Feral horses and deer in the alps
Two of the most intractable park management problems in Victoria are the increasing hordes of feral horses and feral deer in and around the Alpine National Park.
Our land managers have been tiptoeing around these issues for decades, and in that time the whole thing has just become worse. The chief problem, bluntly, is that there is a political side to both issues.
Some people just like them there, and others, rightly, are concerned with cruelty issues in dealing with them. But that isn't a reason to avoid action. It's a reason to educate the public and our politicians about the problem, and then invest in the skills and resources needed to deal with it.
According to a 2009 survey across alpine Victoria and NSW, commissioned by the Australian Alps National Parks (AANP), feral horse numbers in the alps are increasing at a rate of more than 20% a year. If this continues, they will reach a population of about 13,000-14,000 by 2012, roughly half within Kosciuszko National Park and half within Victoria's Alpine National Park.
The biggest horse population in Victoria is around the Cobberas region, near the NSW border, where the damage they are inflicting on wetlands is considerable. Yet for years now a cash-strapped Parks Victoria has been operating a mere token control program there, while concentrating its effort on controlling the small but more visible population on the Bogong High Plains.
According to an AANP information sheet: "Most of these programs involve capturing mobs of feral horses in specially constructed yards (and additionally through permit-based brumby running in Victoria). Captured horses are removed from the national parks. To date, these techniques have removed several hundred feral horses each year, but [this] is well below the natural replacement level (currently at least 1400 extra horses per annum."
Clearly, if current resource levels and management techniques have failed, it is time for something new.
Feral horses are now absent from Namadgi National Park in the ACT, largely because park staff were prepared to adapt their management when methods failed, and they also followed an education strategy designed to bring the public with them.
As a last resort, the remaining horse population was shot, but that was seen to be less cruel than some of the other methods tried. (And presumably less cruel than leaving them to die by fire, as hundreds apparently did in Victoria's 2003 alpine bushfire).
At least feral horses are clearly feral. Sambar Deer are confusingly listed as 'environmentally threatening' under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, yet protected as a game species under the Wildlife Act. That makes no sense, and has led to gross inaction on a rapidly escalating problem.
A recent submission to the Federal Government by the Invasive Species Council says there were estimated to be around 8000 Sambar in Victoria 15 years ago and around 70,000 in 2002, and habitat modelling predicts that the population could eventually climb as high as a million!
Sambar Deer are a very different problem from feral horses. They feed on different plants and cause different impacts, to rainforest areas in particular, as well as wetlands. They are also relatively solitary, and widely dispersed and difficult to hunt.
There is a clear case for engaging such bodies as the Sporting Shooters Association in this regard, but it's not just a matter of opening up more territory for these organisations to have unlimited access, as the recreational hunter will never make a significant impact on such a large population. There needs to be systematic programs, professionally implemented to ensure the threat is reduced.
One suggestion is to close the Alpine National Park to visitors for a month or two each year, and really deal with the problem in a systematic way.
We need clear and effective strategies to deal with these and other pest plant and animal problems.