfires Royal Commission by taking effort and resources away from more important and effective research programs aimed at bushfire mitigation.
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