Friday, April 4, 2008

Kangaroos on defence lands - paralysis in the face of crisis

The vexed issue of how to manage our eastern grey kangaroos is a recurrent one, and has come to prominence again now because of the impact of over-grazing of native lowland grasslands on some of our endangered species. Kangaroo culling is a highly emotive issue, and one likely to attract not only national but international interest because of animal welfare and animal rights concerns. At the other end of the spectrum, we have some pressing conservation issues where intervention of some form is necessary if we are to maintain the important values of these grassland remnants. Intervention to achieve conservation objectives requires an evidential approach drawing upon the best available science, in addition to broader perspectives. Both the kangaroos and the endangered grassland communities are caught up in a very unconstructive tussle between those with responsibility to manage our natural environment and vocal elements of the broader community citing animal ethics concerns. Inaction and delay on this important conservation issue may result in local extinctions of some of our most valued conservation icons, including the endangered grassland earless dragon.

The Australian Capital Territory has an enviable record for conservation. Canberra is dissected by Canberra Nature Park, home to all manner of native wildlife with all the wonderful and complex interactions that go into making natural vibrant ecosystems. However, these natural ecosystems are embedded in a highly modified environment, often suburbia. Active management is required if their values are to be retained. Some of these ecosystems are endangered nationally, and Canberrans have a special duty to care for them.

Lowland temperate native grasslands are one such endangered ecosystem. Less than 1 per cent of the original grasslands remain intact nationally. Those species of grass and herb that make up the grassland communities, and those animals that depend exclusively on the grasslands, are all in danger of extinction. The ACT is blessed with some of the finest examples of these grasslands.
They are home to the pink-tailed legless lizard, the grassland earless dragon, the striped legless lizard, the golden sun moth, the Perunga grasshopper, and the button wrinklewort daisy, all endangered, all on the edge. The earless dragon is now extinct in Victoria and lost from most of their former range in NSW. The ACT is the last stronghold for this dragon, indeed for many of these species. Yet these endangered species and ecosystems continue to suffer from the tyranny of a thousand cuts.

That the lowland grasslands and other endangered ecosystems have persisted at all in the ACT is testimony to the commitment of present and past governments, who have forgone substantial revenue in Gungahlin and elsewhere to meet the often conflicting needs of development and conservation. The ACT community has invested heavily in building the scientific capacity to respond to conservation threats and to incorporate scientific understanding into planning. It has invested in expert committees to advise on these matters, and in developing codes of best practice for implementing the decisions. ACT governments have strategically invested many taxpayer dollars in building a credible Wildlife Research and Monitoring Unit capable of assembling and evaluating the necessary scientific evidence and devising the best means of dealing with the Kangaroo problem.

The ACT community has the right to expect a return on these investments, by the use of these available scientific mechanisms to resolve appropriate problems – such as the one we are faced with today. However, the ACT is a complex jurisdiction, and constructive interaction between Territory and Commonwealth governments is often needed to make necessary planning and management decisions. Sadly, these interactions have not always been constructive.
The Department of Defence is one of the largest landholders in Australia, and takes its responsibilities for conservation on its lands seriously. Indeed, we can thank them for the very existence of those special places such as Booderee National Park. Some of our best remnants of lowland native grasslands are on Defence lands, but they have been reduced to dust by over-grazing by kangaroos. These grasslands are now denied the opportunity to recover following our recent rains. Until the construction of a fence at great public expense, the endangered species in these grasslands at Majura faced decimation. At the Belconnen Naval Site, the kangaroo population and its grassland food resource at Belconnen faces imminent collapse, with 500 kangaroos occupying an area more suited to supporting 100, and that population grows each year. The problem of overgrazing of our native grasslands on these Defence lands is now urgent and requires an immediate response.

The decision on whether to cull or not to cull kangaroos is a difficult one, and the proposed cull in the ACT is now attracting national and international attention. However, we should demand that Defence acknowledge the duty of care the ACT community has over its flora and fauna, whether or not they be on public or private lands, and the processes the government and community groups such as the RSPCA have in place for making decisions on what needs to be done. Defence needs to draw upon the best available qualified expertise for advice, to seek the necessary approvals to act in a way that is consistent with established codes of practice, and to take the necessary action. The advice has been sought and provided, the way forward is clear, and the approvals are in place. But there is no action.

What we have seen instead is the commissioning of a proposal from a group of animal welfare advocates who, notwithstanding their role and the very valuable work they do in the care and rehabilitation of animals, are struggling to provide advice on a scope well beyond their expertise. They are advocating translocation of surplus kangaroos from the Belconnen site to NSW, an ongoing commitment to an approach that is unproven for the numbers of kangaroos involved. They formerly advocated that we do nothing at all at the Majura site. And Defence is listening! We have seen a delay of six months beyond the last Spring and early Summer window of opportunity while Defence “explores all options as part of longer term strategy”. This can only be regarded as grossly irresponsible.

Where is that clarity of purpose, that decisiveness, that focus on outcomes that is the hallmark of Defence? The fencing of Majura grassland to exclude kangaroos is a welcome reprieve, but not part of a long term solution for these grasslands which rely upon some measure of kangaroo grazing to maintain diversity. The decision to take action at the Belconnen Naval Site is also welcome, as the issues at this fully-fenced site are more complex. Those with an interest in the conservation of our remnant native grasslands and the endangered species they support hope Defence has the resolve to act.

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