On Monday, 17 August, the brumbies of Kosciuszko National Park received a turnaround in fortune, but not a reprieve as NSW Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean announced there would be a recount of the wild horse population.
The announcement has come after months of protracted, heated debate at ground level between conservationists and pro-brumby groups, and in the upper reaches of NSW politics between Deputy Premier John Barilaro and the environment minister.
It also follows a decision by the NSW Land and Environment Court on 17 July to dismiss an injunction on the removal of the horses from three regions of Kosciuszko National Park that were hit by the past summer’s bushfires.
Around 4000 brumbies are currently being removed from Cooleman Plain, parts of Boggy Plain and Kiandra Plain, and Nungar Plain in Kosciuszko National Park, using passive trapping methods. The first horses were removed in late July.
The brumbies’ removal is part of the statewide emergency recovery plan to protect and restore wildlife populations in the wake of the bushfires.
Numbers are based on the 2019 Feral Horse Aerial Survey conducted by the Australian Alps National Parks Cooperative Management Program (AANPCMP) which revealed the estimated feral horse population had grown in the past five years from approximately 9190 in 2014 to 25,318 in 2019, a 23 per cent increase per annum.
The area surveyed takes into account wild horse populations in alps regions of the ACT, NSW and Victoria.
Mr Barilaro’s repeated calls for a recount of the Kosciuszko National Park wild horse population in the wake of the bushfires and ongoing drought finally found their mark.
But it was in the very public arena – as he spoke with Ray Hadley on radio 2GB on Monday, 18 August – that Minister Kean conceded to a recount.
“We’ll do a recount as requested,” he said. “The only reason for any obfuscation was that they do a big count every four years, I think to give the community confidence that what we’re doing is the right thing, but we’ll bring that forward.”
However, Minister Kean said the current culling program would remain in place.
“We’re not doing eradication, we’re doing management and there’s three very sensitive areas of the park – which is about nine per cent of the park – where we want to manage some of the horses out,” he said.
The minister’s comments came minutes after Mr Hadley questioned him about the placement of horse skulls at the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) depot at the southern end of Kosciuzsko National Park. The photos appear to show brumby skulls displayed in trees as some sort of trophy.
Minister Kean told listeners the action is “completely unacceptable”.
“It’s fair to say I felt sick,” he said. “There is no place for harm or cruelty, or gloating about it, for any living being in the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
“If any of the staff want to be involved in that, they can get out.”
Environmental group Reclaim Kosci – an arm of the Invasive Species Council – also joined Minister Kean in condemning the placement of the horse skulls, which are believed to have been placed there by a former NPWS employee.
Reclaim Kosci said it supports the minister’s comments on animal cruelty. The group also said his decision on the recount is a win for Kosciuszko National Park.
“A science-based count that confirms numbers in Kosciuszko National Park while allowing horse removal is welcomed,” said Reclaim Kosci spokesperson Anthony Sharwood.
“Let’s continue with the current post-fires removal of horses, let’s get the recount done, and let’s then put in place a long-term management plan for the horses.”
Mr Sharwood said horse numbers have been increasing at around 20 per cent in Kosciuszko National Park in the past five years.
“Horse numbers are now so high that any delayed action on their management means we’ve got a bigger problem, year after year with more of Kosciuszko’s crystal clear streams turned into mudheaps, and its incredibly rare plants trampled by hard hooves,” he said. “It is becoming increasingly urgent to remove many more horses in other fragile areas of Kosciuszko.
“Even Ray Hadley today stated that, ‘No-one disagrees there should be a cull.’
“That’s why Mr Barilaro should just let NPWS get on with the job.”
Minister Kean’s office was contacted by Region Media to confirm methodology and timelines for the wild horse population recount, but no comment has been forthcoming.