Australia — AUSTRALIA’S scientific community has condemned the Baillieu government’s decision to return cattle grazing to the Alpine National Park under the banner of research.
In a letter to Environment Minister Ryan Smith, 125 scientists – including some of Australia’s top experts in ecology, zoology, fire regimes, wetlands and threatened species – have called for the trials to be postponed. The scientists say the trials, designed to test whether grazing reduces bushfire, lack scientific integrity and warn that the government has potentially broken federal environment law.
Concern over the trials, which this month entailed 400 cattle being returned to the sensitive alpine environment, has spread to the highest reaches of the scientific community. Advertisement: Story continues below
In an unusual move, the conservative Australian Academy of Science, a fellowship of the nation’s most eminent scientists, has confirmed it is ”taking an interest” in the issue.
The letter to Mr Smith was signed by 11 professors and nine associate professors.
The Bracks Labor government removed cattle from the national park in 2005 after an Alpine Grazing Taskforce found cattle damaged the environment and had no influence over fire behaviour.
A peer-reviewed CSIRO study in 2006 also found there were no scientific grounds that cattle grazing reduced fire risk. The government, however, now says there is a ”general lack of peer-reviewed science” on the matter.
The Coalition, as part of its election bid to win back the seat of Gippsland East from independent Craig Ingram, promised the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria that its long-standing practice of national park cattle grazing would be reinstated. In return, the association campaigned strongly for the election of the Baillieu government.
Libby Rumpff, of the University of Melbourne’s School of Botany, one of the scientists who signed the letter, said the trials set a dangerous precedent for national park management, failed to recognise previous research and used science as a vehicle for political gain. The trial design, she said, was not peer-reviewed – a normal scientific practice in controversial studies.
”The only fact that this trial can discover is that cows eat grass,” Dr Rumpff said.
Serious questions have also been raised about the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s mapping of federally listed species. The map of the trial sites, published on the department’s website, shows only state-listed vulnerable species.
But departmental information obtained by The Sunday Age shows there are four federally protected species within the trial sites: the vulnerable alpine tree frog and the endangered spotted tree frog, and two plants, the leafy greenhood and dwarf sedge.
Also thought to be dotted throughout the trial sites are alpine sphagnum bogs and fens – sponge-like wetland areas that are listed under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as an endangered plant community.
”We now know there are federally listed species in some of those areas,” said Phil Ingamells, spokesman for the Victorian National Parks Association.
”This is another indication of the haste in which this trial happened. It is an extraordinary oversight by the department.”
The association has described the six-year study as ”the terrestrial version of Japan’s scientific whaling”.
The government yesterday stood by the department’s advice that ”appropriate design principles”, including site selection, would avoid or minimise the trial’s impact on vulnerable species. Kate Walshe, a spokeswoman for Mr Smith, said the government would reply in writing to the concerned scientists.
The Victorian department has notified the federal department of the trial but believes there is no reason to undergo a formal approval process.