Wild horses in Australia cause damage to the fragile ecosystem around Kosciuszko National Park. However, managing the population is a contentious issue involving animal welfare concerns. In order to consider all relevant views on the issue, a community engagement was undertaken.
Problems and Purpose
Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales, south-eastern Australia is home to the country’s only alpine ecology. It is also home to a large population of Brumbies – wild horses descended from lost or escaped stock introduced by early European arrivals. The Brumby population has a significant impact on the fragile ecosystem and the horses have previously been managed by a plan developed by the National Parks Services in conjunction with stakeholder groups.
In 2014 the NSW National Parks Service undertook an extensive engagement and consultation process to support review of the 2008 horse management plan. The aim of the engagement was to:
- Provide information about the issues associated with wild horse management in the Park
- Generate considered dialogue about the management of wild horses
- Capture a representative cross-section of community views
- Gain an understanding of the underlying values that drive those views
Management of the Brumbies is a contentious issue and involves trying to balance the conservation and protection of the national park with animal welfare concerns and the fondness many people have for the Brumbies.
Background History and Context
Kosciuszko is Australia’s highest peak, nestled in the Snowy Mountains. Declared a national park in 1944, the area has cultural and historical significance for indigenous peoples as well as later white colonisers. The wild horse population is descended from lost or escaped stock; horses are not a native Australian species. The brumbies conjure up evocative images in many Australian imaginations, embodied in the 1890 poem by Banjo Patteron, The Man from Snowy River.
Following extensive bushfires in 2003, the landscape of the park was left severely damaged and vulnerable. Wildlife numbers were hit by the fires which destroyed 90% of the park. However, in the years immediately afterwards the wild horse population recovered significantly and as a consequence has had further impact on the fragile environment. Australian fauna has evolved over millions of years with soft feet. Horses and other introduced animals like deer have hard, hooved feet. Their roaming churns up the soil and leads to erosion. Likewise, they cause damage to the swamp ecology by making them muddy with their hard feet. This affects habitats for native flora and fauna (NSW Dept of Environment).
The NSW National Parks Service is responsible for the management of the Brumbies and other threats to the park. Since 2002 they have removed 2600 wild horses from the area, with around a third rehomed. Discussion over the management of the Brumbies is a contentious an emotive issue with strong viewpoints on either side from conservationists and animal welfare advocates. The views of these groups are well established and they have been involved with National Parks Wildlife Services (NPWS) conversations in the past. This time, NPWS wanted to ensure that the voices of citizens were heard:
“The extensive engagement programme, which ran for seven months, included a range of mechanisms by which the voices of everyday citizens, whose taxes fund the Park, could be heard. In addition, there were activities in which stakeholders could participate, recognising their specific expertise and commitment but ensuring that theirs was not the only voice heard” (Straight Talk 2014)
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The engagement process was instigated by NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, the government agency responsible for conservation in the state. It was designed and facilitated by Straight Talk, an independent organisaton specialising in community and stakeholder engagement. A number of other organisations were also involved in the process, to run surveys and the online engagement platform, including Bluegrass Consulting and CINT.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Protecting the Snowies was a comprehensive engagement strategy that took place over seven months and involved a variety of methods and forums for citizens to engage with. Around 21,000 people in total participated in some way. Central to the engagement process was the task of engaging with a broader community – beyond the most vocal and sometimes vitriolic stakeholder groups. Various recruitment strategies were employed to maximise broad participation including the following:
- Focus group participants were randomly selected by a third party market research group to be demographically representative. Participants were paid a stipend of $80 AUD to attend the group and those with strongly held views on the topic were excluded (Straight Talk 2015 p8).
- Two online community surveys were carried out with 819 and 405 respondents respectively. The first was designed and implemented by CINT, an online survey company, who ensured that respondents comprised a random sample. Furthermore, the respondents of the first survey were told that the survey was about national parks rather than animal management, so as not to influence responses. By the time of the second survey some time later, respondents were aware of the wild horse management plan and self-selected to fill in the survey. This meant that respondents were more likely to hold stronger views than the first survey (Straight Talk 2015 p 9-10; 16).
- 72 participants were randomly selected to attend the 21st century town hall meeting in November 2014. Participants were selected to be broadly representative of demographics and were paid $150 AUD to attend. In addition, 21 stakeholders also participated in the meeting and 7 NPWS staff attended but did not participate (Straight Talk 2015 p11).
- A ‘kitchen table discussion guide’ was produced to guide people through the issue who might not usually engage in public meetings or online. People who held discussions were asked to submit feedback and a total of 178 people did (Straight Talk 2015 p13)
- The online engagement platform received a high number of unique visitors (20,000) during July – Dec 2014, but a relatively low level of actual participation (589). For the most part the online forums were dominated by those with strong viewpoints on either side. This suggests that although the broader community were interested in the issue, they did not have strong enough views to participate in the discussion online (Straight Talk 2015 p15).
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The engagement process took place over 7 months and involved a range of activities designed to capture the views of the broader community. This was perceived as particularly important given that the discussion about wild horses has been dominated by horse advocates on one side and environmental advocates on the other. Therefore activities were designed to try and engage the views of the broader community, as Straight Talk (2015 p2) explains:
“The management of wild horses is a complex issue which often attracts strong opinions, particularly at either end of the management spectrum (which ranges from no population control methods to complete eradication). As is often the case in these situations, the expression of extreme views discourages community members with more moderate views from participating in open discussions, so that public discourse becomes dominated by polarised views, which do not reflect broader community opinion or the genuine complexity of issues. Seeking the involvement of the more silent middle-ground in any public debate is important to ensuring that government decisions do, in fact, genuinely reflect the values of the broader community (and not just those of vocal stakeholders) and have broad community support.”
However, it was still important to ensure that stakeholders were engaged in the management plan review, so some activities were designated for stakeholder, stakeholders and community, and community only. Activities are discussed in turn below. Full details are available here and the information is taken from Straight Talk’s final report on the engagement strategy.
Four focus groups of 10 to 15 people were held in Parramatta, Jindabyne, Canberra and Sydney throughout July 2014. The primary aim of these groups was to understand the community’s views on controlling populations of feral animals and identify key issues relating to this. The groups were moderated by Straight Talk staff, but don’t appear to have been facilitated in a deliberative manner as this was not the aim of the groups.
This approach was chosen to try and represent the views of a broader community rather than ‘the usual suspects’ – highly engaged, opinionated citizens. The town meeting format is designed to enable deliberation amongst a relatively large group of representative citizens. The town meeting utilised small group deliberation and technology to enable information provision about the challenges of managing the wild horse population in the Snowies. Information was provided from both perspectives – horse and environmental adovcates. Stakeholders were also invited to participate in the meeting, but ‘the process was managed so that their input could be captured and acknowledged but not influence the outcomes of the broader participant group’ (Straight Talk 2015b p1). Including stakeholders was also important for transparency, so that there was trust in the engagement process.
“Tables were allocated to ensure a mix of genders, locations and ages. There were nine tables comprising of a total of 72 randomly selected community members. Each table had an experienced table facilitator, most of whom were volunteers, who ensured all participants engaged in conversation and recorded key points. In addition, there were three tables comprising 21 representatives from horse advocate groups and conservation and environment advocate groups. Stakeholders participated in discussions at their tables, aided by their table facilitators who recorded key points. Seven representatives from NPWS and the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) observed proceedings and did not participate in any of the activities.
During the day, participants were asked to deliberate on a number of key issues associated with the management of wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park. At the end of discussions participants were asked to rate their responses to related questions. To assist their deliberations, participants were shown several pre-recorded video presentations, providing a range of views about the issue, and given information about control methods. This process allowed participants to fully consider issues before giving their quantitative response.” (Straight Talk 2015b p6)
Online engagement took two forms: specially designed surveys and an engagement platform hosted by NPWS. There were 32 different forums on various issues related to the Brumbies and management. Levels of online participation peaked and troughed according to what else was happening during the engagement process. For example, it spiked around the time that invitations were sent out to the town hall meeting and in the days after the event (Bluegrass Consulting 2015 p5). Notably, participation online was biased in favour of horse advocates, with environmentalists comprising only a handful of participants. This meant that a majority of forum topics were ‘pro-horse’ but nonetheless there appeared to be a ‘fairly balanced conversation’ (Bluegrass Consulting 2015 p8).
The online engagement strategy was specifically designed to go beyond the usual online consultation mode where the public are invited to comment on a draft bill or plan. Instead, content was designed to start a conversation or spark interest and keep the engagement going – the total period for the online platform was 152 days. The online platform also featured an infographic telling the story of the Snowy Mountains, and allowed people to participate in different ways including uploading pictures and stories (Bluegrass Consulting 2015 p13).
Kitchen table discussion guides are designed to give the information and guidance necessary for people to hold their own discussion groups at home, or whenever and wherever they want, with who they want. The guides were designed to provide the relevant information on the issue and facilitate discussion. Participants were asked to return feedback with their views on key questions in the guide. The results from the returned guides showed polarised views on nearly all the issues discussed. This is partly due to the poor uptake of the guides (out of 1000 hard copies distributed only 39 were returned). Subsequently, as with the online platform, the discussions appear to have been dominated by those with strongly held views (Straight Talk 2015d).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Analysis from the engagement activities suggested that the public were not as well-informed about the management of wild horses as they think they are. In particular knowledge is low about the damage that the Brumbies cause to native Australian flora and fauna. It also found that the spectrum of views on management are broad and polarised. The result of this continued division and perceived lack of knowledge is that the community engagement did not produce ‘an answer’. However, this was not the aim of the engagement, but rather to understand the broader community’s values relating to wild horse management. There was no single control method that had universal support, but when given relevant information and time to reflect, community members did change their minds about control methods. Notably, there was support for lethal control methods and aerial shooting ‘when given accurate information about what they involve and time to reflect on the relative humaneness of different population control methods’ (Straight Talk 2015c p2).
However, before analysis of the community engagement was completed the NSW government announced it would not be using aerial shooting. It has been speculated that the reluctance to employ aerial shooting comes from the influence of the ‘horse lobby’ on the government. Because of the level of polarisation on this issue, a great deal of time has been spent negotiating with ‘horse stakeholders’ who have been able (apparently) to dominate conversation over the issue. Concomitantly, environmental advocates have had less of a voice and the overall debate has been somewhat paralysed by some groups’ unwillingness to consider any alternative viewpoints or evidence of damage to the environment (Straight Talk 2015c p3-4).
It is worth noting that the NPWS is not a neutral arbiter in this issue and is an environmental advocate. One of the aims of the engagement process appears to have been the promotion of NWPS as an authority and source of information on horse management. The management of wild horses in Kosciuszko will require ongoing community engagement and consultation. The final 2016 management plan is now on public exhibition but continual public engagement is advocated by Straight Talk in their final report, in order to successfully deal with opposition to the plan as it arises.
As of July 2016, Brumbies are still in the news with NPWS plans to reduce the numbers by 90% through a variety of on-the-ground methods including lethal control. Local media reports show that the issue is still highly controversial and that the ‘horse lobby’ are still the most vocal group.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Management of the wild horses in Kosciuszko national park is clearly highly contentious and emotive, and the extensive engagement process has not resolved this issue. With deeply entrenched viewpoints on either side, one of the aims of the process was to engage with everyday citizens and understand their views and values. However, although the objective of the process was to understand the community’s values, those values did not feed into any solid recommendations or principles as is the case with a citizens’ jury. Participants in the face-to-face activities did deliberate on the topic and give their views, but were not asked to come up with final recommendations for NPWS. This is not a problem per se, but it does draw attention to the scope and remit of this process. It appears that the 2016 horse management plan, whilst acknowledging the input from the community engagement process, does not bring any of that input to the fore. Thus it remains unclear exactly how, if at all, the community were able to influence the 2016 plan.
Arguably the main aim of the process appears to be awareness raising of the NPWS and the challenges of wild horse management in the park. This is seen in the emphasis in the town hall meeting, kitchen table discussions and online platform of providing information and evidence on the topic. On the other hand, extensive efforts were taken to engage with and understand the views of the broader community through focus groups and surveys. The disjuncture is perhaps between these two aims of information provision and understanding views – they were never brought together to enable the community to make recommendations themselves.
Straight Talk, who were the main organisers of the engagement strategy, express disappointment in the NSW government in their final report. In particular, they note that (despite the objective being to engage with a broader public) ‘the engagement was compromised because approval was never given to actively promote the engagement with the broader community’ (2015c p2). Thus from the start, promotion of the engagement was limited to those who were already engaging with NWPS on the issue – namely stakeholders with strongly held viewpoints. Consequently they acknowledge that the most vocal participants throughout the process were those whose views were already well known. This seems to be a bizarre sort of self-sabotage given the aims of the process to engage with the silent majority.
Overall it seems to be the case that the most vocal and opinionated stakeholders – particularly horse advocates – were able to dominate the engagement process. Nonetheless, some broader community views were captured and they appeared to align more closely with environmental advocates; accepting the use of lethal control methods, for example. It appears to be the case that engagement with the broader community was hampered by the limited promotion of various engagement pathways such as the kitchen table discussions and the online platform. As a result, participation was dominated by those with pre-existing, strongly held views on the topic.
Bluegrass Consulting (2015) Online engagement report [pdf] , available at: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/protectsnowies/knp-online-engagement-report-2804.pdf
Straight Talk (2015) Community Engagement report [pdf], available at: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/protectsnowies/knp-community-stakeholder-engagement-report-2804.pdf
Straight Talk (2015b) 21st Century Town Hall Meeting report, [pdf], available at: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/protectsnowies/knp-town-hall-meeting-report-2804.pdf
Straight Talk (2015c) Engagement Conclusions: wild horse management review [pdf] available at: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/protectsnowies/knp-engagement-conclusions-report-2804.pdf
Straight Talk (2015d) Kitchen Table discussion guide [pdf], available at: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/protectsnowies/knp-kitche-table-discussion-guide-report-2804.pdf
All reports by NPWS and Straight Talk are available here:
Online platform with background, info and discussions: