Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited CSS support. Obtain
For the best experience, we recommend using a more recent browser (or the compatibility mode in
Internet Explorer). In the meantime, we are displaying the site without styles for continued support
You can also search for this author in PubMed
Up to 10,000 wild horses could be killed or removed from Australia’s largest alpine national park as part of a draft plan to control the rapidly growing non-native animal population. Scientists have welcomed the idea of removing them, but are concerned that the plan will still allow thousands of people to threaten endangered species and habitats.
The planned culling in New South Wales’ Kosciuszko National Park (NSW) is in place in contrast to a ban on lethal controls in the United States, where large populations of wild horses known as mustangs are also causing problems.
The draft plan released last month recommends reducing the park’s wild horse population, known in Australia as brumbies has been known to reduce from an estimated 14,000 to around 3,000 through a combination of mostly ground-based shooting and rounding up and relocating.
But the Australian Academy of Science argues that the number of horses should be quickly reduced below 3,000. In an open letter with 69 signatories, including scientists and institutions, sent to the NSW environment minister on Friday, they state that “Alpine wetlands continue to degrade, even with very low numbers of wild horses. Kosciusko cannot recover from drought, widespread bushfires and overgrazing if 3,000 feral horses are left behind, as currently proposed Protection of horses because of the heritage of the animals. The plan would allow the remaining brumbies to hike over a third of the park. These include endangered alpine peat bogs and the habitats of endangered and endangered species such as a fish called stocky galaxies (Galaxias tantangara), the alpine tree frog (Litoria verreauxii alpina) and the wide-toothed rat (Mastacomys fuscus).
There are no native mammals in Australia with hard hooves, which is why horses do more damage to delicate vegetation and soil than soft-footed species like kangaroos and wallabies, and they also cause overgrazing problems.
David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University in Albury-Wodonga – the Spanning NSW and neighboring Victoria – says the NSW government “couldn’t have chosen a worse place” to allow wild horses to roam. He points out that Australia’s alpine environment covers only 1% of the continent and has many endemic and threatened species that cannot be found anywhere else.
“These areas are just too fragile for large herbivores to trample” , adds Don Driscoll, ecologist at Deakin University in Melbourne.
Wild horse management is a longstanding issue in Australia’s mountainous Alpine region, which stretches across three states. The Australian Capital Territory, which borders Kosciuszko National Park, has a zero tolerance approach to wild horses and uses methods such as aerial photography.
Victoria also shares an Alpine border with New South Wales, but her most recent management plan, dated on 1.
The NSW state government had previously tried to control the brumbies by housing them on private land, but could never find a place for more than a few hundred horses a year, only around 1,000 since 2002. Jamie Pittock, environmental scientist at Australia’s National University in Canberra, says the government’s admission that the exponentially growing population cannot be tackled with one move is at least “a step forward.”
But Watson says, that 3,000 horses would breed fast enough that 1,000 would have to be removed or killed every few years.
A spokesman for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service said the proposed target of 3,000 horses would preserve the “environmental values of the park” and removing horses from two-thirds of the park would provide “effective protection” for threatened species. They didn’t respond to Nature’s specific questions about the scientists’ criticism of the draft plan.
The United States has similar problems with mustangs in national parks, says ecosystem scientist John Derek Scasta of the University of Wyoming at Laramie. “The goal is to get an agreed number of sustainable horses,” he says, but not everyone agrees on that number.
Since law prohibits culling, the US Bureau of Land Management is relying on that instead Round up, sterilize, move, or pay to keep horses on either private or state farms. But Scasta says rising numbers and the cost of caring for them could mean the United States should expect wild horses in the not too distant future.
Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter – yours free daily Inbox, what’s important in science.
ISSN 1476-4687 (online)
ISSN 0028-0836 (print)