Government Refuses To Cull Feral Horses Despite Scientific Protest

Laws have been passed to protect man's second-best four-legged friend, but not everyone's happy about it.

Scientists and conservationists have slammed the Berejiklian government for passing legislation to protect "destructive" wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park from culling.

The Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 passed through NSW state parliament late on Wednesday. Despite numerous calls to ditch the controversial plan from bodies including the RSPCA, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the laws will see wild brumbies protected under conservation regulations.

The organisations have collectively condemned the plan to prioritise the safety of an invasive species over native species and ecosystems.

The decision even led to the resignation of Professor David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University, from his position as a scientific adviser to the NSW Government.

"Clearly, our advice has been ignored and I can no longer justify committing my time, energy and professional insight," he said in a statement.

"Put simply, feral horses are incompatiable with protected area management, a point made repeatedly in the days leading up to yesterday's decision by the IUCN and a long list of environmental scientists with centuries of combined experience working in these environments, witnessing the incemental destruction wrought by exotic species including horses."

Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox said the reforms have turned Australia into a "global laughing stock", and criticized the decision amidst fears they will set a precedence for future laws.

"The NSW Government crossed a line last night when it passed legislation to protect destructive feral horses at the expense of one of Australia’s most iconic national parks and the threatened species it protects," he said on Thursday. 

"If allowed to stand this decision sets a dangerous precedent for feral animal management in Australia."

Covering 6900 square kilometres, Kosciuszko National Park is the largest national park in Australia and one of our largest conservation reserves.

Cox said the decision to let feral horses -- of which there is an estimated 6000 in the park -- continue to run free will not only bring further degradation to alpine habitats and threatened species,  but will eventually see the horses "eat out the bush and then starve" due to their own population growth.

Our own little Middle Earth, Kosciuszko National Park is Australia's largest national park. Image: Getty
What Do The Laws Mean?

First introduced in May, the "Brumbies Bill" was designed as an alternative to the draft of a Wild Horse Management Plan presented by the government's own environment department. The plan recommended wild horse numbers in the park be reduced by 90 per cent over a 20 year period, primarily through culling, to leave around 600 horses in the park.

The link between horses and the Snow Mountains means many different things to many people. Image: Office of Environment and Heritage

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of culling horses has always proved controversial. From their historical links to early settlers to the Man From Snowy River, horses have a long and enduring significance in Australian culture.

As a result of this, the new bill was created with the aim of recognising the 'heritage value' and cultural significance of wild horse populations within the national park, and to protect that heritage through an appropriate and humane management plan of their numbers.

"Wild brumbies have been roaming the Australian alps for almost 200 years and are part of the cultural fabric and folklore of the high country," Deputy Premier John Barilaro said when first announcing the bill in May.

Instead of culling, under the new laws brumbies found in "highly-sensitive" alpine areas will be managed using non-lethal methods including trapping and relocation, and re-homeing.

Nationals leader John Barilaro said a national marketing campaign would be launched to encourage members of the public to adopt a brumby.

But When Is Protecting A Species Harmful?

While the prospect of laws designed to protect a large number of animals, understandably, sounds idyllic to a great many people, there are significant negative impacts of brumbies on the environments they inhabit.

Horses are an introduced stock animal that, in their current numbers, are damaging fragile alpine environments and putting at further risk endangered native species such as the corroboree frog, alpine water skink, and the broad-toothed rat.

"The alpine environment's not adapted to large, hard hoofed animals," Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox told ten daily.

Horse exclosure zones in the Snowy Mountains were created to see if regeneration would occur if horses were kept away. Image: Office of Environment and Heritage

"They're grazing on plants which are, well they're the only place they are in the world and they're impacting on animals which are dependent on some of the wetlands and bogs that are being trampled. These impacts just can't be tolerated and aren't sustainable."

On the other side of the border, the Victorian government has plans to trap and rehome or euthanase 1,200 feral horses in the Alpine National Park.

"It's confounding that the New South Wales Government has done an absolute u-turn on their policy to tackle feral horses in our most pristine national parks," Victoria's Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio said.

"We do call upon the New South Wales Government … to actually change their position — to go back to the science."