Kosciuszko brumby numbers surge, prompting accusations of ‘shameful’ NSW mismanagement

<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Environment advocates say the New South Wales government is failing to meet its promise to control feral horses in the Kosciuszko national park after numbers increased by more than 4,000 in the past two years.

Based on surveys conducted in November, the government estimates numbers have grown to 18,814, up from 14,380 in 2020.

Under a management plan agreed to at the end of 2021 after years of deadlock within the Coalition, the number of horses in the park must be reduced to 3,000 by 2027.

Related: Kosciuszko brumby numbers to be drastically cut under NSW government plan

The NSW environment minister, James Griffin, said 859 horses were removed from the park between February and December last year. That figure and the survey results have prompted criticism the government is not doing enough.

“While we understand that, after years of inaction, initial control efforts would be slow to ramp up … the rate is nowhere near what is needed to start to reduce numbers and protect this unique landscape,” said Jack Gough, advocacy manager at the Invasive Species Council.

“The future of vulnerable wildlife such as the corroboree frog, sensitive alpine wildflowers and the headwaters of the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers are at stake if horse numbers are not brought down rapidly.”

Jacqui Mumford, the chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, said the state government had been aware of the problem of growing horse populations in the park for years.

“It’s a shameful reflection on their attitude towards nature protection that horse numbers haven’t been brought under control,” she said.

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service said the increase was likely due to improved conditions for horse breeding in the absence of the fires and drought that affected numbers in the 2020 survey.

A spokesperson said the number of horses removed in 2022 was higher than at any time in the past 20 years.

Progress towards the target of 3,000 horses was continually reviewed and the survey results would be used to help design control programs, the spokesperson said.

Related: Alpine brumbies: destructive feral hoofed beasts or a heritage breed to protect?

Last year, the government reviewed the implementation of its wild horse management plan after allegations correct culling protocols were not being followed.

It also reported a letter threatening to “firebomb” a NSW national parks office in the Snowy Mountains region over the culling of feral horses to the police.

Separately, the government paused all ground shooting in the park after allegations of mismanagement were raised in relation to an aerial cull of feral deer in Moonbah last February.

The government said on Friday the review of the management plan found animal welfare outcomes were “better than predicted, as confirmed by independent veterinary observations”.

It said the evaluation found no evidence of non-kill shots having been taken, nor of foaling mares being shot.

The public safety review after the deer cull found correct safety systems were observed but recommended notification of nearby landholders be improved.