Barilaro’s ‘brumby bill’ has been a catastrophe for the high country

Sometimes sheer bloody-minded politics overrules hard science. A good example is Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s “brumby bill”, passed by the NSW Parliament three years ago.

Scientists had been raising the alarm about the destruction of Kosciuszko National Park caused by the explosion in the feral horse population, but Barilaro’s bill vetoed culling. Since then, numbers have soared, with 14,000 feral horses now trampling through highly sensitive and unique ecosystems.

While NSW has allowed feral horses to run rampant, the Victorian and ACT governments are eradicating horses in their contiguous parks.

The situation has become so dire that the conservative federal government is now threatening to step in and overrule Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who has stood by and watched the disaster unfold, evidently cowed by the fear of offending her fractious Coalition partner.

The Deputy Premier boasted in 2018: “Judge me in two to three years’ time when for the first time in two decades you will actually see a reduction in horses we’ve never seen before.”

And in January this year, Barilaro said “we must reduce the numbers of brumbies … there are parts of the park that should have zero horses.”

Now he is saying that federal environment minister Sussan Ley, who says she is going to use her Commonwealth powers, has been misled by “ideological anti-brumby groups”. That would be people like Don Driscoll, professor in terrestrial ecology at Deakin University, and Max Finlayson, professor for ecology and biodiversity at Charles Sturt University.

Or perhaps Mr Barilaro is thinking of Indigenous river guide Richard Swain, who describes the valley where the Murrumbidgee rises as a horse paddock. “There are thousands of feral horses and they’re destroying this environment,” Swain says.

When Barilaro speaks of a “war against our history and our culture”, it seems Indigenous history and culture doesn’t count. In Kosciuszko National Park, it is the “heritage” of a handful of brumby lovers that takes priority over that of the traditional owners, not to mention that of all Australians who have an interest in protecting this nation’s exceptionally valuable ecosystems.

Barilaro works hand-in-glove with former MP Peter Cochran, who leads the brumby protection league. Cochran is on record saying brumbies cause no damage to the park. “The brumbies have in fact protected the remaining vegetation and wildlife.”

But despite Barilaro’s and Cochran’s assurances, our zoos are now stockpiling “insurance populations” of endangered native wildlife from the area. The Southern and the Northern Corroboree Frog are now on life support in plastic containers of peat moss at Taronga Park Zoo’s threatened species recovery program. It’s estimated only 50 Southern Corroboree frogs remain in their alpine habitat in Kosciuszko National Park.

The thunder of approaching horses hooves ought to strike fear into other vulnerable species of the high country, like the gentle broad-toothed rat, the alpine crayfish, the endemic native fish known as stocky galaxias, and two species of alpine skink.

Hard-hooved imports to Australia – including horses, deer and pigs – should not be allowed within cooee of any national park. Kosciuszko must be the only national park in the world where one of the greatest threats to its ecological integrity is actually protected by special legislation.

Do Barilaro’s brumby boosters ever stop to think about the animal welfare implications of the equine plague they have unleashed? In addition to herds scorched by bushfires and starved to death in lean times, culling on a mass scale has to happen sooner or later.

The options to protect native habitat from irretrievable destruction are becoming narrower and will have to be more drastic. Conservation ecologists are saying that the longer the NSW government fails to act the more extreme the measure to protect the environment will need to be.

Last June, the NSW government bought the 150,000ha Narriearra Station in the state’s northwest to augment the NSW national parks system. NSW environment minister Matt Kean said that the new park should help protect about 25 threatened animal species.

But he made it clear that declaring the new park will prove pointless unless his government takes strong measures to reduce numbers of feral animals, including horses, donkeys and camels.

Yet when it comes to Kosciuszko, the jewel of the crown of NSW parks, Mr Kean has been uncharacteristically faint-hearted.

The “brumby bill” was a policy catastrophe. The premier allowed the National Party tail to wag the Coalition dog, so that now her federal colleagues feel they must step in and do what Ms Berejiklian won’t.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 2021


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