Wild Horse Populations in the Australian Alps National Parks (including Kosciuszko National Park – NSW, the Alpine National Park - Victoria) and Barmah National Park

Author- Joanne Canning, BSc Equine Sports Science, HND Equine Sports Coaching, BHSII

On page 1 of the document below, the following figures were given.

https://theaustralianalps.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/feral-horses-in-the-australian-alps-the-analysis-of-aerial-surveys-conducted-in-2014-and-2019-cairns-s-2019.pdf

Year       North Kosciuszko      Baro Maragle       Byadbo Victoria     Australian Alps   

2014             3255                          1616                        4316                          9187            

2019          15,687                          1113                        8518                        25,318

The average group size spotted in the 2019 survey was 3.515 horses (page 31 of the above document). Working then on an average group size of 4 horses, this would of course mean there would be approximately 6,330 groups of horses over the parks!

KOSCIUSZKO NATIONAL PARK

On page 11 of the below document it states – “In Kosciuszko National Park, populations are likely to increase by between 6% and 17% per year“.  - This is in keeping with many other scientific papers on this subject.

https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/-/media/OEH/Corporate-Site/Documents/Animals-and-plants/Pests-and-weeds/Kosciuszko-wild-horses/kosciuszko-national-park-draft-wild-horse-management-plan-160271.pdf 

On page 12  of the below document it states – “The horse population can increase by up to 20% per year when conditions are good, but the population growth rate in Kosciuszko is expected to be closer to 8% (Dobbie and Berman 1992, NPWS 2003).”

https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/-/media/OEH/Corporate-Site/Documents/Animals-and-plants/Pests-and-weeds/Kosciuszko-wild-horses/kosciuszko-national-park-horse-management-plan-080254.pdf

Using figures from the surveys done in 2009 and 2014, the increase in population for the whole of the Kosciuszko National Park calculates out at an estimated increase of 16%, which is a realistic maximum increase.  They had calculated the increase to be much lower at around 7% but there was no account taken of horse removals by the parks. Also worth noting is that to get from the 2014 figure to the proposed 19,000 horses that the Park mention on their website, this would be an increase of suddenly 27% not including removals and 29% when accounting for removals

The analysis report states (page 1) for the North Kosciuszko area (where the majority of horses are and the subject of the current cull) – “Equated with this increase over the intervening five years was a finite rate of population increase of 1.370 or 37%”! And apart from this already being a ludicrous increase, it is made worse by the fact that removals of horses had again not been taken into account! So the estimated population increase would be even higher than 37%!  Calculations show this would then bring the estimated population increase to 41% per annum.  This is more than double the scientific accepted maximum.

When studying papers relating to previous counts, the same discrepancy was found, in that the estimated population increase percentage was made without taking into account the removal of horses by the parks and in so doing, these figures, which are already (in particular the 37%) way over the normal scientific agreed maximum population increases, would be even higher than stated in the reports. It is absolutely not likely to exceed the 17% mentioned above. And population rates would not suddenly go up from 16% to 29%. And certainly would not be 41%!

In the survey report they have then used the overall increases from the whole of the Alpine Parks areas to attain a more realistic population increase, but as these populations of horses are very distinct and separated, it is EXTREMELY UNLIKELY that horses would have drifted across to the North Kosciusko region from another region. Therefore the reality is that the estimated numbers in this area are WAY IN EXCESS OF THE REAL NUMBER OF HORSES IN THIS AREA.

Over the whole of the Alpine Parks (including Victoria region), when taking into account removal of horses from both Parks, the estimated increase in population would have to be approx. 12% from 2009 to 2014 to get from the 7,679 horses estimated in 2009 to the estimated 9,187 in 2014 and then suddenly shoot up to an increase of 26% to get to the figure of 25,318. Again a ridiculously high figure! – Mostly because of the supposed increase in the North Kosciuszko area.

According to the survey done in 2005 the estimated population in the Kosciuszko National Park was a total of 1710 horses. This was from a survey done by Montague Drake in 2005.

For removal of horses in the Kosciuszko Park please see –

https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/-/media/OEH/Corporate-Site/Documents/Animals-and-plants/Pests-and-weeds/Kosciuszko-wild-horses/kosciuszko-national-park-2008-horse-management-plan-wild-horse-management-program-review-160272.pdf

Therefore, starting with the population estimate for 2005 of 1710 horses, using an increase in population of the maximum stated of 17%, but taking into account the removals, the total estimated population figure for the Kosciuszko National Park for 2019 would be 5156. Not over 19,000! And these figures would of course be pre-fires!  The count done after the bushfires of 2003 found that the population was reduced by approx. 54.5%

In the area of North Kosciuszko – the area of the current cull – in 2005 the estimated population in this area was 1120 horses according to the Montague-Drake – 2005 survey. Again using the reported removals in this area and accounting for a 17% maximum increase, the calculated estimate of the number of horses in this area of the park would be – 2581 in 2019!  Not 15,687!! Some years there have been significant removals of horses in this area (616 in 2012).

In the new survey done in 2020 for only Kosciuszko National Park, the estimated population was reduced to 14,380 for the whole Park and 12,511 for the Northern Area. The reduction was put down to the wildfires in 2020 although previously it had been said that the horses had hardly been affected. The reduction calculates at 35% for the whole Park afteraccounting also for normal population increase at 17%.  Therefore the estimated maximum population currently would be as follows –

CALCULATIONS STARTING WITH SURVEY NUMBERS OF MONTAGUE DRAKE (2005) – NORTH KOSCIUSZKO AREA AND ADDING A REALISTIC MAXIMUM INCREASE OF 17% AND TAKING INTO ACCOUNT REMOVALS.

Year

start pop

17% inc

Removals

Maximum End Pop

2005

1120

190

0

1310

2006

1310

223

27

1506

2007

1506

256

45

1717

2008

1717

292

13

1996

2009

1996

339

251

2084

2010

2084

354

260

2179

2011

2179

370

616

1933

2012

1933

329

541

1721

2013

1721

293

218

1795

2014

1795

305

372

1729

2015

1729

294

122

1901

2016

1901

323

210

2014

2017

2014

342

150

2206

2018

2206

375

0

2581

2019

2581

439

100

2920

bushfires

2920

Loss 35%

1022

1898

2020

1898

323

343

1877

Oct 2021

1877

364

421

1820

 

CALCULATIONS STARTING WITH SURVEY NUMBERS OF MONTAGUE DRAKE (2005) – KOSCIUSZKO NATIONAL PARK TOTAL AND ADDING A REALISTIC MAXIMUM INCREASE OF 17% AND TAKING INTO ACCOUNT REMOVALS.

Year

Start Pop

17% inc

Removals

Maximum End Pop

2005

1710

291

32

1969

2006

1969

335

115

2188

2007

2188

372

131

2429

2008

2429

413

96

2746

2009

2746

467

358

2855

2010

2855

485

307

3034

2011

3034

516

658

2891

2012

2891

492

587

2796

2013

2796

475

287

2984

2014

2984

507

389

3103

2015

3103

527

122

3508

2016

3508

596

210

3894

2017

3894

662

150

4406

2018

4406

749

0

5156

2019

5156

876

99

5933

bushfires

5933

Loss 36%

2077

3856

2020

3856

656

343

4169

2021

4169

709

421

4457

 

The new draft plan is proposing leaving 3,000 horses in the Park in the designated areas. But removals down to this number will be based on the starting figure of a total of 14,380 (results from the 2020 survey by Cairns).  If removals are based on this amount of horses,  they will plan to remove/shoot 11,380 horses!! This will of course remove ALL OF THE HORSES IN THE PARK.

As we all know, rehoming of several thousand horses at the speed they are being removed at, will not be able to be continued and so it’s perfectly clear that these horses will be shot in the Park, either ground shooting while they are loose or shot in the pens.

There have been regular annual spotting counts done by the parks using visual sight and helicopters in the Northern Kosciuszko area. Observed numbers from one of these in 2014 were 1637.  .This of course is VERY MUCH IN ALIGNMENT WITH THE FIGURE I HAVE GIVEN FOR THIS YEAR OF 1795. The amount of horses spotted in this area in 2019 was 3110 according to the horse count flights September 25-26 2019. This of course is also not taking account horses that perished in the fires. Interestingly, Parks spotting survey in 2020 in North Kosciuszko counted 2468 Brumbies. Since then at least 764 Brumbies have been removed, which would leave a total of 1704 remaining in the North. Very close to the calculations I have done above at 1820!!

It seems therefore that more reliance should be made on these sight surveys and additional surveys using drone technology with video. Rather than computer modelling.

I would also point out 2 other important things

Firstly, the same methodology used to estimate the wild horse population numbers is also is used to count the Kangaroo populations. Recently there has been an enquiry regarding the very ludicrous results and the culling of Kangaroos have been based on these ludicrous results, meaning that some populations could be in real danger of extinction in those areas or becoming unsustainable populations. I understand this is an ongoing enquiry. Please see

https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/lcdocs/transcripts/2598/Transcript%20-%2015%20June%202021%20-%20UNCORRECTED.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2eMWnGzLkbAY3rt27ZVBdLUQQll-q0QUeyWlkBzmCFbW5w6cqy2gYHtnc

Here is a section of the population estimates for the grey kangaroo in one area –

Reference –

https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/-/media/OEH/Corporate-Site/Documents/Animals-and-plants/Wildlife-management/Kangaroo-management/commercial-kangaroo-harvest-management-plan-2017-2021-quota-report-200485.pdf

As it is clear to see above, the estimates from surveys have given annual population increases/decreases, ranging from -86% (loss of 86% of the population) up to an increase of 426%! Which is of course beyond ludicrous! Absolutely biologically/scientifically impossible (as was mentioned by some of the witnesses). The above results only go to prove further that these surveys are NOT PRODUCING SCIENTIFICALLY SOUND OR EVEN POSSIBLE estimates of populations.

Secondly, the actual numbers of horses that were counted on the surveys done in 2014 and 2019 are as follows -

Year       North Kosciuszko      Baro Maragle       Byadbo Victoria     Australian Alps   

2014             369                             97                             381                          847            (8340 horses unseen)

2019           1298                             76                             374                        1748            (23,570 horses unseen)

 

In September 2021 a helicopter spotting count was undertaken by the Snowy Mountain Brumby Sustainability and Management Group (SMBSMG) in the North Kosciuszko Region. During this spotting count, the number of horses seen was 838 Brumbies!!!! I have calculated again below at a figure of 16% annual increase in population. This is an absolutely scientifically sound figure that is still at the upper end of the population increase estimates. The BLM in the USA generally consider the maximum to be around 15%. You will see from these calculations, how close this comes to the amount of horses seen during the SMBSMG survey.

As I previously stated, protection of the wild horse heritage values in Kosciuszko National Park has been based on leaving 3,000 horses in the areas of the Park that are designated as wild horse retention areas. The major problem with this is, that this has been based on a starting figure taken from the estimation done in the 2020 survey of 14,380. This is therefore assuming reduction of 11,380 horses over the period of the plan. If attempt is made to remove this amount of horses there will actually be none left at all in the whole Park. This would of course not be in keeping with the legislation of 2018!

As I said above, previous surveys, using the Distance Software (applied by Cairns) have produced estimates that are scientifically and biologically not possible! For instance the supposed annual increase of 37% (which in actual fact is 41% after accounting for removals) in the North Kosciuszko area between 2014-2019, which is approximately DOUBLE the accepted scientific maximum! This was pointed out in the peer review by St Andrews. No feasible explanation was ever given, because there isn’t one. This anomaly was also pointed out by the Scientific Advisory Panel in their final report to the Minister! The only reason given as a possibility was movement of horses, but in the document - 2019 Australian Alps Feral Horse Aerial Survey: Summary Report (30), it states – “Feral horses (Equus caballus) also known as ‘wild horses’ or ‘brumbies’ occur in three large and currently separate distribution areas of the Australian Alps National Parks (AANP) and adjoining State Forest areas.” In spite of this ludicrous estimate that is not biologically possible, the surveys have continued to be done in the same way!

AND ALSO, when doing the new trials of survey methods done in 2020 in more localised areas where removals were taking place, the choice was made to use this software again, in the full knowledge that it is producing scientifically and biologically impossible annual increases and therefore numbers! As these were smaller more localized counts, the opportunity was there to do an actual head count.

Interestingly, regular surveys in Big Boggy showed NO increase in population at all in the last few years of annual surveys! As I said above, Wild horse populations in the Parks are known to increase by 6-17% per year (this is in agreement with the science worldwide).

Comparison of numbers estimated by previous Cairns surveys and the trial surveys done in 2020, only go to show how ludicrous the results being produced are. I have made comparison here of some of the supposed population estimates in the 3 areas that were designated for removals under the post fire wild horse control.

So, in the 3 blocks where removals have taken place- (figures obtained in GIPA release)

Zone 1 - Nungar
Cairns estimate was 2191 horses
The SAP (Scientific Advisory Panel) estimated a significantly lower amount of 700 in the area.
However results from the new helicopter survey estimated only 163 horses!
And the helicopter survey with thermal imaging estimated 135 horses!

Zone 2 - Cooleman Plain
Cairns estimate 2464
SAP estimated 3600!
Helicopter normal estimated 2400
Helicopter with thermal imaging- 1630

Zone 3 - Kiandra
Cairns estimate 2707
SAP estimate 320
Helicopter normal - 824
Helicopter with thermal imaging- 1051

On the “normal helicopter“ survey, they saw 122 clusters of horses. Average cluster size- 2.9-4.3. So actually saw approx. 463 horses! In all 3 areas. Again, the rest were computer generated! Elevated to 3,387!
On the helicopter with thermal, only 72 clusters were seen. Approx. 207 horses! Elevated to 2,715!
UAV survey on Kiandra, spotted 32 clusters - approx. 106 horses.
Cairns total for these areas 7,362!! More than double the other surveys that still used the Distance Software. Absolutely ludicrous and more proof that using the software to estimate these numbers is not working by any stretch of the imagination.

All surveys conducted with helicopter would involve double counting because, for the most part, horses will most certainly run from one transect to another. This was also brought up in a previous peer review by St Andrews. One assumption of the software is of course NO MOVEMENT.

See below for horses actually seen in the 2014 and 2019 surveys with percentage increases by use of the software and comparison to the headcounts done annually by Parks.

There have been regular annual spotting counts done by the parks using visual sight and helicopters in the Northern Kosciuszko area. Observed numbers from one of these in 2014 were 1637. .This of course is VERY MUCH IN ALIGNMENT WITH THE FIGURE I HAVE GIVEN FOR THIS YEAR OF 1795. The amount of horses spotted in this area in 2019 was 3110 according to the horse count flights September 25-26 2019. This of course is also not taking account horses that perished in the fires. In 2020 they did another helicopter spotting count (as mentioned above) and counted 2468 horses. Since that count at least 764 horses have been removed, leaving a number of 1704 horses.

It seems therefore that more reliance should be made on these sight surveys and additional localised surveys using drone technology with video. But doing a complete headcount, rather than computer modelling after just counting a few hundred.

The 2018 Legislation was passed and the intent of that legislation was to eliminate any lethal culling of the wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park. The intent was that they should be rehomed or relocated as necessary and a sustainable number of horses be allowed to remain in the Park. Lethal culling is included in the draft plan! And if they attempt to remove over 11,000 horses, there will be none remaining in the Kosciuszko National Park.

 

 

ALPINE NATIONAL PARK - VICTORIA

In 2003 the estimated population in the ANP was 1067.

In 2009 the estimated population in the ANP was 3442

Reference -

https://theaustralianalps.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/2009feralhorsealpssurvey.pdf

This involves an increase in population per year of approx 24.5% when accounting for removals.

The 2014 survey estimated population however was 2350. Therefore a significant reduction in population.

In 2019 the estimated population was approximately 5,000. This involves an increase of approx 22%.

So according to surveys, the population increased for 6 years at 24.5% per annum (higher than scientific accepted maximum and the mean is 12%. Then decreased significantly over the next 5 years. Then suddenly increased over the next 5 years again at approx 22%.

 

 

BARMAH NATIONAL PARK

The population in this area has remained fairly constant from 2006 to 2017!

2006

100 – 150 horses occupy the Barmah State Park” (cited by Dawson et al. 2006)

Reference

https://pestsmart.org.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2020/06/FeralHorse.pdf

 

2010 - “Mr McCormack said that in the aerial survey four mobs of horses were observed, the largest being a mob of 15. He said the number of horses in the park was greater than the 38 counted so far. ''It's really hard to quantify it without some proper verification, but we think it's probably in the order of around 150,'' he said.” Reference

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.smh.com.au/environment/sustainability/floods-put-the-barmah-brumbies-down-for-the-count-20101005-1664u.html

 

2012 - 144 horses counted.

Reference- Wehner, B., Pigott, J.P. & Carboon, J. (2012). 2012 Barmah National Park Wild Horse Survey. Report for the Barmah Horse Advisory Committee, Parks Victoria. October 2012.

 

2017 - Barmah National Park east of Echuca on the Murray River has a currently estimated population of over 200 animals.

Reference-

https://www.parks.vic.gov.au/-/media/project/pv/main/parks/documents/visitor-guides-and-publications/alpine-national-park/alpine-np-feral-horse-sap-2018-21.pdf?la=en&hash=CA8AA077676F2089DF663551527F010B607A6F3D

 

June 2017 - counted 134 horses

June 2018 - counted 147 horses - covered 80% of the Park (other 20% very low population). Using Distance Software this number altered to 620-730 horses. This is “horses assumed unseen”.

Reference-

https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/paec/Inquiry_into_Auditor-Generals_report_No._202_Meeting_Obligations_to_Protect_Ramsar_Wetlands_2016/Submissions/310a._Australian_Brumby_Alliance_appx_1.pdf

 

June 2019 - again 80% of Park surveyed as above. Estimated 540 horses using Distance Software. Actual number of horses seen was not reported!

September 2019 - again 80% of the Park surveyed but this time with transects only 300m apart! Horses counted were 282 horses.

Reference-

https://www.parks.vic.gov.au/-/media/project/pv/main/parks/documents/management-plans/barmah-national-park-and-barmah-forest-ramsar-site-strategic-action-plan-2020-2023.pdf?la=en&hash=E130D0B2C8E9C9E22B349EC9148F9AA99ED09BAA

 

 

Observations

The Distance Software is the software used for the surveys of the AANP. Results from these surveys have produced figures that are scientifically impossible. Estimates show a computed annual population increase for instance, in North Kosciuszko, of 41%. This is more than double the scientific accepted maximum!

The software assumes that the density of population is constant throughout the Park! This is of course NEVER the case because there are many areas totally unsuitable for horses. So it computes horses to be constant over the whole Park and that those horses have not been seen.

It is also very well documented that these surveys are really not designed for animals that are very mobile (like horses) because when frightened by the helicopter they gallop away and can be recounted in another transect (only 1km away). As the animals cannot be individually recognised using Infrared technology, many could/would be double counted.

In the September 2019 survey, the transects flown were only 300m apart! So ALL horses should have been able to be counted in this survey. But as the transects were then so close, there is an extremely high chance that horses would be double counted because of movement from one transect to another! So it’s extremely likely that the 282 would actually be an OVERESTIMATE!

 

Other observations

Using a figure of 200 for 2017 - increasing by 17% per year (expected population increases would be between 6-17%) but allowing for the deaths of horses in the 2018/2019 disaster, the total population would be a MAXIMUM OF 220 horses now!

It is extremely unlikely that the population increases would be more than 17%! Especially in the Barmah Park where conditions can be hard with flooding and droughts. Parks own papers give the figures of 6-17%. This would be scientifically accepted increases.

It is not a difficult task to use drones to locate and video approx 200 horses. As Parks are of course well aware of most likely locations of them. This would provide visible proof to all parties involved.

Visible video proof of the FLIR counts done in 2017-2019 has never been provided and determining the differences in animal species with Infra Red in tree covered areas would be EXTREMELY DIFFICULT - especially from a higher altitude of a helicopter rather than drones. Viewing the footage taken would at least allow us to see if species differentiation is perfect. Or deer could easily be mistaken for a horse.

 

There are local companies able to do this using drone and video technology, which would give much better chance of species differentiation.

 

To get from approx 200 horses in 2017 to 540 in 2019 after accounting for losses in early 2019, would be an annual population increase of OVER 60% per annum!!!!!! Beyond ludicrous!

 

ALL PARKS

As seen by all the above information, the surveys are delivering estimates that are mostly scientifically impossible! The surveys are of course extremely costly and it would seem that the spotting counts done by Parks are more feasible. But there are in fact companies local to these Parks that are able to do head counts using drones with camera for a lower cost than the surveys. They would deliver a much more accurate and proper head count of course.

Once new more accurate head counts are done, if at all necessary, the horse population could be controlled by some rehoming and population control. There are now new proven techniques of this and there are local horse people who are qualified to do such control. Further protection of areas of significance could be made using the suggestions of the top Wildlife Ecologist – Mr Craig Downer, who has written a paper giving specific suggestions of keeping the horses away from these areas. Looking at the map showing the distribution of the horse populations in the park, there is very little crossover anyway into these areas.