Amending the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan

The Minister for the Environment has adopted an amendment to the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan to authorise aerial shooting as an approved control method.

The amendment allows the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to use aerial shooting in addition to existing control methods such as trapping, rehoming, and ground shooting to reach the legally required wild horse population target of 3,000 by mid-2027.

The proposed plan amendment was shared with the community for input, and a total of 11,002 submissions were received between 8 August and 11 September 2023. Of the submissions that commented on aerial shooting, 82% expressed support for aerial shooting being included in the plan as an approved control method.

Following consideration of all submissions, the Minister for the Environment determined the amendment is necessary to help save endangered and vulnerable species and their habitat, protect soil and waterways and conserve cultural heritage.

National Parks and Wildlife Service will be required to ensure that aerial shooting is carried out to the highest animal welfare standards consistent with all legislative requirements and a standard operating procedure informed by independent expert advice.

The amendment does not change the requirement to recognise the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations in the park and protect that heritage by retaining 3,000 wild horses in identified parts of the park.

Kosciuszko National Park is the largest national park in New South Wales and a place of global significance. It contains Australia's highest mountains, unique glacial landscapes, plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world, and diverse threatened species. The park also encompasses significant water catchments in the headwaters of the Murray River system and globally significant wetlands.

The park contains over 1,000 Aboriginal heritage sites and is culturally significant to Aboriginal people. Many sites throughout the park demonstrate the past and ongoing connection of Aboriginal people to the landscape, including archaeological sites and places associated with traditional stories and teachings. The park also contains many items and places of cultural heritage significance associated with Australia's pioneering and pastoral history.

These special values and attributes are recognised by the park's inclusion in the National Heritage Listing for the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves, the listing of parts of the park as internationally significant wetlands under the Ramsar Convention, and the declaration of assets of intergenerational significance within the park under the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

Wild horses are severely impacting the natural and cultural values of Kosciuszko National Park. They damage native vegetation by trampling and grazing, change the structure and composition of vegetation communities, cause soil erosion and compaction, disperse weed seeds, reduce water quality in streams and wetlands, and compete with native animals for food and resources.

Wild horses threaten the survival of a number of native species and ecological communities, including alpine sphagnum bogs and fens, the broad-toothed rat, the northern and southern corroboree frogs, the alpine she-oak skink, the stocky galaxias fish and a number of plant species.

In 2018, the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee determined habitat degradation and loss by feral horses as a key threatening process, identifying more than 30 adversely affected New South Wales and Commonwealth-listed threatened species and communities.

The Australian Government's Threatened Species Scientific Committee advises that feral horses may be the crucial factor causing the extinction of some nationally listed threatened species.

Are wild horses a risk to visitors?

Wild horses are involved in many negative interactions with park visitors, including vehicle strikes and aggressive horses in and around campgrounds and walking trails.

How do wild horses impact Aboriginal cultural heritage?

Wild horses can cause direct or indirect damage to heritage values through trampling, grazing, and erosion. Damage to Aboriginal archaeological sites in the park has been documented, where wild horses are known to occur in moderate to high densities.

More information

References

The Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan identifies the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations in identified parts of the park. The plan requires 3,000 wild horses to be retained in 32% of the park to protect this heritage value. The amendments to the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan, including aerial shooting, do not change this requirement.

The wild horse retention areas contain evidence of wild horse heritage values, including the role of horses in pioneering history and pastoralism, traditional mountain practices, and the legends, stories and myths of the Snowy Mountains. This evidence includes tangible (for example, huts, campsites, yards, traps and tracks) and non-tangible (for example, personal and community connections) elements.

National Parks and Wildlife Service is legally required to reduce the wild horse population in Kosciuszko National Park to 3,000 by the end of June 2027. Despite significant efforts by National Parks and Wildlife Service to increase the rate of wild horse removal since the plan was adopted in 2021, previously authorised control methods would not have achieved the target population of 3,000 wild horses by this deadline.

Control methods such as passive trapping and rehoming or removal to a knackery, and ground shooting are limited by several factors, including the size and terrain of the park, the mobility and distribution of wild horses, and a limited number of people willing and capable of rehoming wild horses.

What will aerial shooting achieve?

  • It will enable the existing legal obligation to reduce the population of wild horses to 3,000 horses by 30 June 2027 to be met.
  • Achieving the population target within the required timeframe will deliver significant benefits for the environment and cultural heritage, reducing the extent of damage caused by wild horses and lowering the risk of extinction for several threatened species This will allow waterways and vegetation impacted by wild horses to recover sooner.
  • Best practice aerial shooting will deliver animal welfare outcomes comparable to or better than other available control methods.
  • Fewer wild horses will be killed overall because the population will be reduced within the required timeframe (June 2027) rather than being drawn out for several more years, while population growth continues; the use of aerial shooting will result in many fewer wild horses being killed to achieve and then maintain the target population of 3,000.
  • Risks posed by wild horses to visitors in the park will be reduced, including in high visitation campgrounds, and on walking tracks and roads.

The decision to adopt the amendment to allow aerial shooting is consistent with the following recommendation of the Australian Senate Inquiry into the impacts and management of feral horses in the Australian Alps:

The Committee recommends that the NSW Government update the Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan to allow the use of aerial shooting as one of the available feral horse control methods if deemed appropriate under strict safety, scientific and humane practices.

Best practice aerial shooting carried out by skilled, highly trained shooters under appropriate operating protocols delivers animal welfare outcomes that are comparable to or better than other control methods such as passive trapping or mustering, and transport to a knackery or shooting in trap yards.

Aerial shooting of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park will be carried out to the highest animal welfare standards. This includes the development of a standard operating procedure informed by independent expert veterinary and animal welfare advice, and involving ongoing auditing by animal welfare experts. The National Parks and Wildlife Service's standard operating procedure meets Australian and NSW legislative requirements.

National Parks and Wildlife Service conducted a preliminary program of aerial shooting of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park in November 2023.

The program was observed by 2 independent veterinarians. The independent report from the program found no adverse animal welfare incidents, including no non-fatally wounded animals, with a median time to insensibility of less than 5 seconds.

RSPCA NSW also independently observed the preliminary program and confirmed they did not observe any departures from the standard operating procedure or any non-compliance with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979.

The standard operating procedure for ongoing aerial shooting operations will be revised after considering the independent veterinarian report and RSPCA NSW feedback.

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How will aerial shooting be carried out?

Aerial shooting will be very carefully implemented using specialist shooters and aircraft to ensure it is safe and meets the highest animal welfare standards.

National Parks and Wildlife Service shooters are highly trained, accredited and competent. The latest state-of-the-art equipment is used in aerial shooting operations and shooters must undergo rigorous testing to be approved to carry out aerial shooting.

National Parks and Wildlife Service has extensive experience in delivering safe aerial shooting operations over many years. Since 2019-20, over 1,300 hours of aerial shooting have occurred annually in national parks and reserves, including in high visitation locations close to urban areas such as Royal National Park. These operations target a range of feral animals, including pigs, goats and deer.

Why isn't reproductive control being used?

Reproductive control is not viable for the wild horse population in its current numbers and distribution in Kosciuszko National Park.

A trial of reproductive control options will commence after the overall population is reduced to 3,000 wild horses. This may assist in maintaining the population at 3,000 horses as required by the plan.

Why can't all the wild horses be rehomed?

Trapping and rehoming will continue as a control measure. However, trapping and rehoming in many parts of the park is not practicable or consistent with implementing the highest animal welfare standards.

In 2022–23 513 horses were rehomed from the park. This rate is not sufficient to remove enough wild horses from the park.

Demand for wild horses to be rehomed from the park represents a very small number of those needing removal in the next 4 years. There are not enough people with suitable experience willing to take wild horses of any colour, size, age or gender and that can also meet the required standard of care to look after them. Rehoming cannot be implemented at the scale required to reduce the population to 3,000 wild horses by 2027, as required by the Act and the plan.

All authorised methods, including passive trapping and rehoming, will remain and be used as part of the ongoing implementation of the plan.

References

National Parks and Wildlife Service conducted a preliminary program of aerial shooting of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park in November 2023.

The standard operating procedure for ongoing aerial shooting operations will be revised after considering the independent veterinarian report and RSPCA NSW feedback.

Implementation of aerial shooting operations will continue in accordance with the revised standard operating procedure and Kosciuszko National Park Wild Horse Heritage Management Plan.

A further independent veterinarian review of aerial shooting operations will occur during 2024, together with RSPCA NSW auditing, to evaluate progress.

National Parks and Wildlife Service has prepared a carcass management plan to minimise environmental, aesthetic and public recreation risks from the presence of carcasses. The plan takes into account issues raised by stakeholders and an environmental assessment, and in consultation with the NSW Environment Protection Authority. The plan will be subject to ongoing refinement, as required.

In line with the carcass management plan, the vast majority of carcasses will be left in place. This is standard practice for feral animal control on public and private land and is consistent with the longstanding practice in the park with deer and pig control. Carcasses are likely to decompose in approximately 4 weeks over the summer. Decomposition is slower in winter.

Carcasses will not be left in major waterways or within 400 metres of busy visitor areas such as campgrounds, where practicable.

More information

The safety of the community and staff is and will always be primary considerations for any shooting operations.

Rigorous protocols will be in place to ensure public safety during aerial shooting operations. Specific plans will be implemented to protect the public and ensure visitor and neighbour safety. This will include notifications and closures of areas to public access while operations are underway.

National Parks and Wildlife Service has extensive experience in delivering safe aerial shooting operations over many years. Since 2019–20, over 1,300 hours of aerial shooting has occurred annually in national parks and reserves, including in high visitation locations close to urban areas such as Royal National Park.

Can I still visit the park?

Yes, however, sections of the park will need to be temporarily closed while aerial shooting is conducted. This is common practice for all aerial shooting operations targeting pigs, goats and other feral animals across New South Wales. Plans will be in place to minimise impacts to popular visitor areas, allowing them to remain open as far as practicable.

Resort precincts will not be closed because wild horse control will not be conducted in those areas.

The wild horse population survey uses the international best practice method for accurately and precisely estimating the population of large mammals over wide geographic areas, known as distance sampling. More than 1,500 peer-reviewed scientific papers have used distance sampling for estimating wild animal population abundance and density.

The survey was designed and analysed by an expert from the University of New England. The results have been peer-reviewed by independent experts from CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

The latest scientific, peer-reviewed survey conducted in October 2023 estimated there were between 12,934 to 22,536 wild horses in the park. By law, National Parks and Wildlife Service must reduce the population to 3,000 wild horses by June 2027. Results from this survey will inform future wild horse control programs.

How would we know when the target of 3,000 wild horses has been met?

Implementation of control measures is informed by the outcome of wild horse population surveys. These surveys use the best practice scientific methods and are peer-reviewed.

National Parks and Wildlife Service will track the number of horses removed and, when approaching the population target of 3,000 horses in the retention areas, will conduct additional surveys to further inform the level of control.

Outside of the retention areas – that is, in the remaining 68% of the park – control measures will be ongoing to reduce the horse population to zero in these areas and maintain the population at zero.

Kosciuszko National Park's ecological health is being measured and reported in one of the most comprehensive ecological monitoring programs for any national park in Australia. This work is part of National Park and Wildlife Service's groundbreaking ecological health monitoring program aimed at improving the health of NSW national parks by tracking key ecological indicators and using that data to refine management actions.

Actions to measure and report on Kosciuszko National Park's ecological health include:

  • surveillance monitoring at 125 sites stratified by vegetation type and fire history across the park, which includes 500 camera traps
  • targeted monitoring designed for specific species, vegetation communities and/or ecological processes to get more detailed information on their park-wide occurrence and how their population and/or condition may change over time. This monitoring will include:
    • important threatened communities, such as alpine bogs and fens
    • species that have small distributions and are iconic or threatened, such as the Guthega skink and anemone buttercup
    • water quality attributes, including for alpine glacial lakes, providing information on park-wide catchment health
  • measuring the extent of threats of fire, weeds and feral animals, including:
    • monitoring of feral animals, designed to track the population or density of all significant feral animals such as cats, deer and horses
    • monitoring to track the area of occurrence for ecologically significant weeds
    • key metrics on the impact of fire will be measured and reported on, such as fire extent, frequency and intensity across the park and in selected vegetation types.

Monitoring results will be considered during the implementation and review of the current wild horse management plan.

Charlottes Pass lookout, Kosciuszko National Park