GRAEME WORBOYS. Save Kosciuszko.

May 24, 2018

Australians need to save Kosciuszko from legislative action that will lead to the decline of one of Australia’s most beautiful areas, its mountain water catchments and unique alpine native animals and plants.

John Barilaro, a National Party member, Member for Monaro, Minister and Deputy Premier of NSW is introducing legislation into the NSW Parliament that will protect the brumby and make it illegal for the lethal culling of these animals from Kosciuszko National Park. 

This is an extraordinary proposal given that the brumby is an introduced stock animal gone wild and it is threatening the special values of Kosciuszko by trampling, eroding and polluting its unique alpine wetlands and catchments. It is even more inappropriate given the government’s scientific advisors are recommending that feral horses (brumbies) are listed as a threatening process. Barilaro’s so-called ‘heritage Bill’ to cease action to reduce their numbers will ensure that damage not only continues but will increase with ongoing breeding. The real heritage needing protection is Australia’s native alpine animals and plants, the health of the alpine ecosystems and catchments and the beauty of the mountains. These heavy, hard hooved animals are trashing these sensitive alpine catchments. 

The proposed legislation also undermines the purpose of a protected area. Australia’s native wildlife are protected in NSW. People like their native animals: it is part of what is special about being Australian and they want this wildlife to be protected. In NSW, such legal protection is provided by legislation that includes the NSW National Parks and Wildlife (NPW) Act. This Act was established by a Liberal-National Party Government and has been effective for over 50 years. Until now, it has received bipartisan support. This week, Barilaro’s announcement sought to undermine two of the Act’s principal purposes: to protect native wildlife and to safeguard water catchments. The Berejiklian Government, if it passes this legislation will protect a non-native species that is endangering rare alpine and subalpine species and destroying mountain wetlands and catchments in a National Heritage Listed Property.

How did it come to this? The original process had been administered by Environment Minister Gabriel Upton’s Department, the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the organisation responsible for protecting Kosciuszko’s subalpine and alpine animals and catchments. Too many brumbies were causing impacts to the park and a planned approach to dealing with the issue was initiated. Quite correctly, before preparing a draft wild horse management plan, the NPWS undertook community consultation to seek community views on this sensitive subject. It received submissions, conducted community meetings and appointed an independent Technical Reference Committee to provide scientific and technical advice. The Service took on board all of these inputs.

The NPWS also heard the strident calls of brumby supporters. It even had to call in the NSW police to respond to pro-brumby supporter threats to people who responded in favour of controls on the population growth of the brumby. The NPWS heard and listened to all views, not just the loudest. It was a democratic process and the loudest group certainly did not represent the community view. The NPWS draft 2016 Wild Horse Management Plan was a compromise. Against the wishes of many who sought a brumby free national park, it provided a compromise and recommended culling and the retention of a population of up to 600 horses for the park. The pro-brumby groups had influenced the planning in favour of a permanent presence of brumbies in the Kosciuszko. This was a historic event.

However, this was not good enough for Barilaro. Protection of just 600 and the culling of large numbers of brumbies was not accepted. He was going to save all the brumbies and would establish legislation to do this. The consequences meant a major breach of the process in favour of politics. The draft wild horse plan and its associated democratic consultation process input was shelved. Parks Service advice in the plan was ignored as well as the National Heritage and national park protected status and values of Kosciuszko. Peer reviewed science and inputs from the Independent Technical Reference Committee about brumby catchment damage in the draft plan were also ignored. The 2014 scientifically conducted aerial survey of pest horse population figures of between 4000 and 8000 by Dr Stuart Cairns was debunked: there were said to be fewer brumbies than estimated. In sum, the disastrous impact of pest horses on Australian endangered alpine and subalpine animal species and the water catchments were not considered and scientific evidence was ignored.

Barilaro had his own special advisor Peter Cochran. Cochran is a tourism operator whose business took horseback tours to view brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park. He was also a former politician. He provided advice as a self-styled “go-between” for Ministers Upton and Barilaro. Cochran had been a long-term proponent of brumby protection; an opponent of wilderness; a pro-park drought relief grazing campaigner and the NPWS was no fan of his.

The Barilaro legislation would embed thousands of brumbies into permanent residency within the park. This was not an animal welfare issue. It would mean the reintroduction of stock grazing within Kosciuszko by stealth and would make some pro-grazing proponents very happy. Because of its excessive catchment impacts, stock grazing was prevented by the Askin Liberal Government back in 1969. Catchment impacts from stock meant disturbed catchment water yields, water quality and water flow regimes in Australia’s most important mountain catchments. In 1955, irrigators from the Murray Valley personally witnessed the impacts of stock grazing in Kosciuszko and vigorously objected to what the mountain cattlemen were doing to the headwater streams. In 2018, every irrigator and farmer in the Murray-Darling Basin should be concerned by this deeply foolish Barilaro-Cochran proposal to formalise stock back in the park again. The same can be said for Snowy 1; Snowy 2 and every town downstream that draws its water supplies from the Park’s catchments. In 2018, the catchment water was worth billions of dollars to the downstream economy in the Murray-Darling Basin. The catchments need to be in good health. Every litre of water from the mountains is precious, especially in droughts. The brumbies are trashing the mountain catchments and every politician should, like the irrigators, see this damage for themselves ( 

Animal welfare has been raised as an issue for the brumbies. The real animal welfare issue is about Australian native animal species. Brumbies, because of excessive numbers are trampling, destroying and draining wetland habitats of endangered alpine and sub-alpine amphibian, reptile, mammal and invertebrate species. Kosciuszko is the only place on Earth where many of these endangered species are found. If the Barilaro intervention destroys effective NPWS controls for these introduced animals then it will result in the death of our own Australian native species. 

Unfortunately for our cryptic Australian alpine species, the media prefers the plight of the brumby, a feral animal, and the NPWS is left to defend our Aussie animals. Grand scenes of brumby mobs in full flight on Kosciuszko open plains are far more appealing to television audiences than the detail of our Australian animals and their plight. This superficiality and simplicity is endangering Australian species for the real message is not getting out. Discerning and factual news reporting is needed. The community needs to be made aware of the impacts to our Australian alpine animals and plants and the trashing of the mountain catchments to the detriment of millions of people downstream.

Given the status of Kosciuszko National Park as a National Heritage Listed Property, the Commonwealth Government, under the provisions of the Environmental Planning and Biodiversity Conservation Act could intervene if the values for which a property has been recognised are significantly impacted. Kosciuszko’s unique alpine and subalpine flora and fauna and catchments are currently being impacted by brumbies. The impacts arising from the proposed Barilaro legislation could enhance this problem and trigger a future intervention. It would be an embarrassing moment for the Berejiklian Government given it should have acted long ago to protect the park based on NSW legislation and the current Kosciuszko Plan of Management.

For any Australian that cares about our natural heritage, the pro-brumby legislation if passed would establish an ugly precedent and set the conservation clock in NSW back by at least 50 years. The proposed Legislation has unacceptable implications that pest animals are more important than native Australian animals; that mountain catchments can be degraded and that downstream users of water are not important. Even worse, to intervene politically on a democratic, community participation process that produced a professional, balanced wild horse management plan with its associated compromises, is frankly outrageous.

Barilaro’s proposed legislation is a step too far. It is political madness in a world where nature everywhere is under threat. Kosciuszko is a special rare alpine environment in a flat dry continent. It needs full protection of its endangered Australian alpine species and its water catchments. This proposed legislation must be abandoned by the Berejiklian Government and the draft NPWS Wild Horse Management Plan adopted as the sensible, compromise way forward. Kosciuszko National Park must be saved from the brumby.

Graeme Worboys is (Honorary) Associate Professor of the Fenner School for Environment and Society, Australian National University.

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