Modelling horse management in the Australian Alps.
Management of the feral Horse (Equus caballus) in the Australian Alps bioregion is a difficult and emotive issue, with interested parties working from vastly differing perspectives. Compounding this, information regarding ecology and distribution of horses, and the cost and effectiveness of management strategies is often unknown or uncertain. Resolving these issues requires an objective approach with the flexibility to incorporate different potential scenarios. We used a spatially explicit population model to compare the potential effects of two different management strategies on populations of horses in the Australian Alps bioregion: culling from helicopters versus trapping and mustering. We populated the model using the results of population surveys conducted in 2014, vegetation data and cost estimates. We then provided an estimate of the effect of each strategy on population size across the Alps, and their corresponding costs, compared to no management. To account for uncertainties, we simulated different scenarios for horse population densities, dispersal rates and population growth rates. Management using aerial culling was more effective than mustering in every scenario modelled, and three to six times cheaper. Aerial culling was only slightly more effective within its control region. However, because mustering is necessarily restricted by road access, this translated to a substantial improvement in population control - up to 2000 horses where growth and dispersal rates were high. Our results unequivocally suggest aerial culling as the only strategy that could effectively control horses within the modelled range of scenarios; this result stands in addition to its other potential benefits of lower cost, animal stress and landscape disturbance. A major advantage of this modelling approach is that we can easily update it with new data, test different measures of effectiveness and add new scenarios to adapt to the rapidly changing situation on the ground, both in terms of the ecology and the political climate.