Restocking Kosciuszko: Regression of a national heritage icon

Pest horse damage in front of 14 year old horse exclusion area at Cowombat Flat, Alpine National Park, Vic, in 2013.

Pest horse damage in front of 14 year old horse exclusion area at Cowombat Flat, Alpine National Park, Vic, in 2013. Photo: G Worboys.

  • By guest authors Graeme L. Worboys[1] and David Freudenberger[2]

Kosciuszko National Park is currently being restocked by a farm animal – the horse – and this restocking is happening by default. There is no plan. There are no approvals. There is no Environmental Impact Statement and worst of all, there appears to be no sense of urgency by authorities to stem this restocking.

We have been here before. For 60 years, the NSW government and generations of managers have invested millions of dollars in active soil conservation and restoration work following, in 1938, the declaration by the NSW Government of Kosciuszko’s mountain catchments as “an area of erosion hazard”. The declaration was a consequence of 114 years of impacts by cattle, horse and sheep grazing[3]. These investments in restoration are being regressed in 2016 by impacts caused by (effectively) unmanaged horses breeding rapidly and restocking the mountains.

In particular, the horses are having a destructive impact on the mountain wetlands. In 2014, 35% of the wetlands and catchments of the Australian Alps[4], including within Kosciuszko National Park, were being impacted by wild (feral) horses. In that year, there were more than 6000 horses in Kosciuszko[5], with this being an increase of 30% in just 5 years. The impacts they cause are similar in impact to 6000 cattle or other stock[6]. Australia’s critical water catchments and highly valued ecosystem services for water are under serious threat from this pervasive (whole of Alps) introduced farm animal. There is stark on-ground evidence of horses destroying alpine wetlands through concentrated grazing and trampling leading to creek incision and wetland desiccation[7].

A better, smarter, more collaborative and action focused approach is needed.

In 1974, the Commonwealth government’s investment of $6 billion (plus) in the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme was completed[8] and included contributions to soil conservation and essential stabilisation work in the catchments. Any erosion in the catchments causes downstream sedimentation and is a direct threat to the Snowy Scheme dams and investments therein. The current wild horse restocking is causing soil erosion in wetlands and streams that flow directly to the Snowy Scheme dams[9].

Water generated by the Australian Alps catchments is of national economic significance and estimated to be worth about $9.6 billion per annum[10]. The Alps wetlands play a critical catchment role in delivering sustained water yield especially in drought years; they help maintain water quality and help even-out the downstream flow regimes, such as during extreme downpours. In 2014, the 35% of Alps wetlands impacted meant less water, more erosion and less economic benefits.

The maintenance of catchment condition and restoration is a seamless objective for the Australian Alps. It is just common sense to work together and the Australian Alps national parks co-operative programme integrates management across 1.69 million hectares and 11 protected areas from the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) through NSW to Victoria. The Alps Strategic Plan guides transboundary responses to pervasive threats like the restocking of horses. This is critical since these catchments are the headwaters of the mighty Murray, Murrumbidgee, Tumut, Thompson and Snowy Rivers. The ACT Government actively and effectively destocks wild horses from its alps water supply catchments. Regrettably destocking in the NSW and Victorian Alps parks is not effective. One interstate consequence is a spill-over of wild horses from NSW into the ACT; another is the destruction of the Upper Ingeegoodbee River in NSW and the flow of degraded water into Victoria from its eroding headwater streams[11]. For wild horses, the Australian Alps co-operative programme is challenged by this pervasive threat, but it does not have to be this way given the national significance of the impacts.

Australians have recognised, with great pride, that the iconic values of the “Australian Alps national parks and reserves” have been registered as a National Heritage Listed Place, similar to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Kakadu National Park. “Water harvesting” from the headwater catchments is a registered value of this Alps listing. The federal environment minister has responsibilities for National Heritage Places; and any action that is likely to have a significant impact must be referred to the minister and may potentially lead the minister to undertake an environmental assessment and approval process. The restocking of the Alps by wild horses is a significant impact to the Alps “headwater catchments value”. The impacts are destroying the catchments. In this instance, the action that could possibly invoke the minister’s powers is a decision by park management authorities to take no effective on-ground control action to remove these livestock animals.

For NSW, given the magnitude of the unmanaged horse problem in Kosciuszko and the intense public interest, the state government has undertaken a wild horse management planning process. It initially deferred any decision for wild horse control until after the 2015 state election and then deferred a decision again, and then again. It part-conducted a genuine community involvement process but stopped when serious social media attacks on individuals began occurring. At this time a lobby by the National Party member for Monaro to the Minister for the Environment resulted in a ministerial instruction for the NPWS to undertake no shooting of wild horses. A technical reference group was convened to assist the plan preparation, and it sought inputs as part of its advising process. As at April 2016 the plan has not been issued, but practical control-methods endorsed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have been removed from the “manager’s toolbox”.

For its management of Kosciuszko National Park, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has legal responsibilities consistent with Kosciuszko’s national heritage listing; its responsibilities to protect the catchments under the National Parks and Wildlife Act and the Kosciuszko plan of management; and, responsibilities for endangered species and their specific protection needs. The NPWS must also respond to unequivocal science based evidence (since 1954) that farm stock, including horses, causes unacceptable impacts to the Alps catchments[12]. Any management decision made will need to be on behalf of all the community and as an intergenerational custodian, for the long term. A management response will also need to be responsibly resourced to be effective, given current political directives for how management is to be implemented.

It is clear, from the public debate, that many people have strong, singular views about retaining all wild horses in the Alps. This is regrettable when so much of Australia’s natural alpine heritage and water catchment values are directly threatened by the presence of wild horse stock. The naturalist Richard Helms, when working in Kosciuszko in 1893 was confronted by similar strong views about burning and grazing practices he witnessed and he stated[13]: “That ignorance and greed should be allowed to interfere so drastically in the economy of nature is pernicious and should not be tolerated. For what right has one section of the community to rob the other of the full enjoyment of an unsullied alpine landscape (…)”. In 2016, wild horses in Kosciuszko are robbing Australians of their unique native alpine heritage and the benefits of undisturbed catchments. These wild horse stock need to be removed.

It is also appears there is little acceptance by some individuals that the NPWS decision will have major economic consequences downstream and decisions will have to be made for the greater good. Every person living and working in the Murray-Darling Basin including Adelaide has a direct or indirect interest in the Alps water. The original destocking of Kosciuszko was for sound economic reasons as well as environmental reasons. Clean water from Kosciuszko National Park is critical for the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme; town water supplies all the way to Adelaide; snow-making in ski resorts; irrigation along the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers and for use eastwards, along the Snowy River. The water is worth a small fortune. In drought years it is even more precious.

Snowy Hydro’s modern business (for example) is based on the Alps catchments delivering water that is reliable and clean and is estimated to be worth about $300 million per annum[14]. Ever since the 1950’s, the delivery of high quality water has been seen as the primary economic use of the high mountain catchments, including the 1957 view of the Australian Academy of Science who stated “every other land use will have to be subordinated to this[15].

In 2015, three science based reports describing the restocking impacts to the Alps catchments by the farm animal, the horse were provided to the federal Minister for the Environment, the NSW Minister for the Environment and the environment ministers of the ACT and Victoria. The reports clearly and graphically illustrated impacts to: 1) streams and wetlands; 2) Australia’s alpine native species; and, 3) the catchments[16]. Except for the ACT, no effective response action has been instigated. The federal minister advised that wild horse control programs were the NSW government’s responsibility. The NSW government advised that draft Wild Horse Management Plan will be released in 2016 for two months comment. The Victorian government advised that it had tabled the matter for discussion at the next Australian Alps Liaison Committee Meeting and the ACT Government advised of their firm wild horse control policy, but the opportunity for collaborative action though the Australian Alps Co-operative Agreement Ministerial Council was not considered. A better, smarter, more collaborative and action focused approach is needed.

Kosciuszko National Park is currently being restocked by a farm animal, and this restocking is happening by default. The impacts to the catchments are significantly and negatively impacting Kosciuszko’s National Heritage Listed values; Australian native alpine species are being impacted; the integrity of the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme infrastructure is threatened and the provision of Alps water worth millions of dollars to the Australian economy is forecast to be lost. For the environment, the seriousness of restocking impacts is akin to the Crown of Thorns Starfish threat to the entire Great Barrier Reef. The Alps restocking is destructive, and it is at a whole-of-Alps scale. For the economy, loss of Alps water potentially worth millions of dollars is of national significance and must be of serious concern to every downstream irrigator and water user. Indecision and inaction by authorities on this issue is not good enough. It is time to act to protect Kosciuszko, a great gift of nature so important to all Australians. It is time to protect all of the national heritage listed Australian Alps national parks and their catchments by removing these stock animals.

 Further information

 Footnotes

[1] Graeme L. Worboys is adjunct fellow, Fenner School of Society and Environment, Australian National University. Email: g.worboys@bigpond.com.

[2] David Freudenberger is senior lecturer, Fenner School, Environment and Society, Australian National University. Email: david.freudenberger@anu.edu.au.

[3] Information source: SCS [Soil Conservation Service of NSW] (1986) Above the Treeline: How the High Country was Rescued, Soil Conservation Service of NSW, Sydney.

[4] Reference: Porfirio, L., Hugh, S., Carter, L. and Mackey, B. (2014) ‘Percentage area under threat from horses’, Alps icons and threats data pack, Available at: http://www.nerplandscapes.edu.au/data-packs.

[5] Information Source: AAnp [Australian Alps national Parks] (2014) Aerial Survey of Pest Horses, Preliminary Results, 1st September 2014, Issued by the Australian Alps Liaison Committee, September 2014.

[6] The classic research work of Dr Alec Costin in 1954 identified that domestic farm stock (cattle, horses, sheep) caused impacts to the Australian Alps wetlands. (Costin, A.B. (1954) Ecosystems of the Monaro, NSW Government Printer, Sydney.

[7] The impacts of wild horse trampling, pugging and intensive grazing of the wetlands have been illustrated. Worboys, G.L., Freudenberger, D., Good, R., Pulsford, I. and Banks, S. (2015)  Our Australian Alps are Changing … For the Worse, Available at:  https://theaustralianalps.wordpress.com/the-alps-partnership/publications-and-research/our-australian-alps-are-changing-for-the-worse/.

[8] The cost of the Snowy Mountains Scheme was estimated by the Australian Academy of Science in 1957, and the figure provided has been updated to 2016 equivalent values. AAS [Australian Academy of Science] Report on the Condition of the High Mountain Catchments of NSW and Victoria, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

[9] Impacts of wild horses to the Alps catchments and the downstream effects have been described: (Worboys, G.L., Freudenberger, D. and Good, R. (2015) Our Australian Alps are Changing for the Worse, Part Three, Water Catchments, https://theaustralianalps.wordpress.com/the-alps-partnership/publications-and-research/our-australian-alps-are-changing-for-the-worse/.

[10] Information source: Worboys, G.L. (2015) ‘Protected areas and water catchments: The Australian Alps’, in (eds)  Figgis, P., Mackey, B., Fitzsimons, J., Irving, J. and Clarke, P. Valuing Nature, Protected Areas and Ecosystem Services,  Australian Committee for IUCN, Sydney.

[11] Information source: Worboys, G.L. and Pulsford, I. (2013) Observations of Pest Horse Impacts in the Australian Alps, Canberra, Available at: www.mountains-wcpa.com.

[12] Costin’s Ecosystems of the Monaro (op cit); Jenny Dyring’s Research and research by the 2014 NERP program (Porfirio et al, 2014) all identified serious impacts from wild Horses.

[13] Reference: (Helms, R. (1893) Helms, R. (1893) ‘Report on the Grazing Leases of the Mount Kosciusko Plateau’, in Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, No. 4, pp. 530-531.

[14] Reference: (Young, D. (2004) ‘Economic values’ in Independent Scientific Committee Report, An Assessment of the Values of Kosciuszko National Park, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Sydney.

[15] Reference: AAS [Australian Academy of Science] (1957) A Report on the Condition of the High Mountain Catchments of New South Wales and Victoria, Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

[16] Impacts to the Australian Alps Catchments are getting Worse, Parts One, Two and Three, https://theaustralianalps.wordpress.com/the-alps-partnership/publications-and-research/our-australian-alps-are-changing-for-the-worse/.


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One Response to “Restocking Kosciuszko: Regression of a national heritage icon”

  1. I think culling of the Brumbies is a good idea in that it is Population Control just like any other cull of wild/introduced/feral animals, its not extinction as many people percieve it to be. The future of the extinction of the Corroboree Frog may also just be saved also with the less destruction of their habitat due to the Brumbies.