PARK WATCH March 2019 |
Will high country feral horse management ever make sense? Not while people ignore decades of science, says VNPA Park Protection Campaigner Phil Ingamells.
Will we ever deal with feral horse damage to our great national parks?
For over 30 years now, there has been a Memorandum of Understanding between the environment ministers of the ACT, NSW and Victoria, and the federal minister, promising to cooperate in the management of the ‘Australian Alps National Parks’, primarily the three big contiguous parks: Namadgi in the ACT, Kosciuszko in NSW, and the Alpine National Park in Victoria.
They promised to work together, managing the “flora and fauna, ecological processes and communities unique to Australian alpine and sub-alpine environments”, and to “pursue the growth and enhancement of intergovernmental co-operative management”.
But if we take alpine feral horse management today, that level of cooperation seems a dream. Let’s take a look at the situation as it currently stands across those borders.
Namadgi National Park’s managers have a zero-tolerance approach to feral horses, with a strong policy on lethal control, including shooting on site. There are no horses in the park, but they have significant problems with invasions across their border with NSW.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service came up with a well-researched plan to manage feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and it was supported by their environment minister. But a change of minister last year, and the state member for Eden Monaro’s intervention, led to a dramatic reversal of policy. NSW law now protects feral horses in the park, for heritage reasons, and aims to manage impacts from the current (and growing) population of 7,000 through “relocation to less sensitive parts of the park” or, if necessary, by rehoming.
It’s an extraordinary victory for the small but very loud pro-horse lobby, over a wealth of scientific evidence of damage to wetlands, moss-beds, plants, fish and other animals in Kosciuszko.
A recent conference at the Australian Academy of Science produced the ‘Kosciuszko Science Accord’, signed by over 100 attendees, including most of the country’s leading alpine scientists. It asks the NSW government to:
- acknowledge the extensive, serious and potentially irreparable damage being done to Kosciuszko National Park by feral horses, and
- cooperate with Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory to remove feral horses from the protected areas known together as the Australian Alps national parks, through aerial culling and other effective means.
And the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Community, a state government body, has recently declared feral horses as a ‘key threatening process’. But it seems a change of government is the only hope to rescue the science, and the park.
In 2017, in line with the Alpine National Park’s management plan, Parks Victoria published its Alpine National Park Feral Horse Strategic Action Plan 2018-2021. The consultation program involved two series of workshops with community advisory panels, as well as an expert Technical Reference Group; Traditional Owners have also been consulted, and animal welfare agencies. Over 1,000 public submissions to the draft strategy demonstrated overwhelming (80 per cent) support for control of the feral horse population, and for the prime purpose of the park’s governing legislation: nature conservation.
The strategy will remove horses by trapping and rehoming when possible, or by trapping and humanely euthanising on site when rehoming is not an option. Over the period 2018-2021, the strategy aims to:
- remove up to 1,200 horses from the eastern areas of the Alpine National Park,
- remove all of the horse population from the Bogong High Plains/Cobungra area, and limit potential reinvasions,
- prevent new horse populations developing.
That’s all very well, but at the time of writing (almost through the first summer of the strategy), just a few horses have been taken from the Bogong High Plains (all from a new population around Mount Nelse). And around 18, it seems, have been removed from the more highly populated eastern part of the park. In other words, since the strategy was signed off, Parks Victoria has been removing far fewer horses than before the strategy started, an amount well below what is needed to stall population growth.
One reason for the reticence is a threatened Federal Court injunction by the Australian Brumby Association (ABA). Parks Victoria has reached an agreement with the ABA to hold off control on the southern Bogong High Plains for now until the matter goes to court, possibly mid-year. But our legal advice makes it pretty clear that the ABA doesn’t have a case. Parks Victoria’s has strong legal responsibilities under Victorian law, and federal legislation also recognises the impacts of feral horses.
It’s hard to find any protection for feral horses in either federal or Victorian law:
- Victoria’s National Parks Act 1975 unambiguously obliges Parks Victoria to act “for the protection and preservation of indigenous flora and fauna”, and to “exterminate or control exotic fauna” in the park.
- Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee (FFG) Act 1988 lists ‘Degradation and loss of habitats caused by feral horses’ as a Potentially Threatening Process – the highest (and only!) threat listing available under the Act. The FFG Act also lists a number of threatened plants and animals, and several threatened plant communities, impacted by horses.
- The Australian government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 lists ‘Novel biota [i.e. introduced species] and their impact on biodiversity’ as a Key Threatening Process. It also lists ‘Alpine sphagnum bogs and associated fens’ as a threatened ecological community, and the associated Policy Statement points out that trampling by hard-hooved feral animals, including horses, remains a threat to that wetland community.
- The EPBC Act also puts the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves on the National Heritage List, giving federal recognition to more than one and a half million hectares of alpine and sub-alpine prime nature conservation estate. That listing emphatically establishes the importance of the area’s natural values, stating: “The Alps are one of eleven sites recognised in Australia by the IUCN as a major world centre of plant diversity”.
The listing notes many other things, including the pioneer horse cultural heritage, but it doesn’t require the ongoing presence of horses, just as the national heritage listing of Tasmania’s Port Arthur penal settlement doesn’t require the ongoing presence of convicts.
One thing the alps heritage listing is clear on is the “outstanding heritage value for the scientific research that has taken place since the 1830s, demonstrated by the density and continuity of scientific endeavour”.
Many decades of science have demonstrated the considerable damage hard-hooved grazing animals cause to our alpine parks. It’s time our politicians and park managers acted unequivocally on that evidence.
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