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Up to 10,000 feral horses might be killed or removed from Australia’s largest alpine national park under a draft plan to control the rapidly growing population of non-native animals.

Scientists have welcomed the idea of removing them, but as Nature.com reports, many are alarmed that the plan still allows for thousands to remain, threatening endangered species and habitats.

The proposed cull, in Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, contrasts with a ban on lethal control measures in the United States, where large populations of wild horses known as mustangs also cause problems.

The draft plan, released last month, recommends reducing the park’s population of wild horses, known in Australia as brumbies, from an estimated 14,000 to about 3,000 through a combination of mostly ground-based shooting, as well as rounding up and rehoming.

But the Australian Academy of Science argues that the number of horses should be rapidly reduced below 3,000. In an open letter with 69 signatories including scientists and institutions sent to the NSW environment minister on Friday, they note that “alpine wetlands continue to degrade even with very small numbers of feral horses.

Kosciusko cannot begin to recover from drought, extensive bushfires and overgrazing if, as currently proposed, 3,000 feral horses remain.”

Australia has no native mammals with hard hooves, and so horses do more damage to delicate vegetation and soils than soft-footed species, such as kangaroos and wallabies, as well as creating problems through over-grazing.

David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University in Albury-Wodonga — which straddles NSW and the neighbouring state of Victoria — says the NSW government “couldn’t have picked a worse place” to allow feral horses to roam. He makes the point that Australia’s alpine environment covers just 1% of the continent and has many endemic and threatened species that are found nowhere else.

“These areas are just too fragile to have large herbivores trampling around in them,” adds Don Driscoll, an ecologist at Deakin University in Melbourne.

The NSW state government had previously tried to control the brumbies by rehoming them on private land, but was never able to find a place for more than a few hundred horses a year, rehoming only about 1,000 since 2002.

Jamie Pittock, an environmental scientist at the Australian National University in Canberra, says that the government’s acknowledgement that the exponentially growing population cannot be managed with rehoming alone is at least “a step forward”.

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