About 4,000 feral horses will be removed from Kosciuszko national park in New South Wales as part of an emergency response to protect the alpine ecosystem after large areas were devastated by bushfires.
The move would be the largest removal of horses in the park’s history, said the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean.
Announcing an agreement between “horse lovers and national-park lovers”, Kean said a priority would be to catch and remove the animals, but he would not rule out that some might have to be killed.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said three areas in the north of the park covering about 57,000 hectares would be targeted – Nungar plain, Cooleman plain and parts of Boggy and Kiandra plains. About 4,000 horses were estimated to be in those areas.
Almost 90% of the Nungar plain and Boggy and Kiandra plains area had been impacted by fire, NPWS said, and 10% of Cooleman plain. A spokesperson said the areas contained threatened species and sensitive ecological communities “which are most vulnerable to trampling and other impacts of horses”.
“As many horses as possible will be rehomed. Some horses will go to the knackery.”
The number of horses in the national park has been growing rapidly, causing concern that the damage caused by their hard hooves is adding to the pressure on sensitive alpine areas and putting some native species at risk.
Recent surveys suggest the number of horses in alpine areas has more than doubled in the past five years to more than 25,000.
The population in the national park was estimated to have risen from 6,000 in 2014 to 19,000 in 2019, NPWS said. Extensive fires in the park this summer had caused further damage to the alpine areas as horses tried to escape, concentrating them in some areas.
Managing the feral horses in alpine areas has long been a deeply contentious issue. The animals escaped from, or were abandoned by, colonisers in the 19th century.
Kean’s announcement came during an ABC radio interview on Wednesday morning and reported the outcome of a meeting of the Kosciuszko national park wild horse community advisory panel.
Kean said: “It’s the first time for a long time that we have had all the players at the table and it sounds like something we can live with. There was consensus among horse-lovers and national park-lovers about three areas where we need to completely remove the horses from.”
A monitoring program would be introduced, and fencing to prevent other horses moving in, he said.
Asked if there would be a cull of the horses, he said all options were on the table but the focus would be on humane treatment of the animals, with physical removal the first option. He said the plan should help protect habitats of the vulnerable broad-toothed rat and critically endangered corroboree frogs.
The advisory panel was convened after the wild horse management bill was introduced in 2018 by the NSW deputy premier, John Barilaro, whose Monaro seat covers parts of the park. Kean and Barilaro have clashed over the issue, but Kean credited Barilaro with establishing the process that led to the announcement.
In a statement to Guardian Australia, Barilaro said the focus was “to find a balance between the environment and the cultural connection of the brumbies to the Kosciuszko national park”.
He said: “This approach has proven that it can bring everyone together to let common sense prevail. It was this approach that identified the three areas of Kosciuszko national park that should see immediate reduction of horse numbers using humane methods.
“There is a question mark around if there are in fact 4,000 horses in those areas, but regardless, the commitment we made to reduce horse numbers to a population of 3,000 still stands.”
The chief executive of the Invasive Species Council, Andrew Cox, said the announcement was a “major step forward” and a “positive initiative”, especially after parts of the park had been hit by bushfires.
He told Guardian Australia the new plan should be seen as an emergency measure that would be a saviour for the park’s conservation in the aftermath of the fires.
“There are thousands and thousands of horses – some were burned – and they are just making a mess of the park,” he said. “It’s necessary that large numbers are removed because virtually nothing has been done for three years.”
Cox said the horses were driving species to extinction and the bushfires were now magnifying their impact.