After capitulating to John Barilaro's demand for a feral horse recount, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean may as well just make a number up. Because the figure he offers literally won't make a difference.
This's the problem with offering a compromise to someone who has already made up their mind. They're not genuinely open to persuasion. They just want to buy time to continue thwarting you.
The last official count in Kosciuszko National Park in 2019 estimated there were 19,000 feral horses, up from 6000 in 2014. Across Australia's alps there are thought to be some 25,000, up from 9000 five years earlier.
That's 100,000 heavy hooves trampling rare alpine grasses and fragile creek beds, destroying the habitats of the corroboree frog, the Reiks freshwater crayfish, and the alpine spiny crayfish. All up, there are five distinct ecosystems in Australia's alpine region under threat from the feral pests.
The Deputy Premier's claim is that our summer's bushfires may have reduced brumby numbers to such an extent that scheduled trapping and removals should be cancelled.
He's almost certainly wrong on this. The bushfires affected around a quarter of the Kosciuszko National Park. Experts tell us the relative effect on feral horse numbers is almost certainly negligible.
But here's the rub: it doesn't matter. Regardless of whether the new recount reveals horse numbers are up, down, or stable John Barilaro and his supporters on this issue will continue to lobby furiously against any form of real population control.
That's because their objection to culling feral horses isn't evidence-based, it's emotional.
John Barilaro, and the rest of the pro-brumby lobby, base their arguments on poetry and literature, on nostalgia for the highland cattlemen found in Banjo Patterson's poems.
When I speak to NSW Parks and Wildlife rangers they reveal that the imagined mighty brumby looks a lot more like an inbred pony, mangy and small.
They ask why conservation measures are being guided by emotions, rather than science. They wonder why they're being disparaged in the media when they put their lives on the line trying to protect and preserve people and country from bushfire and environmental degradation.
There is no real genetic distinction that makes the feral brumby worth preserving. An equus caballus is a horse, domesticated or not.
But there are distinctly Australian features in the parks worth preserving. Kosciuszko National Park is one of our harshest climates, and the flora and fauna that survive there are uniquely Australian.
Indigenous elders, such as Ngarigo woman Aunty Rhonda Casey, rightly ask how we will explain to our kids that feral pests introduced less than 200 years ago were prized more highly than our own pre-existing wonders.
During the drought the horses suffered severely. Essentially they lived a life of starvation, as the lack of food was exacerbated by too many mouths.
Conservationists and the pro-Brumby lobby both want to see this population managed humanely. It is clear the current approach of trapping and rehoming isn't working.
It's distressing to muster a wild animal and try and tame it. Animals are domesticated over thousands of years, but can become feral in less than a generation.
Animal welfare experts, including the RSPCA, all agree that aerial culling is the most effective and humane way to manage horse numbers.
It's already used extensively through Kosciusko National Park to manage deer, wild dog, goat and fox populations. It is astonishing that horses, being the most destructive force in these parks, are excluded from this approach.
But again, this was the Deputy Premier's own doing.
His Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Act in 2018 made it impossible to properly manage pests by ruling out aerial culls. That year, the government he helps lead also got rid of pest management officer roles at National Parks and Wildlife, putting feral animal management under more strain.
So when the Deputy Premier demands a recount, it's worth remembering this has been an ecological disaster of his own creation.
- Stewart Little is general secretary of the Public Service Association, the union which represents NSW park rangers.