Alpine cattle grazing – it’s a park, not a paddock
The VNPA applauds federal environment minister Tony Burke's decision to put an end to the Victorian Government's deeply flawed alpine cattle grazing trials.
The minister handed down his decision on Wednesday 1 February 2012, one year after the newly-installed Baillieu Government announced it would reintroduce cattle grazing into Victoria's Alpine National Park.
In his decision Minister Burke said that after "careful consideration" of advice from the Australian Government's Environment Department he had determined that the alpine cattle grazing trials are "clearly unacceptable under national environmental law and will not proceed".
This has been a victory for commonsense and good science.
However, there is still a possibility that cattle could be returned to the park. The Victorian government - and the graziers - haven't given up.
The decision comes just a month after the VNPA wrote to Minister Burke and his department about the Victorian Government's proposed 'Investigation of fuel and bushfire risk management using strategic cattle grazing' in the Alpine National Park.
In it we stated that "The (State Government's) proposal is deeply flawed, often misleading, and short on crucial information".
We agree with the federal Environment Department's finding that cattle grazing in this habitat "...would have a clearly unacceptable impact on the national heritage values of the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves National Heritage Place".
We now call on the Victorian Government to focus on sound, scientifically-based management of our unique Alpine National Park.
The cattle grazing trial has been extensively criticised over the past 12 months by scientists and the community as deeply flawed, and the Baillieu Government should now formally abandon it.
Time to make our parks truly national
The alpine cattle grazing issue has also highlighted flaws in federal environmental laws concerning national parks.
The 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.
We now call on the Gillard Government to follow through on a plan to require proposals such as cattle grazing, mining and land clearing in national parks to be referred for federal assessment under national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
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, in 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?
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 last year 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 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.
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.
The most significant research on alpine grazing and fire was carried out shortly after the 2003 fires swept across Victoria's Alpine National Park, and was published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The conclusion was that grazing is not scientifically justified as a tool for fire abatement.
Many earlier studies have shown the damage cattle cause in the Alps. Read the evidence yourself:
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 own 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.
| Why cattle will never again roam the Alps|
Grazing, fire and science
| Environmental Farmers Network|
Environmental Farmers on crikey