In January 2013, it was reported that the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association (MCAV) was lobbying the state environment minister Ryan Smith to seek permission to reintroduce cattle to the area around the Wonnangatta station.

In November 2013, it was reported that the minister had asked the federal minister to approve such a trial.

Wonnangatta River
Wonnangatta River

While spokespeople for the minister have been quoted in the media, there has been no formal statement by Ryan Smith and details on the trial have not been released to the public by the Victorian government.

However, because the Victorian government requires approval from the federal government under the EPBC Act, the paperwork for the trial is available via the federal environment department’s website. Despite the minister’s silence on the issue, at least we now know what is actually intended in the trial.

Sadly, many of the questions we have previously asked are not resolved in the application sent to the federal minister’s department.

weeds or fuel loads?

“But it was the state of the park, the threat of high intensity fires from high fuel loads and the impact this could have on its ecology – particularly snow gums – and the infestation of weeds and feral animals that were most pressing on the minds of the cattlemen”.

The Weekly Times.

Media reports have mentioned the ability of cattle grazing to reduce weeds in the Wonnangatta, however, the application only talks about the possibility of it reducing fuel loads. There is no mention of any strategies to ensure the reintroduction of cattle doesn’t bring a new set of weeds into the Wonnangatta. Does this shift from dealing with weeds and fire to just fuel reduction show that there is an admission that cattle make weed infestation worse?

The application says that the traditional owner group was consulted, and of course the MCAV was. What is strange is the claim that environment groups were consulted. Really?

Some observations about the proposed trial

Given that the government has identified fuel loads as a problem, it has not sought to find other ways to reduce fuel loads without a grazing trial.

The impact of weed spread due to grazing (one of the reasons cattle were excluded from the national park in the first case) is not specifically addressed in the proposal.

There is not yet an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for the project. Given the experience in early 2011, when the Coalition secretly let cattle back into the High Country without a proper framework for how the trial would be managed, one has to wonder if the same thing will happen this time. The documentation says that the EMP will consider issues such as ‘pest plant and animal controls’: so let’s hope the EMP is produced before the cattle are introduced.

The study area covers around 2,200 hectares of land, with 4 ‘treatments’ to be carried out over different parcels of land: a control area, some areas being grazed, some areas grazed and burned, and some areas just burned. The documentation identified 10 ecological vegetation classes (EVCs) within the research trial area. It is not yet clear whether the 4 treatments will be carried out in each EVC.

Lack of consultation. Given that this proposal has been foisted onto the community without any attempt to explain the project beyond a couple of media grabs, it hasn’t got off to a great start if the government hopes to generate widespread support for the trial. The documentation says a ‘communications strategy’ will be created, with the development of ‘key messages’ that will inform the community on the progress of the trial. Note that consultation is a very different thing to communication.

Threats to nationally listed species. The application says the government only carried out desk top assessments of possible federally listed species in the research area. As is widely noted, animal and plant data for the region is not huge, but the government was happy to rely on what information was currently held by the federal government rather than sending a team to check the actual site. Mitigation measures, aimed to deal with any impacts on federally listed species that may be subsequently identified, will be dealt with via the EMP.

Traditional Owner (TO) attitudes to fire. One valuable aspect of the project documentation was a consultant’s report and ‘conceptual model’ of TO understandings of the role of fire in managing land in the High Country. The government is to be congratulated for commissioning this research.

So, we are a little bit closer to gaining an understanding of what is planned with the trial, although there are a significant number of areas where there is no clarity about what the government intentions are and big gaps in understanding how the project will be managed.

The federal minister is currently considering the application and will probably make a decision shortly.

take action

If this proposal troubles you, then please contact the Environment Minister and let him know.