THEY are beautiful, charismatic, social, sentient creatures. Images of wild horses thundering across a landscape are immortalised in pop songs and paint-by-number pictures.
They set off a chain of emotional responses that reach back into childhood, into history. Unlike, for example, the alpine she-oak skink or the broad-toothed rat.
This week, the Berejiklian government passed the “brumby bill” which gives horses special dispensation to roam freely in the Kosciuszko National Park.
In one stroke, this government has undermined one of the main reasons we have national parks at all, which is to set aside areas of ecological significance in order to preserve biodiversity. It’s not about individual plants and animals but about looking after whole ecosystems that have evolved to produce the unique array of living things on this continent.
Keeping horses out of Kosciuszko National Park (or at least, keeping their numbers down) means that they will need to be shot, removed or caught and neutered so they don’t breed. The last two options are almost impossibly difficult and/or expensive, so the preferred method has been aerial culling.
If you love horses, this is very difficult. But failing to make difficult choices consigns us to new waves of extinctions and further degradation of ecosystems. Until now, we have had a consensus that in national parks, we would give the unique Australian environment a go. That we would take the advice of scientists on these matters. The brumby bill suddenly throws all of that into question.
Instead of scientific advice, the government will now be guided on the brumby issue by a community committee containing no scientists.
The response from scientists was swift. The highly respected David Watson, Professor of Ecology at Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society resigned from the government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee the day after the bill passed.
Watson tweeted his resignation letter to environment minister Gabrielle Upton. “The wilful disregard that you and your government colleagues have for science diminishes our collective future, relegating our precious national parks and priceless environment to political play things.”
We have hearts, but we also have heads. We should not be allowing short term political gain to overrule decades of accumulated scientific knowledge. Sadly, as we’ve also seen with climate change policy, politicians appear quite happy to sell our future for a few votes.