Justice sought for “equine scapegoats” in Australia’s brumby debate

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A young brumby stallion in Kosciuzko National Park. © Craig C Downer
A young brumby stallion in Kosciuzko National Park. © Craig C Downer

This past month I have made a concerted effort to awaken authorities in New South Wales to the gross injustice that is being perpetrated against its wild horses, or brumbies. It seems to me that they are being conveniently blamed, or scapegoated, for a host of problems in Kosciuszko National Park and elsewhere in the Southern Australian Alps, while a host of serious disturbance factors are being ignored, or let slide.

Also ignored are the significant positive contributions these horses make to the ecosystems they inhabit. After critically examining the justifications being presented for eliminating the brumbies, some major discrepancies emerge concerning the claim that these naturally living horses are overpopulating and excessively impacting native wildlife, soils and vegetation.

To begin, in this article I will examine population counts and estimates that cast serious doubt on the most recently reported brumby numbers and, ipso facto, their impacts. The following is taken from my letter to all the Members of Parliament (MPs) of New South Wales (NSW) that was sent on August 25, 2020. I have received some replies, but none that fully acknowledge the merit of the points I presented concerning inflated brumby population estimates for 2019. I suspect a computer modeling programme has overestimated horse numbers along with the failure to objectively criticize its results in light of the earlier professional counts and estimates using reasonable rates of population increase. Together with substantiating sources, a few additions and clarifications in wording, and as verified by an equine scientist, here are the points that I recently presented to all NSW MPs and particularly to NSW Environmental Minister/MP Matt Kean.

  1. In its Draft Wild Horse Management Plan 2016, Kosciuszko National Park (KNP) officials indicated annual horse population growth rates of between 6% and 17%, for a mean of 11.5% (see page 11). Furthermore, KNP’s 2008 Management Plan clearly stated that while “[t]he horse population can increase by up to 20% per year when conditions are good … the population growth rate in Kosciuszko is expected to be closer to 8% (Dobbie and Berman 1992, NPWS 2003” (see page 12). These annual brumby population growth rates are in stark contrast to the most recent aerial survey report for the Northern Kosciuszko National Park (NKNP) that “[equated] … over the intervening five years [between 2014 and 2019] a finite rate of population increase of 1.370 or 37% [annually]” (see page 1).  The 37% figure is extreme and falls outside rigorously measured and consistently estimated population rates of increase around the world for horses in the wild.
  2. A professional brumby population estimate by Montague-Drake in 2005 indicated there was a total of 1710 horses within the entire KNP (see pages 33-34). Projected at 17% annual growth this figure would yield 2581 horses for NKNP and 5155 horses for the entire KNP in 2019. This is about one-fourth the claimed number of 19,000 – and this is using the maximum growth rate! Here are the three calculation tables proving this:
    Analysis of Aerial Counts for 2014-2019 figures (without accounting for removals). Calculations using current suspect estimations for the North Kosciuszko area.
    Analysis of Aerial Counts for 2014-2019 figures (without accounting for removals). Calculations using current suspect estimations for the North Kosciuszko area.

    This has not taken into account removals by the Park, so the estimated annual population increase figure when taking these removals into account would be about 41%.

    Calculations starting with survey numbers of Montaguer Drake (2005) – North Kosciuszko NP area and adding a realistic maximum increase of 17%, and taking into account removals.
    Calculations starting with survey numbers of Montague-Drake (2005) – Northern Kosciuszko National Park area and adding a realistic maximum increase of 17%, and taking into account removals.

    Calculations starting with survey numbers of Montaguer Drake (2005) – Kosciuszko National Park area and adding a realistic maximum increase of 17%, and taking into account removals.
    Calculations starting with survey numbers of Montague-Drake (2005) – Kosciuszko National Park area and adding a realistic maximum increase of 17%, and taking into account removals.
  3. Another glaring discrepancy concerns the fact that the current population estimate does not take into account the large-scale bushfires that have occurred since 2003. A population count performed right after the fires of 2003 in KNP indicated that 54% of its brumbies had died because of the fires. This is a glaring oversight and seems to have been deliberate. To wit:
    On page 4 of the 2009 Survey document (Dawson) it states: “The first aerial survey of the feral horse population in the AANP was undertaken in 2001, resulting in an estimate of 5200 horses (coefficient of variation [CV] = 31.6%) (Walter & Hone 2003). The survey was re-run in 2003, after 71% of the distribution and habitat of the horse population was burnt by wildfire, and the population estimate was 2369 (CV = 33.8%) (Walter 2003).“  (See also: Montague-Drake, R. 2005, Results of Aerial Surveys to Determine Wild Horse Densities and Abundance in Northern and Southern Kosciuszko National Park, A report by the Reserve Conservation Unit, Parks and Wildlife Division, Department of Environment and Conservation). In 2005, the NKNP brumby population was professionally estimated at 1120 horses (Montague-Drake). Projecting forward at the maximum increase rate of 17%, there would be 2581 horses in 2019 – not 15,708!
  4. Another glaring discrepancy concerns the failure of the brumby population growth analysis to subtract horse removals that occurred periodically throughout the 2014 to 2019 period. There has been a failure to take these into account in previous surveys as well. We should also take into account that certain years have seen significant removals of brumbies from KNP (see this 2008 government review document and this article from early 2019). In 2012, about 616 horses were removed, while in 2016, about 210 horses were removed, and, again, in 2017 about 150 were removed, as indicated below:

    In 2012, about 616 horses were removed, while in 2016, about 210 horses were removed, and, again, in 2017 about 150 were removed.
    In 2012, about 616 horses were removed, while in 2016, about 210 horses were removed, and, again, in 2017 about 150 were removed.
  5. Additionally, for NKNP in 2014, a professional observational flight count of only 1637 brumbies was made based on direct observation (see page 12, Table 3). Then five years later in 2019, horse count flights taken on September 25 and 26 resulted in a total of 3110 brumbies being directly spotted. According to these data, the NKNP herd grew by 3110 divided by 1637 = 1.9, or by 0.9, or 90%, or 18% per year, which is nearly half of the 37% being claimed by certain authorities. The following map shows the thorough horse count flight that took place in 2019.

    Results of the 2019 horse count flight over Kosciuszko National Park.
    Results of the 2019 horse count flight over Kosciuszko National Park.
  6. As a professional wildlife ecologist concerned with endangered species survival, the preservation and restoration of well-functioning ecosystems, and the fair consideration and treatment of wild horses, who can contribute positively in many ecosystems, I question the planned removal of 4000 brumbies from NKNP in NSW as well as their removal throughout KNP and elsewhere in Australia’s Southern Alps, including the Barmah forest, etc. This elimination is possibly the main objective of certain narrowly focused persons who are not concerned with fairness and honesty concerning the brumbies and the positive role they play, and the niche they fill, in certain ecosystems.
  7. I recommend halting removal operations and doing a recount of the brumbies in KNP including NKNP with a new professional team that employs a different method using “direct sighting”. An aerial survey with documented videos to substantiate the count would be best. This could employ overflights and/or drone technology with aerial, video-recorded spotting that would allow all interested parties to see the proof of how many horses actually inhabit the park and, ipso facto, give direct insight into their and other species purported impacts upon soils, vegetation and other animal species. All parties, including brumby advocates, should be involved in choosing the method for carrying out the count and overall population estimate, with a special eye to preventing any gross overestimation of the horse population based on blanketing population density estimates which could include habitats that are very marginal for the horses and infrequently visited.
  8. From the above and additional information and from my own observations in the NKNP, elsewhere in KNP and in several other parts of the Australian Southern Alps including Snowy River NP, I urge the reassessment of the KNP conservation and management plan to include a more complete consideration of disturbance factors that does not just single out the brumbies for blame.
  9. It alarms me that among the brumbies already gathered, several magnificent stallions have recently been sent to a cruel slaughter. This betrays an earlier agreement with brumby advocates.
  10. Finally, I sound a serious note of caution concerning the major role that brumbies play in mitigating and even preventing catastrophic wildfires. The latter jeopardize the lives of countless plants and animals and the integrated ecosystems upon which they depend. This concerns KNP, the entire Southern Australian Alps and elsewhere in Australia. This is serious food for thought right now as the Australian Summer draws nigh.

    Kosciuzko National Park guide and brumby advocate Peter Cochran with the horses we rode to see the area's wild horses.
    Kosciuzko National Park guide and brumby advocate Peter Cochran with the horses we rode to see the area’s wild horses. © Craig C Downer

According to one scholar, “there is scant evidence of fire in much of Australia until the megafauna disappeared after the humans arrived”.

Also, if I may add a passage from an article I wrote for the July-August issue of Australian Performance Horse Magazine: “… it should be recognized that horses refill important ecological roles and niches that extinct mega-herbivore species previously filled in geologically recent times, including that of seed dispersers, soil builders, prey and wildfire mitigators”.

» Earlier article: Please stop shooting the horses: In defence of Australia’s brumbies

 

A pioneer-descended Nevadan, as a boy Craig Downer fell in love with the natural world, oft while riding his best friend Poco. This passion led him to pursue a career in wildlife ecology and to earn an A.B. in Biology with specialization in Ecology from the University of California-Berkeley, an M.S. from the University of Nevada-Reno, and to attain Ph.D. candidature at Durham University in Britain. His studies and observations of wild horses led him to work with Wild Horse Annie in insisting that the true intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act be implemented throughout America. He served as a Peace Corps wildlife ecologist in Colombia and is the first biologist to have successfully captured, radio-collared and tracked the endangered Mountain, or Andean, Tapir as part of his doctorate studies, His organization, the Andean Tapir Fund, continues to successfully defend and protect this dwindling species, along with its diminishing cloud forest and paramo habitats. The Andean Tapir Fund has now adopted within its mandate “preserving and restoring all of the Perissodactyls in and together with their natural habitats including all species within the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families.” Craig is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and his organization works to save all members of the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families (Order Perissodactyla) in their natural habitats. Visit Craig’s website.

4 thoughts on “Justice sought for “equine scapegoats” in Australia’s brumby debate

  • September 8, 2020 at 6:40 pm
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    It’s shame in Australia and in America why you can’t stop roud up and save your wild horses from slaughters?
    The ranchers and farmers wear this responsability your government and politics also! Fight them!
    The world desaprove you!
    We are very angry and Boycott your nations you must stop this cruality soon!

    Reply
  • September 9, 2020 at 12:26 am
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    When we read “professionally estimated” are we talking computerized drones to calculate the estimates?
    When we see “excessively impacting native wildlife, soils and vegetation”, can these items be more precise in determining the damage done?

    Reply
  • September 13, 2020 at 3:32 am
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    Excellent article! Please make pinpoint to the court into this matter of the brumbie case. Great investigated!

    Reply
  • September 26, 2020 at 8:56 am
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    What you don’t seem to understand is that no amount of well credentialed academic argument, no matter how valid it is, will make any difference.
    You are arguing with government departments full of rabid greens who hate the sight of non native animals and bully the government ministers if they don’t share their point of view.
    This is an ideological issue, not an environmental one.
    They tailor studies to provide outcomes they want and they listen to no one.

    Reply

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