Australia plans to cull over 10,000 wild horses, but scientists say it's not enough

Officials in Australia have a new plan to eliminate or kill more than 10,000 wild horses. They are also called brumbies. (Image credit: Shutterstock)
As part of a plan to reduce the number of wild horses, wildlife officials in Australia plan to either kill or rehome over 10,000 wild horses. Scientists have criticised the proposal as not being sufficiently ambitious.

According to Australian Alps National Parks, there are more than 25,000 wild horses or feral horses in Australia. This is based on a 2019 aerial census. The majority of these horses are also known as brumbies in Australia. They live in Australia's alpine area, which is located at the intersection between three states: New South Wales, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory.

The alpine environment of Australia covers only 1% of the continent. It is home to many endangered and threatened species, according to David Watson, an Australian ecologist at Charles Sturt University. Horses, an invasive species in Australia that reproduce rapidly and cause extensive ecosystem damage, are a problem.

Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, is a particularly vulnerable area. It is home to over 14,000 wild horses. The National Parks and Wildlife Service of NSW released a draft plan Oct. 1, which aims to reduce Kosciuszko National Park's feral horse population to just 3,000. The park's population would be reduced to 32% by the time this happens. Officials believe the plan will protect the park while protecting the brumbies' heritage value, which is controversially defined by a 2018 state law. This law identifies brumbies in the park as culturally significant despite their introduction to the region by European settlers.

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In an open letter, 69 scientists from Australia's Academy of Science argued that the draft plan left too many brumbies and won't adequately protect the park against their impacts in an Oct. 29 communication. Scientists claim that officials are accepting the wishes of pro-brumby lobbyists, and are not examining the scientific evidence.

John Shine, president of Australian Academy of Science, stated in a statement that officials must "listen to science, the most recent evidence and recommendations on the best way to protect the park against the significant damage being caused by feral horses." To do otherwise would be a disdain for threatened Australian ecosystems and species under threat from feral horses.

The scientists wrote to the National Parks and Wildlife Service urging them to reduce the number brumbies to "well under" the suggested 3,000 and protect the whole park from animals, rather than two-thirds.

Photographed by Brumbies in the alpine region of NSW, Kosciuszko National Park. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Watson stated that the NSW government could not have chosen a better place to allow feral horses to roam. Nature reports that Australia's alpine area is home to many endangered and vulnerable species. These include the stocky galaxias fish, the alpine tree-frog (Litoria vertexii alpina), and the broad-toothed rats (Mastacomys fuscus). The brumbies are the only hoofed mammals that Australia has, and they cause severe damage to fragile vegetation that has not evolved to resist them. They have also caused severe overgrazing.

Nature reports that these areas are too fragile for large herbivores to be trampling in them. Don Driscoll is an ecologist at Deakin University, Australia.

The other two alpine states have taken a stronger stance against wild horses. The Australian Capital Territory borders Kosciuszko National Park and has a zero tolerance approach to wild horses. It "removes all spillages over its borders." ABC News in Australia reported that Victoria released its management plan on Nov. 1. It aims to "remove all wild horses" from the state's most endangered alpine habitats.

Rehoming brumbies on private land is the best way to remove them from their wild habitats. Nature reports that only about 1,000 brumbies have been rehomed in NSW since 2002. This is expensive and time-consuming. Officials plan to use aerial shooting, where trained experts shoot horses from helicopters, to kill horses if that fails.

The scientists pointed out a new study that was published in the journal Biological Conservation on Sept. 17. It found that 71% agreed that culling animals is acceptable to save endangered species.

According to The New York Times, the brumby problem in Australia is similar to that of overpopulated mustangs in U.S. national parks. Current legislation prohibits the culling of mustangs. Conservationists therefore must rely upon sterilization and rehoming.

Original publication on Live Science