Australian national park plan proposes reducing horse numbers by more than 10,000

Wild horses in the Kosciuszko National Park. Photo: Jimmyvandewall, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Wild horses in the Kosciuszko National Park. Photo: Jimmyvandewall, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Thousands of wild horses in a delicate alpine region of eastern Australia will be culled or rehomed under a six-year plan to preserve the habitat.

Authorities who prepared a draft plan for wild horse heritage management in Kosciuszko National Park have laid out plans to retain 3000 horses in parts of the park.

However, a group of scientists, in an open letter, is calling for horse populations to be removed entirely from all protected alpine areas in the state, including the park.

Public submissions on the draft plan have just closed and will now be considered.

The plan identifies the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations within identified parts of the park, but also aims to ensure the protection of environmental values of the region.

The plan proposes retaining a target population of 3000 horses in 32% of the park, with the aim of achieving this by June 30, 2027.

All wild horses will be removed from 21% of the park, considered especially sensitive to their presence, and will be maintained at zero.

Areas amounting to 47% of the park that currently do not contain any wild horses and will be maintained in this manner.

As of November 2020, there were an estimated 14,380 wild horses in Kosciuszko, occupying some 365,362 hectares, or 53% of the park.

The plan acknowledges that both lethal and non-lethal control methods will be required to achieve its targets. All methods used will be consistent with relevant animal welfare laws, regulations, codes of practice and standard operating procedures.

Both passive trapping and aerial or ground mustering are available for use in the park, with the options of rehoming suitable horses, sending them to abattoirs, or euthanasia. Reproductive control is an option after the population has reached the target level.

The plan does not allow for aerial shooting. It notes that “if undertaken in accordance with best practice, aerial shooting can have the lowest negative animal welfare impacts of all lethal control methods”.

Wild horses in the Snowy Mountains, Kosciuszko National Park, Australia.
Wild horses in the Snowy Mountains, Kosciuszko National Park, Australia. Photo by Christine Mendoza

“However, there is a significant risk that the implementation of an aerial shooting program will result in a loss of the social licence to remove wild horses from the national park. In addition, government policy since 2000 has been not to undertake aerial shooting of horses in national parks. Taking these factors into account, this plan does not provide for aerial shooting.”

However, some scientists are calling on New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean to work towards removing all feral horses from every protected area in the state.

The letter from the Australian Academy of Science has 69 signatories, including fellows of the Academy, other researchers, and seven science organisations. It says all feral horses must be removed to protect the native Australian plants, animals and ecosystems of Kosciuszko National Park and other national parks affected by feral horses in the state, such as Barrington Tops, Guy Fawkes, Oxley Wild Rivers and the Blue Mountains.

The letter suggests this is feasible because horses can be kept on private property, protecting the cultural values they have for some people.

The scientists cited recently published research which found 71% of survey respondents agreed it was acceptable to cull feral animals if they were harming threatened species.

The authors want more immediate steps to be taken to strengthen the Draft Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan. They want horse numbers to be rapidly brought down to well below the preliminary target of 3000 by using all available methods that are effective and meet animal welfare standards. They want all of Kosciuszko National Park to be protected, “and not compromise one-third of Kosciuszko National Park by designating horse retention areas”.

The scientists say lawmakers should rescind the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act 2018, which they argue continues to be a legal impediment to effective national park management. It is, they assert, completely at odds with the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 and the core principles of protected area management.

The Academy’s president, Professor John Shine, is among the signatories. He welcomed Kean’s previous public commitment to managing the very sensitive areas of the iconic Kosciuszko National Park on the basis of the best available science.

“We now call on the minister to listen to the science, the latest evidence and recommendations on how best to protect the park from the significant damage being done by feral horses,” Shine said. “To do otherwise would show a disregard for the threatened native Australian ecosystems and species facing imminent extinction and under threat by feral horses.”

The academy also published its submission in response to the public consultation on the draft horse management plan.

“Ongoing management of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park and preservation of its ecosystems will require extensive monitoring, scientific observations and research, as well as a strong commitment to collecting and acting on such data,” it said. “It will require active, responsive and well-informed management of the feral horse herds with the aim of removing them from the park entirely.

“Inaction on the part of the New South Wales Government has already allowed the herds to grow and the damage to continue. The draft management plan pretends otherwise and is seriously flawed because of it.”

The academy’s submission includes an evidence brief which summarises research on Kosciuszko National Park since 2018 and looks at horse numbers, horse and fire impacts, and more.

It finds that management strategies have been insufficient in alleviating the impacts of feral horses.

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