A feral invasion is destroying our once-pristine national parks
3rd February 2023

By Laura Chung

Feral horse populations have increased in Kosciuszko National Park, despite the government’s proposal to reduce them.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Kerry Pfeiffer, aged in his 70s, has been trout fishing in the Kosciuszko National Park since he was three years old. It’s a sport his grandfather passed to his father, who passed it on to him. Back then, they’d camp, swim and drink from the crystal clear streams that ran through the pristine alpine region. “In those days it was wilderness,” Pfeiffer said. “The fishing was excellent and it was cool in the hot summer.”

Now, it’s a very different area. The wilderness is now largely dominated by feral animals, Pfeiffer said.

Feral horses at Currango Plain in the Kosciuszco National Park.Credit:Wolter Peeters

“When I was a child you never saw a horse,” he said. “Now, you can’t go to the loo at night without running into them. It’s not just the horses though, there are deer and rabbits as well. But the horses in most recent times have been the greatest stress factor.”

Despite more resources than ever being pumped into feral animal management and National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS), ecologists and environmental groups said years of natural disasters, climate change and political inaction have allowed feral animals to flourish, pushing much of Australia’s native flora and fauna to the brink.

In this state, brumbies might attract the most attention, and in some areas cause most of the damage, but they are far from the only pests causing havoc.

Feral horses at Currango Plain in the Kosciuszco National Park.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Feral species are the leading cause of extinction of native animals in Australia, says Jack Gough, Advocacy Manager at the Invasive Species Council.

Feral horses, also known as brumbies on the Long Plain, part of the High Plains area in Kosciuszko National Park.Credit:Sydney Morning Herald

“They degrade and damage waterways and bushland, kill native wildlife and are also a multibillion-dollar annual cost to agriculture in NSW,” Gough said. Research from the CSIRO found that in the past 60 years, invasive species have cost Australia $390 billion and this number is likely to continue growing.

What’s in the numbers?

There are billions of feral animals in Australia, and among the worst offenders are rabbits, cane toads, cats and carp. While the management of these pests is often done without too much community concern, there is one feral animal that has divided communities. Brumbies. The management of brumbies has become so controversial that NPWS staff suffer constant harassment for doing their work. Over the past few years, this has escalated to online stalking and even a threat of firebombing.

Figures released by the state government last week show that wild horse numbers have ballooned by 30 per cent in the past two years to more than 18,000. The government says that heavy rain and flooding and a six-week pause in the feral animal shooting have caused a brumby boom. The government has set itself the challenge of reducing the growing population to 3000 horses by June 30, 2027.

Many worry this target is impossible. NSW Greens MP Sue Higginson said last week that without increased management, the number of feral horses could increase to 50,000 in the next decade. But feral horses are only part of the problem.

Berislav Maroya, fishing on the Moonbah River, near Jindabyne.Credit:Adrian Maroya.

Deer numbers have spread into the outer-urban areas of Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane, where they chew their way through gardens and parks, and even cause vehicle collisions. They’re destroying horticultural and agricultural crops, and damaging fragile ecosystems in the Australian alps. The exploding numbers of deer across Australia – approximately a 10-fold increase over 20 years – has prompted a new draft national feral deer plan. In NSW, there were feral deer species recorded across 180,443 square kilometres of NSW in 2020, up from 138,000 square kilometres recorded in 2016. Part of the reason deer populations have flourished is that they were not declared pests until it was too late. Gough added that previous governments didn’t take deer management seriously and that landholders had tight restrictions on how they could respond to growing deer numbers. When these loopholes were eventually addressed in 2019, it was almost too late.

Feral horses at Currango Plain in the Kosciuszco National Park.Credit:Wolter Peeters

Weeds are also transforming Australia’s landscape. The country has more than 2700 weeds, making up about 12 per cent of the flora, a higher proportion than in any other continent, research from CSIRO found. About 20 new weed species have been established each year – or one new weed every 18 days.

In the past three years, the National Parks and Wildlife Services have removed more than 100,000 feral animals. But despite their best efforts, the numbers keep increasing. Factors like climate change are also likely to aid their numbers. While invasive species flourish in warmer, cooler, wetter or drier surroundings, some native species are struggling to adapt to shifting weather patterns.

Making matters worse is compounding natural disasters. While floods and fires may immediately impact feral animals, they will also be among some of the first to bounce back, wreaking havoc on native wildlife and ecosystems without adequate action. Deakin University ecology and conservation expert Professor Don Driscoll said that what made feral animal management even more difficult is that they inhabit different areas of national parks, making damage more widespread. Native animals that would usually relocate to new habitats have few options as these other areas have been destroyed by other feral animals, he said.

Threats of firebombing and retribution

The NSW government relies on a range of methods to control pests, including aerial and ground shooting, baiting, mustering, and trapping. Its diverse approach means that the state is carrying out the biggest feral animal control program ever undertaken in NSW. Between 2021 and 2022, the agency conducted 1350 hours of aerial shooting – the 10-year average to 2019 was 517 hours and conducted aerial baiting on 27,000 square kilometres of NSW – the six-year average to 2019 was about 4880 square kilometres.

Despite the efforts, feral pests, particularly feral horses, are increasing. As is community division. One former National Parks and Wildlife staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no other feral animal management attracts such division and vitriol.

For example, after a photo of 11 dead horses – which were killed under the management plan – was shared publicly, the deluge of threats to NPWS staff was overwhelming. In one case, an office in the region was threatened with firebombing in a handwritten letter which read: “as a little act of retribution we plan to pay a visit … and firebomb your premises! Make sure you are all very careful over the next couple of weeks, we would hate you to get burnt”.

Other threats include emails and even the selling of stickers that read: “Ground cull a greenie. Save a snowy brumby”. Another example is in the hours after the horse survey data was released by the government last week, NPWS sent a memo to Kosciuszko staff. The email, seen by the Herald, said while the security alert remained normal, it reminded staff to report any threats. Previous incidents have attracted higher threat levels. NPWS says it has also adopted a range of additional measures to protect staff but would not explain them further.

While not all pro-brumby groups are as extreme, it’s indicative of the controversy for those working in this space face. For many who support the animal, their concerns stem from ensuring its historical heritage associated with settler life is protected. Another cause of anger among pro-brumby supporters is the numbers, which they say have been inflated. Di Hardley who is president of the Snowy Mountain Brumby Sustainability and Management Group, said despite helicopter trips in the park and riding through it, she struggles to spot them.

NPWS Head, Atticus Fleming, said the feral horse survey uses the world’s best practice, which offers 95 per cent confidence that the population is between 14,501 and 23,535 horses.

Hardley, alongside others, suggests that while horse management is needed, other methods should be used. This could include fertility control or ensuring horses killed are of a certain age. But already, the current plan for brumbies requires huge resourcing. The latest NSW state of environment report found the annual economic loss from the impact of pest animals is more than $170 million, which includes the cost of management actions.

The former NPWS employee said there was only a handful of staff who deal with brumby management in the Kosciuszko National Park. But he added that without adequate management funding, the number of feral animals would only continue to grow and destroy the environment.

“The choice is we have Australian native flora and fauna, or have ferals killing them all,” the former employee said.

Not enough resources and a growing problem

The Invasive Species Council says issues of under-resourcing are rife throughout the feral animal management sector. For example, those involved in feral animal control were pulled off normal duties to assist with floods, fires, drought, COVID-19, and an outbreak of varroa mite which threatened to impact the bee population in NSW. The mite response saw about 200 staff redeployed from their normal duties for several months.

“We know there are more natural disasters around the corner, with problems accelerating due to climate change and diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and fire ants on the doorstep,” Gough said. “Ahead of the NSW election, we are calling on all parties and candidates to take this issue seriously and support a direct investment in 300 new staff now to increase frontline capacity across our agencies.”

An NPWS spokesperson said staff levels are the highest they have ever been. As of the start of this month, the agency had 2095 staff – 30 per cent higher than average employment levels between 2011 and 2019.

“NPWS staff have more boots on the ground than ever before, more equipment than ever before, and have ramped up feral animal control to levels never before seen in NSW,” an agency spokesperson said.

They denied COVID-19 and floods had a significant impact on the agency’s ability to deliver feral animal control.

NSW Environment Minister James Griffin said the state has tripled feral animal control in national parks.

But Driscoll said it was frustrating that feral animal management had been hindered by politicians’ fear of backlash over the past two decades. For example, it would take the NSW government between 2016 and 2021 to finalise the feral horse management plan, with previous environment minister Matt Kean and former National’s leader John Barilaro, who was also the local MP, going head-to-head on how best to deal with the issue.

“We need to see political leadership across political parties,” Driscoll said. “The biggest problem has been this politicisation of the issue.”

Pfeiffer knows there’s a conflict in fishing trout – another introduced species. But he says the damage they inflict is nothing like that of brumbies or other feral animals. But he fears the area he loves so much may never recover to what it was while he was growing up. “There is considerable damage that has been done, it will take a long time to recover. It will never be the same again.”

“The hidden places we didn’t tell anyone about will never be back.”

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