Man from Monaro stands in the bootprints of The Man From Snowy River
SYDNEY, Australia––In a reversal of fortune as abrupt as a stallion wheeling on hind legs to strike at an aggressive rival, the wild horses of Kosciuszko National Park in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales are suddenly slated for protected status––if the New South Wales Legislative Assembly approves Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018, introduced on May 19, 2018 by NSW deputy premier John Barilaro.
Dubbed “brumbies” by Australians, the Kosciuszko wild horses were only weeks ago scheduled for massacre by aerial gunnery.
Covering more 2,664 square miles on the New South Wales side of the Australian alps, adjoining Alpine National Park in Victoria state, Kosciuszko National Park was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1977.
The park is home to critically endangered species including the corroboree frog, mountain pygmy possum, and dusky antechinus, a tiny carnivore sometimes called a marsupial mouse, but of habits more like that of a shrew.
Ecological nativists have long argued that brumbies should be extirpated from Kosciuszko National Park as a non-native species and potential threat to endemic indigenous species. But what harm, if any, brumbies might be doing to either the endangered species or their habitat is poorly documented, if at all.
Declared Barilaro, “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. Kosciuszko National Park exists to protect the unique environment of the Snowy Mountains, and that unique environment includes wild brumbies.
“The brumby has a right to exist”
“The heritage management plan,” Barilaro said, “will specifically prohibit lethal culling of the brumby, aerial or otherwise, and will identify those areas in Kosciuszko National Park where brumbies can roam without causing significant environmental harm.
“If we accept that the brumby has a right to exist in the Snowy Mountains region – a right that this bill encapsulates – and we recognize the brumby’s unique place in Australian history,” Barilaro continued, partially acknowledging some of the arguments against brumbies advanced by ecological nativists, “then we must find ways to preserve a sustainable population in a way that minimizes harm to the environment.
“If brumbies are found in highly-sensitive alpine areas of Kosciuszko National Park,” Barilaro pledged, “resources will be allocated towards relocation first, followed by re-homing, should population numbers grow too high.”
90% were to be killed over 20 years
Summarized Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Tom Lowrey, “A community advisory panel will be established to inform future policy on the brumbies, and more research will be done to provide more accurate population figures. But the plan appears to be out of step,” Lowrey noted, “with recent advice from the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which recently took steps towards listing habitat loss from brumbies as a ‘key threatening process’” allegedly putting Australian native species in danger.
“A 2016 draft Wild Horse Management Plan handed to the NSW Government[by the Office of Environment and Heritage] recommended reducing the number of horses in Kosciuszko National Park by 90% over 20 years,” Lowrey recalled, “primarily through culling.”
Barilaro and the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 will face intensive opposition from the Australian conservation establishment.
Observed Calla Wahlquist of The Guardian, “This is the first time a government has ever mandated the protection of an invasive species within a national park, and conservationists say it establishes a worrying precedent.”
Alleged Deakin University ecology professor Don Driscoll to Wahlquist, “To keep horses in the national park is to essentially compromise the environmental values of the park. There are no less sensitive areas” to which brumbies can be moved.
“No effective way of managing brumbies”
Noted Wahlquist, “Driscoll has been an outspoken critic of moving away from aerial culling of brumbies in the national parks, saying that population reduction is necessary and that a well-performed cull is more effective and less cruel than other forms of population management.”
Argued Driscoll, “There is no effective way of managing brumbies,” other than culling. “If we enter a dry period or there is a large fire,” Driscoll said, disregarding that brumbies have survived countless droughts and wildfires already, “thousands of horses are going to starve to death.”
Explained Wahlquist, “Instead of culling, numbers will be managed by trapping and rehoming programs, supported by a government marketing campaign to promote brumby adoption,” an approach which has failed to curtail wild horse population growth in the U.S. west.
“Fertility control options”
“The government has also said it will investigate fertility control options,” Wahlquist added, citing an alternate approach which has succeeded in the U.S. wherever tried on a sustained basis.
“The Australian Veterinary Association says fertility control is not currently a viable option,” Wahlquist wrote, “because the injections given to mares only last a few years.”
But mathematical modeling based on U.S. immuno-contraceptive experience suggests that only a few years of delayed fertility is sufficient to stabilize or even steeply reduce a wild horse population.
Barilaro has ecological credentials too
Barilaro, 47, elected from the Monaro district, which includes Kosciuszko National Park, brings to the debate strong environmental credentials of his own, of a practical variety.
Notably, Barilaro entered politics after managing the energy-efficient window-and-door-making firm Ryleho, of Canberra, the Australian national capital.
Barilaro has allies, as well.
Wrote Sandy Radke, moderator for the Victorian Alpine Heritage Brumbies page on Facebook, to the Bellingen Courier, “While one could argue that brumbies should be excluded from some highly sensitive areas, most of the land they now occupy, such as Long Plain, was cleared and used for cattle grazing long before being included in the National Park. The original Snowy Hydro Scheme was built in these areas and the new plans for hydro power will soon impact again on the land. One has to ask – why the fuss?
“Paradigm is changing”
“Conventional conservation thinking is largely centered on invasive biology and threats to native species. But this paradigm of thinking is changing around the world,” Radke continued. Radke cited the 2016 discovery by Arizona State University Ph.D. candidate Erick Lundgren that feral burros in the Sonora desert dig shallow wells that revitalize the habitat for at least 13 native species, including bighorn sheep, javelinas, and some endangered plants.
Ironically, bighorn sheep hunters in particular have called for killing feral burros, as purported habitat rivals of the sheep.
“To demonize a species because it doesn’t belong may prevent us from seeing what it actually does,” Lundgren told the New Zealand magazine Horsetalk.
“What is the evidence?”
Radke also furnished a link to the recent ANIMALS 24-7 article Aussie prof challenges invasion biologists on their own turf, describing the work of Arian D. Wallach, founder of the Centre for Compassionate Conservation in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Technology in Sydney, the New South Wales capital.
Asked Australian Brumby Alliance vice president Madison Young, “What is the evidence that horses are doing anything to the natives? It goes back to this idea of a ‘feral animal,’ and just because it’s a feral animal it should not necessarily be here.”
More brumbies than mustangs
The brumby issue in Australia parallels the mustang issue in the U.S., but differ chiefly in that the Australian federal government estimates it is dealing with far more wild horses, sharing habitat with livestock and feral camels.
While the U.S. now has nearly 80,000 nominally wild horses, albeit that 60% are in captivity, Australia has 400,000 brumbies, scattered over an area of about the size of the entire Lower 48 states, along with as many as 300,000 feral camels.
The first eight horses arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, 269 years after horses escaped from Spanish invaders in 1519 to colonize the U.S. Southwest and Rocky Mountains regions.
No horse predators in Australia
The first written record of horses escaping into the Australian Outback came about 30 years after the First Fleet landed, but horses may have escaped earlier without the escapes being documented.
Unlike in the U.S., where horses are opportunistically preyed upon by pumas, wolves, and grizzly bears, horses in Australia met no significant predators, though dingoes will kill and eat foals when they are left unguarded.
The major wild horse “predators” in Australia, other than humans, remain drought and wildfires, distantly followed by accidental encounters with venomous snakes.
Thus the habitat conditions for brumbies remain as favorable today as they ever were, whereas favorable habitat for mustangs has been steeply reduced by human activity.
Australian government pressure on the brumby population tends to be cyclical.
As in the U.S., efforts to eradicate wild horses tend to intensify, along with attempts to eradicate other introduced species, whenever public anxiety rises over human immigration. In the U.S. the concern is usually over immigration from Mexico. In Australia the anxiety centers on immigration from Asia.
Such concern was soaring in 1890, when Banjo Paterson authored The Man from Snowy River, a poem long part of the Australian literary canon, describing a wild horse roundup to recapture a colt who ran away to join a brumby band.
The Man from Snowy River
The anti-Asian sentiment of Banjo Paterson’s time culminated in the 1901 adoption of the “White Australia” policy, which barred Asian immigration for seventy years.
But the enduring popularity of The Man from Snowy River, made into hit films in 1920 and 1982, has saved brumbies from extermination time and again, especially in the Snowy Mountains.