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The divide over feral horse management between NSW and its neighbours in the Australian Alps has been overcome, with the federal, state and territory governments declaring a new era of co-operation on tackling herd numbers in one of the nation’s most iconic and fragile landscapes.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek and her state and territory counterparts on Friday announced they would revive the Alps Ministerial Council, which last met under the then federal environment minister, Peter Garrett, in 2010.
Feral horses near Tantangara Dam, in the NSW high country, in May.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Conservation groups hailed the move as a potential game changer but warned that federal and state funding was well short of what was needed to increase culling programs.
Plibersek, who convened a meeting of state and territory environment ministers in Sydney, said governments around the country must co-operate to improve conservation.
“We have to act now to tackle serious threats like climate change and invasive species that are damaging fragile alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems,” she said.
The feral horse population in Kosciuszko National Park jumped more than 30 per cent to 18,814 in November 2022, following two years of high rainfall and abundant feed.
Grazing pressure from the horses and damage caused by their hooves threatens the survival of alpine plants and animals, including endangered species such as the mountain pygmy possum, mountain skink and corroboree frog, as well as the sphagnum moss and fens at the headwaters of the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers.
ACT and Victoria conduct culling of feral horses, typically via ground shooting by contracted professionals. But NSW passed a law in 2018, under pressure from then-deputy premier John Barilaro, that protected the “heritage values” of the feral horses and discouraged culling.
The NSW government has since focused on trapping and re-homing, but the process is slow. In 2021, then-federal environment minister Sussan Ley threatened to override NSW’s management of the feral horse population when Barilaro dismissed the need for urgent action by saying Ley had been misled by green activists.
Invasive Species Council advocacy manager Jack Gough said restarting the Alps Ministerial Council could be a game changer, but called on NSW to urgently reduce herd numbers.
“We’re hopeful that the establishment of the Alps Ministerial Council will be the forum to drive action going forward in a way that we haven’t seen in recent years because previously we haven’t had governments that are all on the same page,” Gough said.
Conservation groups argue that 6000 horses must be removed from Kosciuszko National Park each year and that trapping is not a viable option given the logistics and cost.
During this year’s NSW election campaign, Labor promised to slash horse numbers in Kosciuszko to 3000 by 2027, but is yet to detail its plans.
NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe said on Friday she would work with other jurisdictions to protect Kosciuszko, where biodiversity was under threat from climate change and invasive species.
Tanya Plibersek says the federal, state and territory governments must co-operate on environmental issues.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
Victorian Environment Minister Ingrid Stitt said the Andrews government was keen to strengthen its ties with NSW and the ACT to protect the region, while ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said the council would improve cross-border conservation efforts.
“With many threatened species and communities hanging in the balance in the Alps due to the impacts of invasive species and climate change, the leadership from NSW to reconstitute the ministerial council has come at a critical time,” Vassarotti said.
The environment ministers also agreed to develop a new national set of rules aimed at cutting waste and boosting recycling, including mandatory packaging design standards and targets specifying recycled content and use of chemicals in food packaging.
“We need to dramatically reduce packaging waste and the harmful chemicals that destroy our environment. We see packaging in the guts of dead birds, floating in our oceans, destroying nature as it takes generations to degrade,” Plibersek said.
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