3 May 2024

Independent high-tech wild horse survey reveals one-tenth the number of horses in Kosciuszko National Park

| Edwina Mason
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Mob of wild horses in KNP. Copyright image.

NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharp has been called on to stop the aerial shooting of the wild horses. Photo: Snowy Brumby Photography Adventures with Michelle and Ian.

An independent crowdfunded scientific survey of wild horse numbers in Kosciuszko National Park (KNP) has revealed just 569 horses in a section of the park the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) survey claims is populated by 10 times that amount.

The findings have prompted calls for the NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharp to cease aerial shooting of the wild horses – which commenced in the northern section of the park last month – pending further investigation.

Wild horse control is occurring in accordance with the KNP Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan (KNP WHHMP), which came into force in November 2021.

The NPWS maintains there is strong scientific evidence the wild horses damage the park’s fragile alpine and sub-alpine environment by trampling and grazing vegetation, eroding waterways and destroying key habitats for threatened species such as the northern corroboree frog and stocky galaxias fish.

Based on an October 2023 population survey, the NPWS says an estimated 12,934 to 22,536 wild horses, averaged out at 17,393 horses, inhabit the park, meaning that by law they must be reduced to 3000 by June 2027.

The remaining population will be kept in retention management areas reflective of the alpine region’s wild horse heritage values.

KNP wild horse population surveys are prepared on behalf of NPWS by Dr Stuart Cairns of the University of New England’s School of Environmental and Rural Science using a method called distance sampling.

These numbers have been widely challenged by locals, brumby advocates and independent biostatisticians who have suggested the population sits in the low thousands, prompting the independent survey which saw around $75,000 raised through public donations.

READ ALSO Support sought for high-tech count of Kosciuszko’s wild horses

Using high resolution imagery taken from fixed wing aircraft as well as machine learning computer analytics and the latest artificial intelligence software, the new survey was undertaken by South Australian remote sensing and data analytics company, Airborne Logic.

The 24 February survey covered 212 sqkm of the open northern high plains – specifically Peppercorn, Cooinbil, Long, McPherson, Gooandra, Kiandra and Blanket Plains – which aligned with previous helicopter and manual (visual) counting of horses conducted by NPWS in similar climactic conditions.

Around 10,266 images of open country captured during the Airborne Logic flight were merged into a large map-quality image of the region.

Project coordinator Rocky Harvey said Airborne Logic reported initial visual scans identified a total 405 horses; 91 were machine detected and human image analysts found a subsequent 73 horses which, combined, led to a final count of 569.

Previous surveys and horse density assessments published by NPWS suggested this area contained more than 5000 horses.

“This is not just a backyard report; this uses best-of-kind technology to capture and analyse high-resolution imagery that discovered horses the human eye couldn’t see,” Mr Harvey said. “Stack that up against the NPWS survey assumptions, and it’s pretty difficult to dispute.

“Here the Minister is basing all her decisions on a distance sampling method she has, in the past, viewed with great skepticism,” he said, “and we present her with a more exact report and the numbers are not stacking up, not even close.”

Nationals MP Wes Fang agrees, saying the Airborne Logic figures sit in stark contrast with those presented by the Minister and the NPWS.

“By the looks of this the numbers of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park are already well under the required 3000 and for the NSW Government to continue to push ahead with the aerial culling program given this revelation would be to ignore the clear scientific evidence presented in the Airborne Logic report,” Mr Fang said.

Mr Fang said the Minister always maintained she was driven by the science in relation to the stated population numbers in KNP and “here is clear empirical evidence, backed up with scientific analysis”.

“If she ignores this data, she will demonstrate her actions are based on ideology, not science.”

He said in the face of recent concerns around the wild horse rehoming program, which the Minister suspended last week pending a departmental investigation, the culling program should also stop.

READ ALSO Wild horse rehoming program suspended and under investigation following Wagga carcass discovery

“To have any credibility Penny Sharpe must cease the aerial culling program of brumbies immediately,” Mr Fang said.

The Minister told Region on Wednesday (1 May) that discussions about the KNP wild horse count method were ongoing.

“During last year’s consultation period, I facilitated meetings between the department and [independent biostatistician] Clare Galea to go through her alternative count method,” she said. “We took her suggestions seriously.

“The method was given to professors from two Australian universities, a QLD Government statistician and a CSIRO statistician to review. They concluded the method was less accurate than the current practice,” Ms Sharpe said.

She confirmed her office was reading and reviewing the final report Rocky Harvey had sent to her office and had also sent it to the department for advice.

“We are continuing with the current survey method but are always looking for improvements. This includes trialling drone technology and mark recapture distance sampling. We are committed to additional population control methods once the target is reached.”

She said the government recognised the importance of horses to the history and heritage of KNP and surrounds.

“That is why we’ll maintain a horse population of 3000, once we have reduced the numbers that are doing damage to the park,” she said.

Mr Harvey said he looked forward to the Minister commenting on the results.

“Despite the overwhelming evidence, it’s for the Minister, ignorance is bliss and presumably the Cairns methodology will be the backbone of her defence,” Mr Fang said.

“But we’re at the point now where the Minister needs to stop with the politics and if her actions see the end to the culturally iconic brumby, history will damn her for that,” he said.

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Regionally Interested1:01 pm 10 May 24

Has or will this new study been/be peer-reviewed to establish its scientific veracity?

This is not journalism, it’s propaganda.

Matthew Nott7:45 pm 09 May 24

I think there is a compromise position here.
If the number of Brumbies in Kosciusko National Park is reduced to 3000 horses, then ongoing management of those numbers could continue by rehoming rather than shooting. I think reducing numbers to 3000 would preserve the important heritage value of Brumbies whilst protecting the KNP.
The KNP needs protection. It is an iconic National Park. It is a fragile ecosystem which is already under threat from climate change and human interference. There are a huge number of feral and introduced animals putting pressure on endangered species, some of which are unique to the Australian High Country.
I think National Parks workers are doing a fantastic job in trying to maintain the Kosciuszko National Park in difficult circumstances and with limited resources.

patricia gardiner6:26 pm 04 May 24

Many would gratefully accept the sum of $75,000 to provide feral horse numbers that the feral horse advocates want us to believe.
No one cares if numbers are 17,000 or 1.
They are feral animals destroying a unique natural environment that must be protected. Feral horses do NOT belong in KNP, or anywhere else in Australia for that matter. I have seen the damage and danger they cause in Cape York. They are destructive, just like feral pigs, but pose more danger as they invade camping grounds, house yards, roads.

Stop The Obviously Cruel Brumby Cull2:54 pm 06 May 24

You should get a job at the Invasive Species Council writing their Media Releases with the garbage you trot out. You lot are all so very keen to call for and watch over abhorrent animal cruelty that is based on numerous lies and exaggerations.

Another misleading and error filled article from Edwina who is clearly biased in her reporting. To suggest there are only 569 horses in the entire northern end of the park based on an untested and unverified method is ludicrous. The area of the count represented only 3% of the entire park and there are significant areas where horses are that was not surveyed. It is misleading to state the government believes there are 5000 in that very small sample area. That is not what has been stated and the ‘Rocky’ count did not take in all the area where the horses are. The damage observed in the photographs was apparent and if less than 600 horses caused that amount of damage I would suggest all horses should be removed.

Everyone knows the number to be retained did not come from any scientific reasoning. It was simply a number that would make Bari happy. The Federal government is already questioning whether that number should be reduced.

It is also pretty clear the method used by Airborne Logistics is not suitable in timbered areas and there is a significant amount of timbered area in that small sample. To apply this method to the entire park would be of little use not to mention extremely expensive. At the end of winter we will see just how many horses were not seen by the ‘Rocky’ count when numbers of horses culled are released.

It is deplorable that people want to protect such a destructive animal for no other reason than they love horses. I love my horses too but they are restrained by fences.

An Ecologist10:48 am 04 May 24

NAH. The truth is far otherwise.

This is an example of technical excellence (by AirBorne Logic) resting on a foundation of abject ecological ignorance by those who contracted the company and have subsequently tried to compare its result to the Helicopter Line Transect Distance Sampling (HLTDS) that is carried out by Cairns under contract to NPWS. By the way, I note that their claim to be getting ‘peer review’ of the count is misleading because only the technical work by Airborne Logic is being reviewed. The important ecological assumptions and calculations, done by the proponents, are not being subjected to expert review. I suppose that is because, in an on-line video uploaded in advance, the proponents say their purpose is to “prove” there are few horses in the area. Is that also why the only plains included in this little Air Photo Survey (APS) survey were the ones where Snowy Hydro had been working for many days before hand installing scores of km of underground powerlines, and where every road was being graded? And why the majority of open plains – undisturbed – were excluded from the survey?

The main problem is that the APS method lacks any way to measure the proportion of horses not detected. The company warned the proponents in advance that the method would not reliably detect horses in the wooded areas (yes its all online). So there might be zero undetected horses in the area, or any number, maybe thousands. We cant know. Therefore APS is classified as an abundance index, not a measure of absolute abundance like HLTDS. There is no valid way to compare between them like the proponent and this article are doing. If Penny Sharp acknowledges this scientifically rubbish survey, she will hear about it from real scientists in every direction. Sadly these people just wasted $78,000 of donated funds only because they were unwilling to engage with professionals.

David Dalton7:30 am 04 May 24

It breaks my heart the amount of effort people are going to in support of allowing the destruction of one of the most unique and fragile ecosystems in the world.
Horses in the wild are available to see in almost every other part of Australia, they’ve been in this park 200 years and somehow they take priority over Corroboree Frogs, skinks, mice, possums and various other animal, fish and plant species. Not to mention the wallows and similar disruption horses cause to the waterways that provide the first drops of clean water to the Murray, Snowy and Murrumbidgee rivers.

So the so called ‘independent’ count paid for by the Brumby supporters showed way less horses! Wow what a surprise. Although I dont know how they can only limit the count on a certain amount of small cleared areas, as if horses are not mobile and cover a greater area.

That’s good news, it means it will be faster clearing the remaining feral horses via culling…

Horse Horsington5:04 pm 03 May 24

*Feral horses. And the study had no survey design, it did not survey the same area that it was being compared to. Aiborne Logic who collected this data were pretty clear this isn’t a population estimate. If there are less horses than NPWS estimate, it only demonstrates horses do more damage than originally thought. Where is the Kosciuszko heritage pig society?

Belinda Douglas4:31 pm 03 May 24

Legislation states 3000 horses. That rehoming is preferable to shooting.
A count is required now as this latest survey proves what PENNY SHARPE has no idea of numbers. Her approach to this cull is barbaric inhumane illogical and leaves on wondering if the woman is fit for the positions she holds in our government. Absolutely disgraceful and immoral.

Legislation does not state 3000 horses are to remain. That would be in the management plan which is not actually legislation. Management plans can be amended without consent of the parliament and do not have the governor’s seal. It was agreed that 3000 horses could remain in 32% of the park but the Federal government has already indicated it may step in to force the NSW government to reduce that number. You would recall the retention number in 2016 was only 600.

It would seem culling horses is barbaric but culling other pests in the same way is not. Horses have no right to be in the National park and the real truth is they have no heritage or historical value. It is a human construct made up by people like you who simply have an illogical love of horses. Perhaps consider the destruction they cause first. Keep your pets behind your fences.

Great article.
Penny Sharpe needs to stop the inhumane slaughter of the Kosciusko Brumbies immediately.

Janina Price5:34 pm 04 May 24

No! She needs to stop the inhumane Slaughter of our Kangaroos. The feral horses have to go, PERIOD

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