The state government has withheld from the Commonwealth a survey of rare and threatened plants of an area of the Alpine National Park earmarked for a cattle grazing trial.
It is believed scientists at the state’s biodiversity research body – the Arthur Rylah Institute – were asked to look for rare and threatened plants in different parts of the alpine park as part of research for the high country grazing project. Their results were outlined in an unreleased report from May 2012. But the survey was not included in a recent application by Victoria to the federal government for environmental approval of a grazing trial.
Instead an older desktop study – drawing on previously recorded data – was used to identify the extent of endangered species in the low-lying Wonnangatta Valley, where the latest trial is planned.
The unreleased 2012 plant survey found one nationally protected species of orchid known as pale golden moths and a small patch of endangered alpine bog and wetland in the valley. A large area of rare grassland and a rare plant known as spreading knawel were also found across the trial region.
The report suggests that fencing to protect the orchids, grassland and spreading knawel would be impractical and would not mitigate against the impacts of grazing.
A new cattle grazing trial was announced last month. If approved by federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, it will see 60 head of cattle released into Wonnangatta Valley over three years to see if grazing reduces the risk of bushfire.
When it first came to office, the Coalition state government proposed a much larger grazing trial of 400 cattle across six sites. But it was quashed by the Gillard government under national environment laws.
Mountain cattlemen – who were first removed from the park in 2005 by Labor – say grazing is part of their cultural heritage and helps manage fire fuel loads. Graeme Stoney of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association said the management of the high country had to be reassessed, and in some areas grazing could assist with planned burning for fuel reduction.
”It is overgrown, it is a fire trap, and there is just not the budget to manage it,” he said.
Conservationists say there is no scientific evidence that grazing reduces bushfires and that it will instead damage the fragile alpine environment.
Phil Ingamells of the Victorian National Parks Association said leaving out a critical survey that apparently identified threatened plants and communities was either careless or misleading or both.
A spokeswoman for state Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the next steps for the trial would depend on the Commonwealth’s decision.
She said if approved, the trial would include a pre-site assessment, science plan and environment safeguards.
”The experience and expertise of the cattlemen gathered over 170 years should be included in the way we manage our land and bushfire reduction,” she said.
A federal environment spokeswoman confirmed the department had not received the 2012 study as part of Victoria’s application, but said the minister would take into account any relevant information in assessing the project.
Tom Arup Environment editor