Efforts to protect vulnerable species are being “undermined” by the release of wild horses into one of the country’s most fragile landscapes, critics say.
NSW Government data obtained by the Invasive Species Council (ISC) has revealed 305 horses were released back into Kosciuszko National Park in the first half of this year.
The figures indicate a total of 1006 animals were captured, but just 701 were removed, and while that is an increase on previous years, the idea of releasing invasive species back into a national park has left conservationists frustrated.
Vulnerable native species, including the northern corroboree frog and broad toothed rat, are likely to have their habitat "smashed" by the horses living in the park, according to ISC’s conservation director James Trezise.
“Australia's alps haven't evolved with hard hoofed animals, so when horses go into these landscapes they degrade the sensitive wetland ecosystems that have evolved over thousands, if not millions of years,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
“One of the major issues is the trampling and muddying of wetland complexes.
“Also they over graze and they trample the grasses, and reduce the habitat structure for native species.”
Authorities say they had no choice but to release horses
Sources within the NSW Government have advised the horses were released in order to comply with RSPCA guidelines relating to humane and ethical treatment of animals.
"Consistent with best practice... heavily pregnant mares, and mares with young foals were released," a NSW National Parks (NPWS) spokesperson added in a statement.
"The release of heavily pregnant mares and mares with young foals has been standard practice in previous years."
NPWS indicated an updated draft wild horse heritage management plan will be released for public consultation in the coming days.
"The plan will safeguard the environmental values of the park – including threatened species, such as those recognised in (Asset of Intergenerational Significance) declarations — while also protecting the heritage values of the wild horses," the spokesperson said.
Key facts about introduced species in Australia
The NSW Government uses 1080 baits to bait foxes, but also native dingoes within national parks
102 cane toads were brought to Australia in 1935, and there are now an estimated 200 million
Wild pigs cost Australia's agriculture industry an estimated $200 million a year
Tasmania and Victoria have given wild deer protected status despite the destruction they cause
Fear horses will learn to avoid being trapped
Over 14,000 horses live inside Kosciuszko National Park, with populations believed to increase by 18 per cent a year, according to estimates.
Horse numbers are "out of control" and this year's removal efforts will not be enough to stop their numbers increasing, according to Mr Trezise, who says more must be done to stop their proliferation.
“Releasing those horses is undermining all the other management efforts because those horses are going to go on and breed,” he said.
“They’re are going to be more wary. They learn, so they’re going to be much less likely to go into a trap into the future.
“So what we're basically creating is a future population of horses, that's going to be even harder to control.”
Horse numbers skyrocket while under NSW protection
While the NSW Government has a policy of protecting wild horses within the Snowy Mountains, over the border Victoria’s preference is to remove the animals.
The cultivation of the animals within the region stems from a bill introduced by NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro in 2018 to protect and recognise their “heritage value and cultural significance”.
“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,” Mr Barilaro said before introducing the bill.
In the intervening years, their numbers have consistently increased, growing from approximately 4400 horses to a peak of around 19,000 horses in 2020, and Mr Barilaro declared in January that their numbers should be cut.
Unlike previous years, the majority of horses removed from the park were approved for rehoming, with just 14 sent to slaughter at a knackery and three euthanised on site, according to the data.
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