‘Science’ behind alpine grazing is a blatant sham

‘Science’ behind alpine grazing is a blatant sham

22 February 2011

published by www.smh.com.au

Australia — The Victorian government should be held to account for its reckless and ill-considered reintroduction of cattle into selected areas of the Alpine National Park.

For a start, the entire park is listed as a ”National Heritage Place” by the Commonwealth, putting responsibilities on the Victorian government that it appears to have ignored. Further, a strong argument has been made for the park to be listed as part of an Australian Alps World Heritage Area alongside other Australian natural and cultural heritage icons such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu national parks. These credentials alone require that the use and management of the Alpine National Park are consistent with the conservation of its natural values.
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The government said last month that it “is committed to making transparent and informed decisions on bushfire management in Victoria’s high country based on credible scientific evidence”. But the program it has initiated is neither transparent nor informed, and has now raised the ire of more than 125 scientists, while having its flaws exposed by two independent consultant reports, the Environmental Defenders Office and the federal government.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment states that “following a review of the data currently available, there is not enough evidence to form an opinion on how effective strategic cattle grazing is for fuel and fire management”.

Aware of the abundant scientific information and comment on this issue, and the effects of cattle grazing on the alpine areas that led to their removal in 2005, I requested earlier this month a copy of the review along with advice on who conducted it and when. I am still waiting. Likewise, interested observers of the “scientific research program” being undertaken are waiting for the Premier or responsible minister to explain the government’s action.

The need for this program to occur is curious to say the least, the logic applied to its construction appears wrong-headed, and the whole thing reeks of political appeasement.

The scientific methodology proposed by the government is a sham. The paper outlining the program has no author, no pre-grazing data sites have been established as would be normal scientific practice, and the proposal to place tracking collars on the cattle to monitor their movements has not been initiated.

The scientist conducting the research advises that he will not start work on the project until later in the year. No recognised experts in the field of grazing in the high country have been consulted and there is no appropriate peer review process. Nor has the 50-plus years of research that led to the removal of cattle from the national park been taken into account. This research confirmed conclusively that grazing of areas in the high country inside the national park would have no significant impact regarding fire frequency, intensity or reduction of fire.

In late January, 125 of the country’s top scientists in associated fields of research called for the program to be reconsidered. They “strongly believe that the ban on livestock grazing in alpine parks should be maintained. The Alpine National Park requires sensitive management to maintain its environmental and National Heritage values and the negative ecological impact of cattle on Australian native ecosystems is well documented. The reintroduction of cattle into this area is not consistent with the objectives of managing National Heritage areas.”

The alpine tree frog and alpine wetlands are but two of many species or communities listed as nationally threatened under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which are found in or adjacent the grazing sites. An investigation conducted by Dr Carl-Henrik Wahren of La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology shows alpine tree frogs and their wetland habitat already being trampled.

In recent weeks, two further independent natural and cultural heritage consultancy firms have pointed to serious failings in the government’s approach, adding voice to the absence of sound science in this program and the need for intervention.

DSE, which is administering this fiasco, describes the cattle’s owners as “fuel reduction service providers”, stating that these providers “are not paying to provide fuel reduction services”.

So, as I read it, some 400 cattle are getting a free feed in the fragile ecosystem of the Alpine National Park, already disturbing places of National Heritage significance and pursuing an ill-considered ”scientific” program while a research design is still being prepared and when evidence and independent scientific comment is weighted against it.

I have been involved with the debate on the grazing of alpine cattle for nearly 30 years and support sustainable cattle grazing. I know the alpine cattle families and admire their resilience and their love of the mountains and their commitment in the face of fire, flood and snow to rescue people and care for the alps. But their cattle simply don’t have a place in the Alpine National Park.

I encourage the government to go back to the drawing board. Lay the scientific information already available on the table, have it peer reviewed again and if a genuine scientific study really is necessary, design a proper scientific program and engage the key stakeholders including traditional owners.

Should the government fail to do this, it will provide for their further embarrassment and suggest it is more interested in appeasing political allies than demanding the rigorous scientific analysis it claims.

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