Cattle will be allowed to graze in Victoria’s Alpine National Park in a trial approved by the federal government.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced on Thursday he had granted the Victorian government permission to let 60 cattle graze at a former livestock station.
That number could later grow to 300.
The decision will be welcomed by the Victorian government, which tried unsuccessfully to overturn a federal ban in 2013 on grazing in the high country.
But it will anger environmentalists, who have long argued the alps should remain a national park and not a paddock.
The trial will begin soon and run until the end of May, and Mr Hunt said it would take place within the boundaries of the former Wonnangatta Cattle Station.
“The site was a grazing property for well over 100 years,” he said in a statement.
Strict conditions have been imposed to contain the cattle within the station area, including temporary electric fences and stockmen being required to oversee the herd.
The previous Labor government intervened in 2011 to stop cattle being reintroduced to the alps, saying grazing would have a “significant impact” on the park’s heritage value.
But the National Party has campaigned for the park to be opened to livestock, claiming the country had long been used by cattlemen and grazing could prevent bushfires.
Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie said the decision was the first step towards more extensive grazing, adding a balance could be struck between protecting and enjoying national parks.
“Many Australians view sustainably managed cattle grazing on the high plains as an important tradition and recognise it as a legitimate use of the Alpine area,” she said in a statement.
The Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria said it was confident the trial would “vindicate” its view that 180 years of grazing experience and knowledge could help the alps.
“We are prepared to be judged, not by what we say, but what we do,” president Charlie Lovick said in a statement.
Mr Hunt said the trial would compare the effectiveness and impacts of livestock grazing regimes, and the Victorian government would have to ensure threatened species and Aboriginal cultural heritage were protected before further cattle could be introduced.
The Victorian National Parks Association has been resisting grazing in the alps since the 1970s, and expressed its anger at news the trial would go ahead.
The association’s Phil Ingamells said cattle were being granted access before a proper flora and fauna study had been done, and there was no reason the trial couldn’t take place outside the park.
“It’s just irresponsible when you’re managing one of Australia’s finest and most important natural areas,” he told AAP on Thursday.
Cattle were shut out of other alpine parks like Kosciuszko and Buffalo decades ago because it was clear grazing was inappropriate and did nothing to reducing fire risk, he said.
Victorian Premier Denis Napthine said there was significant, ongoing fire risk in the high country and cattle grazing might help reduce the risk.
“There have been suggestions made time and time again by people with experience and expertise in the area that cattle grazing can significantly reduce the fire risk and have a protective effect for the environment and a protective effect for the community,” he told reporters in Melbourne.
“That hypothesis is worthy of testing, that is what we are seeking to do through a properly controlled scientific trial.”
Victorian deputy opposition leader James Merlino said national parks are not farms.
“A national park is a national park, you can’t have cattle grazing in a national park,” he said.