Recently I sent an email to Professor David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University, who had just resigned from the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
I don’t know David although he is a fellow scientist, ecologist and peer of sorts. He resigned because the NSW Government passed the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses, a bill that not just goes against the Scientific Committee’s advice, its diametrically opposite to it..
Professor Watson’s resignation letter said he had better things to do with his time than provide advice that is ignored. Fair enough.
So my email was of support for an important personal decision by someone I don’t know and, for me, that is not something that happens every day.
So why reach out?
Well, the Committee had a draft determination to list wild horses as a Key Threatening Process. This means that there is sufficient scientific evidence that feral horses have a detrimental effect on native plants, animals and ecological communities, especially in alpine regions. In other words, horses are a degradation driver contributing to biodiversity loss.
Horses are like many other exotic species, they are not compatible with the objectives of protected areas. Instead, they make it much harder to protect native species because they are an unusual disturbance, one that the native plants and animals have not evolved alongside. In this instance grazing and hard-hooved trampling that alpine plants in Australia had not previously been subjected to in their recent evolution.
Think about this reality for a moment.
Everywhere that humans go they introduce species. Many of these introductions bring an evolutionary pressure not previously or at least recently present in the native communities of plants and animals. It changes the balance of evolutionary and ecological pressures. Some species benefit, for others, existence and reproduction can become more difficult. In time they are predated, eaten or competed out of the mix.
If the NSW Scientific Committee were looking at listing feral horses as a threatening process, this means there is enough research evidence that wild horses are doing this in NSW national parks, enough to see some native plants and animals at greater risk of extinction than before.
The bill, however, legislates for protection of wild horses. Passing the bill means NSW will have an Act to protect a key driver of biodiversity loss alongside a Biodiversity Act that is supposed to protect native plants and animals from the very same drivers.
It seems very odd to be so contrary, even for politicians. So why do it? It is politics of course.
Many of the wild horse in NSW occur in national parks in bellweather electorates. Seats that often swing hard at state and Federal elections and politics is sensitive just now, perhaps more so than for a while. NSW is about to enter an election, the Federal government has by-elections to worry about and is not long off its own visit to the polls. Then there is the more general turmoil around the world making a mockery of the neo-liberal political norms we have just gotten used to. The politics of horses becomes about those folk who like them for the frontier icon of rural solidity that, to many, they have always been. No matter that they trample a few native plants underhoof. At this time the sensibility falls towards those folk with an akubra and a whip and not the dreadlocked ones.
Unfortunately for Professor Watson, his understandable stand for sense over sensibility will only be a gesture, more important to him than anyone else. This is despite the fact that the government has just made a law to protect a driver of biodiversity loss.
It’s all desperate… and rather sad.