The first aerial survey since the catastrophic 2019 bushfires has found that the number of wild horses in the Kosciuszko National Park has fallen by more than a quarter.
The survey found there are now an estimated 14,000 horses — 5,000 fewer than the previous year.
The NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said while there had been some reduction in numbers, the population remained too large to be environmentally sustainable.
“We will always have wild horses in Kosciuszko but 14,000 is still too many,” he said.
“If we want to preserve this precious place and the plants and animals that call it home, we need to manage horse numbers responsibly.”
Surveys conducted between 2014 and 2019 showed that the horse population was increasing by more than 20 per cent each year.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service has long voiced concerned that the damage caused by the horses’ hooves threatens sensitive alpine ecosystems and destroys key habitat for several threatened native species.
The latest survey was commissioned by the NSW Government and carried out by helicopter surveillance over four days in October and November 2020.
Mr Kean welcomed the new data, which he said reinforced the need to manage the wild horse population.
“We can now be confident that we have the most up-to-date data as we get the balance right, protecting the Snowies and retaining the heritage value of these wild horses.”
He said several factors had contributed to the fall in numbers, including the drought, the bushfires and the fact that the 2019 survey covered the entire NSW and Victorian Alps region while this survey only looked at wild horses within Kosciuszko National Park.
Mr Kean said that more than 340 horses were removed from the park in 2020 by passive trapping and re-homing.
He said this interim program would continue, pending the finalisation of a new management plan.
Deputy Premier John Barilaro, whose Monaro electorate covers part of the Kosciuszko National Park, had campaigned for a new survey, saying he believed the summer bushfires had significantly reduced the brumby population.
“The results of this survey show we were justified in our push for an urgent recount of the wild horses in the park,” Mr Barilaro said.
While he has previously opposed a cull of wild horses, he said he was now ready to support a plan to reduce numbers.
“I accept that the figure of just over 14,000 wild horses in the park is still too high and that active management of their impact on the park’s alpine environment must continue,” he said.
Jamie Pittock from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University said the survey demonstrated that there has been no real change in the number of wild horses.
“The numbers in the 2020 survey, scientifically they are not statistically significantly different from the 2019 pre-fire survey,” he said.
“It’s really hard to count any large animals in a large area of bushland so statistically the numbers fall within the error range of the surveys of 2019 and 2020.”
He said the only significant change was that no horse population was found around Cabramurra, which was severely burnt in the bushfires.
Whereas, there was no reduction in numbers in the northern part of the National Park.
“In that area, the density of horses has not changed and that’s really significant because of the key habitat for threatened animals impacted by horses is in that area,” Dr Pittock said.
Calls for more aerial culling
The National Parks Association said horse numbers must be urgently controlled as alpine habitats are incredibly rare in Australia.
“All of the science says the number of horses that should be in the park is a number in the hundreds not a number in the thousands,” executive officer Gary Dunnett said.
There is a whole range of plants and animal species that cannot survive anywhere else than in those Alpine habitats, such as the stocky Galaxias, the Corrobboree Frog and the Mountain Pygmy Possum.
Mr Dunnett also does not think that rehoming the horses is the answer.
“It is really stretching credibility to think that there are enough people out there to take these animals and to make a real difference to the high level of horse numbers we have at the moment.
“There are a whole range of techniques that could reduce numbers, aerially culling is a well established technique for controlling animal numbers from an animal welfare and human safety aspect, corralling horses is also effective and so is ground shooting.”
He said when horse counting began in the early 2000s there was estimated to be about 2,000 brumbies in the national park.
The Government said the results of the survey would be used to draw up a new draft wild horse management plan, setting out how it intended to reduce the horse population to a sustainable level.
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