Senator David Pocock has heaped pressure on the federal government to remove feral horses from the NSW and Victorian high country by launching an inquiry into how existing federal powers could override state governments to protect the national heritage-listed Australian Alps.
The ACT independent senator on Wednesday tabled a motion for the inquiry to be conducted by the Environment and Communications References Committee. It is expected to pass the Senate with broad support.
The committee will investigate the impacts of the hard-hoofed animals on the fragile alpine environment in Victoria’s High Country and NSW’s Kosciuszko National Park. State governments have faced criticism from environmental advocates and the former Morrison government for their failure to control the invasive species.
It will also consider the federal government’s responsibility to protect nationally significant environmental assets and its powers to override state governments if they fail to deliver on the requirements under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
“Managing feral horse populations is a difficult and often emotionally charged issue,” Pocock said.
“We are already grappling with chronic biodiversity loss and species extinction. It’s really important that we face this challenge head-on, in a constructive, considered way that prioritises the long-term ecological health of these ecosystems.”
The act grants extensive powers to federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek and makes her responsible for the protection of heritage-listed places such as the Australian Alps.
Plibersek announced on Wednesday that she had killed off Clive Palmer’s controversial coal project. It is the first federal refusal of a coal project because of unacceptable potential damage to sensitive coastal wetlands and the Great Barrier Reef.
Experts say swift removal of many thousands of horses is required to help the ecosystem recover from grazing pressure and damage caused by their hooves, which threatens the survival of alpine plants and animals including mountain pygmy possums, mountain skinks, northern corroboree frogs, and the sphagnum moss and fens that provide critical ecosystem services for the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers.
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 government has since focused on trapping and rehoming the feral animals, but the process is painstakingly slow.
Figures released by the NSW government last month show wild horse numbers have ballooned by 30 per cent in the past two years to more than 18,000. The government says heavy rain and flooding and a six-week pause in the feral animal shooting have caused a horse boom.
The NSW government has set itself the challenge of reducing the growing population to 3000 horses by June 30, 2027. Many worry this target is impossible.
Parks Victoria surveys found horse numbers in the alps doubled in the five-year period from 2014 to 2019, from about 2300 to 5000 horses. While up to 200 horses have been removed annually from the Alpine National Park since 2008, numbers have not declined.
The Invasive Species Council welcomed the Senate inquiry and called on Plibersek to use federal funding to reduce the number of feral horses, warning state governments were not reducing populations quickly enough.
“Plibersek has the power under Commonwealth environmental laws to force state governments to take more extensive and rapid action to protect the National Heritage listed Australian Alps,” said the council’s advocacy manager, Jack Gough.
“This inquiry has the potential to be a game changer by putting a spotlight on the future of Australia’s alpine region and the wildlife threatened by feral horses and other hard-hoofed invasives like feral deer and pigs.”
Former federal environment minister Sussan Ley in June 2021 threatened to override NSW management of the feral horse population in Kosciuszko National Park, after Barilaro dismissed the need for urgent action and claimed Ley had been misled by green activists.
A spokesperson for NSW Environment Minister James Griffin said the state was dealing with its wild horse populations in line with its management plan, which was developed after public consultation and approved in 2021.
The inquiry is set to report by June 9.
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