The NSW Government is facing environmental embarrassment after an aerial survey found brumby numbers in the Kosciuszko National Park have skyrocketed to almost 25,000.
The doubling in the population of wild horses has astonished authorities, especially considering the drought. It led one group, the Invasive Species Council to declare that the world-renowned Kosciuszko was not a national park anymore but a "horse park".
The findings could lead to divisions in the NSW government with the NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean vowing to do something about the horse population.
Mr Kean declared: "These numbers are unacceptable and unsustainable for our natural environment.
"The NSW Government will take steps to reduce the number of horses in the National Park in a humane way, working with the community and scientific advisory committees."
The ACT Government also joined in saying that brumby numbers were destroying alpine sphagnum mosses and threatened the quality and quantity of the water supply for Canberra.
Earlier this year the Wild Horse Heritage Bill passed NSW Parliament that acknowledged the heritage worth of brumbies. Nationals Deputy Premier John Barilaro, the local member for Monaro, pushed the bill through saying that brumbies were an important part of Australia's heritage.
Mr Barilaro also vowed to manage brumby numbers (cutting them by at least 50 per cent), but no culling or rehoming has taken place in the park in the last two years. In the interim, judging by the aerial survey, the population has exploded.
The 2019 Australian Alps Feral Horse Aerial Survey found:
- In the last five years, the estimated population of feral horses within the Australian Alps National Parks Survey area has more than doubled.
- The combined population estimate for the three blocks surveyed across the Alps has increased from 9,187 in 2014 to 25,318 in 2019. This is an increase of 23% per annum.
- The 2019 survey replicated the design and methodology of the 2014 survey allowing direct comparison of results to determine population trends. The Distance Sampling method used in this survey is widely accepted and known to produce robust and credible results for large areas, see FAQs for more information.
- The results show that over the past five years, the population of feral horses in the Australian Alps survey area has increased substantially, from an estimate of 9,187 horses in 2014 to 25,318 in 2019. The nature of these changes varies among survey blocks and may have been influenced by not only biological and environmental factors of birth rates, survivability and death rates but factors of immigration and emigration of horses from the individual survey block areas.
The Invasive Species Council said the results had "shocked conservationists, scientists, tourism operators and former park managers".
"We knew the horse population was growing rapidly. But these numbers are much worse than we expected. Kosciuszko is now a horse park, not a national park," said Invasive Species Council CEO Andrew Cox.
"In the lead-up to the March election Deputy Premier John Barilaro promised 'immediate' action to reduce by half the park's feral horse population.
"Yet the latest survey reveals his government has overseen a tripling of horse numbers over the past five years.
"At a conservative estimate we believe there are now at least 20,000 horses in Kosciuszko National Park, up from 6150 five years ago and with more than 25,000 horses across the entire Australian Alps.
"The political process has failed Kosciuszko National Park," Mr Cox said. "The NSW government must take urgent and immediate action to prevent this crisis from deepening."
ANU Professor Jamie Pittock said the science on the impacts of feral horses is clear.
"No longer are Kosciuszko's native animals safe, as horses trample the last remaining habitat of endangered frogs and mammals and leave little feed for kangaroos, wallabies and wombats. The hard hooves of over 25,000 feral horses are destroying the headwaters of the iconic Snowy, Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers."
Tom Bagnat, the former NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service regional director who oversaw preparation of the now abandoned 2016 draft horse plan said "much more needs to be done to prevent the national park from being ruined".
"All humane and effective control options need to be on the table," he said. "The longer the government fails to act, the more wildlife will be killed, habitat and catchments destroyed and native animals and horses set to suffer."
The safety of park visitors is also at risk, warns Acacia Rose, who runs the Thredbo-based tour company K7 Adventures.
"My clients are becoming more and more worried about dangerous encounters with wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen," she said.
Mr Barilaro said: "Wild brumbies have been part of the Australian Alps for almost 200 years and hold a strong cultural significance. I have always maintained that it is important we find a balance between the cultural significance of the brumbies and managing the environmental impact on the Kosciuszko National Park.
"The NSW Government has taken several steps to ensure we find that balance, including the appointment of both the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Community Advisory Panel and the Scientific Advisory Panel," he said.
"The Kosciuszko Wild Horse Community Advisory Panel will help guide the NSW Government in preparing its draft wild horse heritage management plan. This will include defining what is a sustainable population of brumbies in the park and how best to manage it, whilst also considering the ecological importance of the park and the views of the community.
"I have never ruled out culling if the numbers show we need to. But what I have ruled out is aerial culling of wild brumbies because, I stress, I won't let this be a repeat of the Guy Fawkes massacre."
The aerial survey report concluded that action was needed to protect the park:
"These scientifically based surveys, analysis and resulting estimates from both the 2014 and 2019 Australian Alps Feral Horse Aerial Survey indicate that the overall Australian Alps feral horse population is large, widespread and continues to increase in size.
"It is likely that the impacts of feral horses on alpine and sub-alpine and other communities (particularly wetlands, karst areas and peatlands) will become more widespread and more intense without a substantial reduction in the number of feral horses in the Australian Alps. Agencies responsible for managing the Australian Alps national parks operate under park and threatened species legislation that require the intrinsic natural values to be protected."