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Impacts of feral horses and deer on an endangered woodland of Kosciuszko National Park

Ward‐Jones, Jessica, Pulsford, Ian, Thackway, Richard, Bishwokarma, Dipak, Freudenberger, David
Ecological management & restoration 2019 v.20 no.1 pp. 37-46
Callitris glaucophylla, Cervus dama, Eucalyptus, Rusa unicolor, deer, environmental factors, environmental impact, feces, feral animals, grasslands, herbivores, horses, invertebrates, national parks, overstory, pitfall traps, population growth, rabbits, regrowth, river valleys, soil, soil erosion, surveys, understory, vegetation cover, woodlands
In recent years, the impacts of rapidly increasing populations of feral horses and deer on the vegetation and stability of soils have become highly visible and widespread in Kosciuszko National Park. We investigated these impacts in the White Cypress Pine (Callitris glaucophylla Joy Thomps. & L.A.S. Johnson) – White Box (Eucalyptus albens Benth) woodlands of the lower Snowy River valley. This woodland is a component of the White Box‐Yellow Box‐Blakely's Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Derived Native Grasslands complex that is nationally listed as a critically endangered ecological community. To investigate the severity of the impacts of feral horse (Equus caballus) and deer (Dama dama and Rusa unicolor) in the valley in 2013 and 2017/18, we surveyed fenced exclosures and paired grazed plots that were first established and surveyed in 1984 and re‐surveyed in 1987. Using LFA and VAST methodologies (not used in 1987), we compared the relative response of environmental variables in plots inside and outside the exclosures in an attempt to ascertain recent herbivore impacts. While there was no evidence of horses or deer from dung surveys in 1987, in 2018, 84% of the dung was from horses, 13% from deer, 1% from rabbits and 2% from macropods. Total herbivore dung density increased fourfold since the 1987 survey. On the understanding that all plots had the same starting condition in 1984 with respect to prior herbivory, we deduce that horses and deer are having significant ecological impacts. There was a far greater cover of understorey plants and the midstorey was denser and taller inside the exclosures. Outside the exclosures, the vegetation cover was far more sparse and soil erosion was active and extensive. The total number of invertebrates captured in small pitfall traps was nearly twice as many within the exclosures compared to the grazed plots. The dense even‐aged regrowth overstorey stands of White Cypress Pine, inside and outside the exclosures, have changed little in 34 years.