The recent bushfires had destroyed as much as half of the skinks’ known range and it is likely remaining areas would now endure increased numbers of horses seeking food, Ms Hartley said. “It’s going to be much harder for [the skinks] to recover.”
Energy and Environment Minister Matt Kean pledged “the best ever pest control campaign” to aid wildlife to recover, with his comments welcomed by groups such as the Colong Foundation for Wilderness.
Chief executive of the Invasive Species Council Andrew Cox said he witnessed larger than usual herds moving north during a recent drive through the Kosciuszko National Park. The northern parts of the parks may already host 15,000 of the large herbivores, according to an aerial survey released by the government last month.
“We expect the horses will become more concentrated,” Mr Cox said. “It’ll be a tough winter because of the lack of feed.”
The survey estimated horse numbers increased by an average of 23 per cent each year between 2014 and 2019 in the Australian Alps National Parks that span NSW, Victoria and the ACT. Of the three jurisdictions, only NSW treats the brumbies as “heritage horse” because of their historic links to early settlers and Light Horse brigades.
Mr Cox said the rate of increase meant as many as 5000 of the animals needed to be removed each year to keep the population stable. A final plan for such controls may not be ready until May because of the fires.
A spokesman for the National Parks and Wildlife Service said the eventual program to reduce numbers would have to take into account the “unprecedented impact on our national parks and our native and threatened species” of the fires.
“Park management plans, including the Kosciuszko wild horse heritage management plan, will need to be considered in that context,” he said, adding the plan will be made public when finalised.
However, Peter Cochran, who runs horse rides in the Kosciuszko National Parks, said the “science has been distorted” when it comes to brumby numbers.
A visit with three other riders in recent days to the north of the park found no horses on the first day, and about 125 over a 100 square-kilometre range the following day, he said.
“We don’t believe the horses died in the fires because they were never there,” Mr Cochran said, adding that he estimated only about 3000-4000 of the animals were in the region survey.
“The impact of the fires was substantially less [where we saw the horses] simply because the fuel load was reduced,” he said.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.