Unbranded

Last week I attended a screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival (touring edition) here in Canberra, specifically to see the documentary “Unbranded” (thanks to my cousin once again for the tip-off !). This film touches on several American icons, including the mustang (equivalent of our brumby), the cowboy, and the Wild West, and it won the People’s Choice Award in this showcase of outdoorsy and adventure films.

The edit shown was an abridged version of the whole documentary, and only ran for 46 minutes, though the film in its entirety  runs for an additional hour. Unfortunately access to a complete cut of the film is currently unavailable in Australia, so I base my judgments solely on the parts of it I’ve seen.

Now, it has to be said upfront that this film deals with an American context, and for several reasons (which I will explore shortly) the mustang in America and the brumby in Australia are two entirely different beasts – both literally and figuratively! Watching the trailer on YouTube, I was frustrated at the thought that brumby advocates here in Australia might try to use this film as yet another argument for adopting the U.S. model of feral horse management. In fact very little of that “mustang narrative” featured in the version of the film that was screened as part of the BMFF. Instead, it was much more of a “boys’ own” adventure-type film, focusing heavily on the journey of these four young men, rather than the plight of the mustang.

So while this inhibits my ability to critique the film in terms of its portrayal of America’s feral horse populations, it still provides a useful entry point to consider the differences between the situation of the mustang, and that of the brumby. In the United States, the mustang was declared a protected species (along with the burro) during the 1970s. Though descended from the horses of 16th century Spanish colonisers, these feral horses were seen as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West … [Mustangs] are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” [1]

While many brumby advocates would like to see the implementation of similar policy in Australia, with brumbies considered as part of the ecosystem (particularly in the Snowy Mountains), there is a huge geo-evolutionary difference between the continents of Australia and North America. In fact, the horse evolved in the grasslands of North America millions of years ago, and continued to have a presence there until the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. This long period of co-existence means that the North American continent truly did evolve alongside the horse, an argument that, though often mistakenly applied to the Australian High Country, simply does not hold true here.

Another interesting difference between the Australian and American contexts is that the main opponents of the feral horses in the U.S. are ranchers, who see these equine populations as competition for the resources of public grazing lands. Conversely, in Australia, where many grazing licences were revoked in order to establish National Parks (eg in the central plateau of Tasmania, the Blue Mountains in NSW, and around Mt Kosciusko), the graziers affected are now among the core supporters of the brumby. It would be interesting to know what the attitudes of the Australian graziers of the past, who did have to compete with feral horse populations for access to public lands, would think of the present situation.

Of course there are also environmental concerns regarding the impact of herds of mustangs in the U.S. Where the presence of natural predators (such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears) remains, populations may be maintained in a healthy balance, though where these predators are absent, or in optimal conditions, populations can explode. This also occurs here in Australia, though without the presence of any natural predators to curb population growth, expansion is virtually unlimited. In spite of much smaller numbers of feral horses than in Australia, the U.S. is currently struggling to effectively manage these populations. As well as free-ranging populations, tens of thousands of horses are held in government facilities. To kill them is a felony offense.

The notion of following in the U.S.’s footsteps and proclaiming the brumby a National Treasure is absurd. Australia lacks comparable eco-systems and our evolutionary history is completely different. Further, the problems being faced in the U.S. now represent a compounding of the issues currently faced by Australia. While I personally don’t like that the majority of brumbies removed from NSW National Parks end up at the abattoir, and believe they should be culled on site to minimise the stress and trauma to the animals, imagine if this were to be made completely illegal. The mind boggles!

In short, while there are definite similarities between the regard in which the mustang is held in North America, and the brumby in Australia, and parallels in the management issues each nation is facing, the environmental and political situations of each continent is so different as to render the sort of sweeping comparisons frequently made between the two by brumby advocates meaningless.

REFERENCE:

[1] The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (1971), accessed 25 May 2016 http://www.all-creatures.org/alert/alert-20110920.pdf

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One thought on “Unbranded

  1. Pingback: It’s here! The 2016 Draft Wild Horse Management Plan – horsesfordiscourses

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