Editor’s note: This story is a piece of opinion.
AUSTRALIAN ALPS NATIONAL PARKS, Au.—On June 22, 2020, Parks Victoria began shooting Heritage Brumbies, a wild horse population native to Queensland and Northwest Australia, as part of what officials are calling a post-bushfire recovery effort.
Over the past two years, the loss of wildlife in Australia has been astounding. Experts estimate that more than one billion animals lost their lives due to the 2019 bushfires. Australia already has the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction and loss of habitat, plunging environmental protection agencies into crisis mode. In recent months, the Minister for the Environment’s response to the bushfires has been heavily criticized by several environmental and animal welfare groups, mostly due to their focus on pest control.
In February, the Australian Federal Minister for the Environment announced that $33 million ($50 million AUD) of the recovery plan would be spent on animal treatment, food drops, and pest control programs, in which thousands of animals would be rounded up and killed. The plan, released in March 2020, includes a provisional list of animals threatened by the fires, which labels 119 species as a high priority for government support and protection. The Heritage Brumby population, which lost vital habitat to the fires, was not one of them.
According to the Minister of the Environment, Brumbies are pests. But what is a pest, and how are they defined? Advocates argue that the Australian government is stretching the definition of terms like “pest” or “non-native species” to justify the latest mass killing programs. Despite their crude classification, wild horses can help prevent bushfires. They also play an important role in the ecological recovery of traumatized landscapes, although Australian officials have led the public to believe otherwise. In recent years, animal and environmental advocates have worked to preserve the Brumby population, but COVID-19 outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales have allowed state officials to disregard their contributions and bar them from entering state parks. Now, welfare groups allege the government is using manipulated data, incorrect population counts, and COVID-19 scare campaigns to eradicate the Brumby population.
Pest control begins
The current Victoria Heritage Brumby Population Management Plan, an operational document signed off on by the community, explicitly states that officials cannot add lethal techniques—like mass-shooting, poisoning, or trapping—to the plan without consulting the community first. But according to a local advocacy group, Heritage Brumby Advocates Australia, the parks did not consult the community before announcing the cull, nor did they share details concerning how they would spend the money earmarked for the plan, despite their responsibility to do so. To further distance the public from the issue, officials announced the shooting of Brumbies during the first wave of COVID-19, when strict travel restrictions were in place and parks were temporarily closed to the general public.
Earlier this year, two pest culls were supposed to be executed from aircraft in New South Wales and Victoria as part of the federal post-bushfire recovery effort. In both instances, Parks & Wildlife New South Wales (NSW) and Parks Victoria (VIC) did not say whether or not the parks would include feral horses in the aerial culls. Following mass public outrage, voiced in large part by the Australian Brumby Alliance, the Victorian Brumby Association, local politicians, and celebrities such as Olivia Newton-John and Russell Crowe, Parks & Wildlife NSW and Parks VIC made public statements explicitly excluding wild horses from the cull.
Later that month, the Minister for the Environment received more criticism after it published a curiously well-timed and questionably scientific article titled, “Impacts of Fires on Plants and Animals.” In the article, Parks & Wildlife NSW notes that “[bushfire] recovery is significantly hampered by feral animals and post-fire efforts must initially be put into reducing these adverse impacts.” These sentiments are echoed by Parks VIC, which blames the Brumbies for “the destruction of habitat critical to many threatened plant and animal species, damage to waterways, degradation of fragile vegetation, and soil disturbance that results in erosion or compaction.” Heritage Brumby Advocates of Australia subsequently contacted the parks, challenging their claims for lack of evidence.
Wild horses help prevent bushfires, not create them
Wild horses are proven to reduce the risk of fires for various reasons. A study published by Science Magazine explains that “by altering the quantity and distribution of fuel supplies, large herbivores can shape the frequency, intensity, and spatial distribution of fires across a landscape. There are even unique interactions among large herbivore populations that can influence fire regimes.”
Additionally, in an independent study “Impact of Wild Horses on Wilderness Landscape and Wildfire,” naturalist and author William E Simpson II found that “wild horses are forest caretakers via the evolutionary mutualisms they share with trees. The trees offer wild horses shelter from sun, rain, wind, and snow. In turn, wild horses rub and scratch on the trees and due to their robust size, the dead and dying limbs (aka fire ladders) are broken-off, resulting in a tree that is limbed up as high as six feet above the ground (most cases five feet above ground)… wild horses will graze the grass and brush fuels under the trees they use for shelter. The combination of these two actions results in trees that are made fire-resistant.”
Brumbies’ unique digestive systems also allow for them to contribute to the regeneration of seeds and grasses within their natural habitats. Their selective grazing patterns also create habitats for bugs and small birds who are essential in the bushfire recovery effort. Together, these animals develop tiny ecosystems, called wildlife corridors, that help native species disperse into areas regenerating from bushfires.
Problems with the population survey
The parks used a Brumby population survey as evidence to support the cull. The 2019 survey was conducted by Australian Alps National Parks, which receives government funding through the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate. The research group asserts that the Brumby population has grown from 9,187 to 25,318 in five years (2014-2019). However, the total number of wild horses they counted was 1,736. That is 1,298 horses counted in the Northern area of Kosciuszko National Park, 76 horses in Talbingo, and 362 horses in the Victorian Alps. In other words, the so-called “independent” study, which was paid for and managed by elected offices, includes an additional 23,582 wild horses. This figure has since been rounded up to 25,000 horses and quoted by news outlets, Parks representatives, and politicians alike.
The Animal Justice Party NSW identified further issues with the Brumby population survey:
- The report acknowledges that surveyors removed a 2014 survey area because there were too few horses found, suggesting that the report aimed to find more horses in the region rather than to undertake an accurate study.
- The report also acknowledges that parts of the survey are in areas where horses are known to be abundant. Surveyors then extrapolated this data to cover areas in which population numbers are much lower, suggesting false increases in the wild horse population resulting from the analysis. Separate models were used for the 2014 and 2019 data sets, as well as different covariates, leading to incomparable data.
While many wildlife surveys extrapolate population data from one region to cover another, many advocates believe that this methodology is inadequate and, more often than not, encourages government agencies to spend more money on population management and less on rehoming. Currently, the recovery efforts fail to prioritize and allocate resources toward Brumby population control programs already in place. For example, Parks NSW announced a five-day aerial shooting of pest species in the Guy Fawkes National Park as part of the federal funding project. At the same time, the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association has been successfully working with local agencies to trap, remove, and rehome Brumbies from the Guy Fawkes National Park for the past 15 years. The rehoming program is so successful that demand far outstrips supply. In 2019, the association only received 23 horses for rehoming, despite requesting more, according to the program founder, Erica Jessup.
Justice for Brumbies
In May, Heritage Brumby Advocates Australia launched the #ProtectOurHeritageBrumby campaign in an attempt to combat the unnecessary killing of Victoria’s Brumbies. But during the outbreak of COVID-19, travel and access restrictions have prevented advocates from showing up in-person to defend the Brumbies. Although, advocates have been able to coordinate letter-writing campaigns to ask for information and justification concerning how a state agency can change an operational document without community consultation. When Parks refused to acknowledge the calls and emails, advocates turned their attention to local Members of Parliament and the responsible Minister.
A local cattleman, who is also an advocate for Brumbies, was even able to open up a court case, guaranteeing Parks would not shoot any horses during the legal process. After six weeks, the court sided with Parks Victoria, allowing officials to begin shooting Brumbies with noise suppressors and thermal imaging equipment as planned. Oddly enough, Parks Victoria successfully argued that while the initial draft plan did not include ground shooting as a management option, the public still had its say.
Advocates have since made formal complaints to the Ombudsman, a state agency that regulates communication between governmental bodies and community members, the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission, and the Environment Protection Agency, which have all, in part, supported Parks Victoria’s actions. The Minister for the Environment continues to remain silent on the issue.
Correction: First, a previous version of this story cited a self-published study as evidence for the benefits of Brumbies in bushfire prevention. The article has since been updated to a peer-reviewed study with the conclusion: wild horses can help prevent bushfires. Second, the author neglected to recognize that, in their opinion, surveys based on extrapolating localized population data are inherently flawed. This position has been made clear.