A plan to protect Kosciuszko’s water catchments

Large numbers of the Wild Horse, a farm-animal escapee, are severely impacting the water catchment wetlands of the Australian Alps, including right across Kosciuszko National Park. In 2014, 35% of the Alps wetlands had been damaged. These high mountain wetlands are the very heart of the headwater catchment sources for our mightiest rivers, the Murray, Murrumbidgee and the Snowy and regrettably they are also a preferred grazing area for these heavy stock animals. Numbers of Wild Horses have grown from about 2000 to more than 6000 in just 11 years and they are causing great damage to the catchments. The NSW Government, in response to these threats has launched, in May 2016, a draft Wild Horse Management Plan for consultation … a plan, amongst other things, to protect the water catchments.

Such a draft plan has been contentious. It was always going to be when dealing with so many Wild Horses in the park and this is completely understandable. A special bond exists between many people and horses and many others like seeing Wild Horses in the mountains. Many other people however are quite shocked and horrified by the number of horses present, the piles of horse dung and the scale of impacts to the park’s streams and wetlands. They prefer seeing Australia’s alpine animals, wild flowers and undisturbed scenery. Strong and divided views about this introduced animal prevail.

Stepping away from the welfare and presence of Wild Horses, there is another issue of significance that the draft plan must also reconcile. The sustained delivery of high quality water from Kosciuszko’s catchments services millions of people downstream, all the way to Adelaide. Some 30% of the Murray Darling Basin’s water comes from the Australian Alps catchments that include Kosciuszko. This water is of national economic significance and benefits town water supplies, agriculture, irrigation and some industries. Any threat to the catchments and water delivery is a potential threat to downstream users and their social and economic welfare. The decisions implemented by the final Wild Horse plan are, consequently, of national importance.

Reliable water in our dry continent is precious. We live in a dry country with hot summers and far too common droughts. Climate change is making these conditions worse with temperatures hotter than ever before and stretches of days with maximums above 35 Degrees Celsius breaking all-time records. Long standing forecasts of future climate by our scientists have been on-track to date, with their models predicting hotter and drier conditions for South Eastern Australia and at least a 10% decrease in precipitation and an absence of snow in the Australian Alps. Scientists forecast this will mean less average winter and spring precipitation and more summer rain. Less overall precipitation means less water run-off and no snow means there will be no spring snow-melt water flush from our mountain river systems.

Importantly, for the draft Wild Horse plan and its proposed actions, water inflows to the Murray Darling Basin from the mountains are already below their long term and 10 year averages. Less water flowing from Kosciuszko National Park caused by climate change will impact users and any other perturbations to catchment delivery will make matters worse. The volatile politics of water allocation in the Basin has to deal with these climate change consequences, so any degrading of water delivery from Kosciuszko’s catchments that compounds this problem would be politically contentious.

This bigger picture is a situation that the NSW Government deals with in the draft Wild Horse plan. It confirms the impacts of Wild Horses to the catchments by presenting evidenced based science and identifies the need to reduce Wild Horse numbers in Kosciuszko to 600. But this seemingly sensible solution is not straight forward matter for there has been strong opposition by a pro-Wild Horse lobby.

This lobby has run a highly public anti-Wild Horse control campaign focusing on the welfare of the Wild Horse and identifying a brumby running heritage. There has also been strong denial that Wild Horses have any form of impact and a view that the Wild Horses should be left alone.

History however has shown this “no impact view” is not correct. In 1938, the New South Wales Government declared Kosciuszko’s catchments as “an area of erosion hazard” due to 114 years of impacts caused by grazing from stock animals including cattle, horses, wild horses and sheep. Since 1957, the Government has invested millions of dollars in soil conservation and restoration works in Kosciuszko to fix these impacts. This ongoing and summer-only work has been undertaken by (now) generations of conservation managers and the cold, fragile high mountains have slowly been healing. Regrettably and frustratingly, new erosion impacts are being caused by Wild Horses rapidly restocking the mountains. The Snowy Hydro Scheme dams in particular are vulnerable to any un-natural sediment rich streams in their catchments, particularly in severe storm events.

The draft Wild Horse Plan public consultation process run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service did identify that many people appreciated the presence of the Wild Horses in Kosciuszko National Park and that they were of heritage importance. The draft plan has been respectful of these views and identified that a remnant or “attribute” population of up to 600 Wild Horses be present. Because of the Wild Horse potential for damage, this should be considered a maximum number for the interim. A lower number such as 200 may actually be needed to achieve protection of the water catchments and protection of new erosion restoration work that needs to be undertaken. It is suggested any decision making on Wild Horse numbers below 600, and their impacts, is based on continual scientific assessment of water catchment condition and trend in condition, Wild Horse number surveys and any impacts caused by “attribute” horses, with this information being publicly available.

The NSW Government should be congratulated. This 2016 draft Wild Horse plan rises above sectoral self-interest and statesmanlike, it responds carefully and strategically to matters raised by the local community; the wider community; the national economy and facilitates protection of Australian alpine and sub-alpine species found nowhere else on Earth. The plan now needs to be finalised, resourced and accompanied by timely action to restore damage caused by Wild Horses. Most importantly, the plan invests in the delivery of quality water from the catchments at a time of climate change and forecast reductions in precipitation. The plan provides a better future for one of Australia’s greatest national parks, the National Heritage Listed Kosciuszko National Park and it is an investment for the next generation of Australians who have the right to see an unsullied landscape. Kosciuszko’s natural water catchments are far too precious to lose.

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