Letter: Brumbies in National Parks – a new perspective

The recent introduction of the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 into the NSW Parliament has attracted shock and horror from many in Australia.  The objective of the Bill is “to recognise the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations within parts of Kosciuszko National Park and to protect that heritage through a wild horse management plan.”  The plan must do this while “…ensuring other environmental values of the park are also maintained.”  

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In my view, managed populations of wild horses can and should, for many reasons, remain in the park.  Brumbies are part of Australia’s history and heritage and have been in the area for over 200 years; they are part of the environmental and cultural landscape.   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?

Conventional conservation thinking is largely centred on invasive biology and threats to native species. But this paradigm of thinking is changing around the world.

In November 2017 I attended the 3rd International Conference on Compassionate Conservation, hosted by the Centre for Compassionate Conservation at the University of Technology Sydney.  I was finally among like-minded people who came to discuss an emerging multi-disciplinary conservation approach that was entirely congruent with my own environmental and animal welfare values.

Among the many research threads in Compassionate Conservation is the growing evidence that many native flora and fauna do adapt to the introduction of other species and in some instances, introduced species actually help other species survive.  This happens on across the spectrum of flora and fauna.

Dr Arian Wallach of the Centre for Compassionate Conservation notes that even “The introduction of cane toads to Australia, has triggered rapid behavioral and morphological adaptation [of native species] to their toxins, enabling native predators to recover from initial declines.” ( http://www.animals24-7.org/2018/05/15/aussie-prof-challenges-invasion-biologists-on-their-own-turf/)

In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, wild (introduced) burros dig wells in the earth which are used by at least 31 other desert species.   While a PhD student at Arizona State University, Dr Erick Lundgren started noticing strange structures in the desert and commenced studying them;  his video of the well digging Burros is now famous around the world (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tWNOlJ9yoY).

Dr Lundgren also made a significant observation in relation to this work: “As a field biologist, I was becoming interested in how ecologists understand and describe invasive species. I was beginning to realize that to demonize a species because it doesn’t belong may prevent us from seeing what it actually does.” (https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2016/06/05/secret-lives-well-digging-burros/ )

Invasive species biology disregards any benefits that introduced species bring to the environment, with research designed to reach negative conclusions regarding feral species and preserve native fauna at all costs.  In so doing, inhumane consequences often result, as is a failure to understand and recognise the positive effects introduced species have on global biodiversity.

If you take the time to read the research and advice that backs government decisions regarding wild horses in Australia (not just the media and social speculation), you will find that there are no peer reviewed research papers that claim Brumbies unequivocally and permanently damage target species in the environment.  Much of the research is poorly designed, with flawed benchmark and comparative data analysis. Unsubstantiated assumptions are made and clear proof that horses are the sole impact, as opposed to other species, natural erosion, or just normal evolution etc. is lacking.

Beyond that, control strategies for introduced species have always failed because current thinking and action, rather than helping the environment, is throwing it out of balance. Some species are declining because they are simply not adaptive to change, some because humans have destroyed habitat.  We punish successful species, inhumanely shoot horses and kill our top predators, disrupting their social networks and thwarting natural population controls. And after each lethal cull, it is not long before we need another one.

So maybe leaving horses in national parks is not such a bizarre idea.  Maybe we need another, more compassionate, pragmatic and global approach to environmental concerns.

Sandy Radke

Bellingen

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