Monday, February 21, 2011

Welcome to an extinction

For Julia Gillard's party, the passing of Luke Hartsuyker's EPBC (Health and Safety) Amendment Bill 2010 in the Lower House of the Australian Parliament is a bit of an embarrassment because it demonstrates that the Opposition Liberal Party can get enough support to over-ride the wishes of the Australian Federal government. 

But for the grey-headed flying-fox, it's just another step on a gradual but accelerating journey towards what some ecologists consider to be inevitable extinction. If the species is a barometer for the effectiveness of environmental legislation, and the will of state and federal governments to make bold decisions to protect Australia's biodiversity, then it's fair to say that many of our iconic species are, quite simply, doomed.

In 2001, the grey-headed flying-fox was listed as vulnerable under the Commonwealth EPBC Act. Listing is meant to provide sufficient protection to the species being listed that the decline in population can be arrested and, hopefully, reversed. But it hasn't really worked out like that for the grey-headed flying-fox. A recovery plan, detailing the measures necessary to affect a recovery of the species, is supposed to be adopted within 6 years of the species being listed. That deadline passed 4 years ago and yet we still have no recovery plan in place (or even a draft that stakeholders can agree on).

The federal government allows grey-headed flying-foxes to be shot as a method of crop protection. Even the most sceptical anti-environmentalist would have to agree that shooting a threatened species is unlikely to be the best way to aid its recovery. Currently, only NSW actually issues licenses to shoot flying-foxes; Queensland banned the practice in 2009 as it was proven to be cruel and inhumane. Despite calls by both farmers and environmentalists for the NSW Government to provide support for netting, which negates the need for shooting, to be installed at farms that are at risk from flying-foxes, Premier Keneally and Environment Minister Sartor have kept their heads down and allowed the shooting, and the decline of the grey-headed flying-fox, to continue unabated. The NSW Liberals have not made their intentions clear in relation to the shooting of flying foxes but few environmentalists in NSW hold out much hope for a bright new way of thinking under an O'Farrell government.

It's not just politicians who are assisting the grey-headed flying-fox on its way to oblivion. Extreme climatic events play their parts quite effectively too. In February 2011 at least 1,300 grey-headed flying-foxes died in the Wingham Brush colony near Taree as a consequence of the prolonged heat and low humidity, conditions which caused fatal heat stress in a large proportion of this year’s juvenile animals. Some 3,000 died under the same circumstances in the Yarra Bend colony in Melbourne last year. Some may seek to diminish the signifiance of these mass mortalities as just being a "natural event" but the reality is that extreme climatic events are happening more regularly and the consequences of them are ever more serious for flying-foxes.

It's now widely accepted that the flying-foxes natural food sources have been badly compromised by excessive rainfall in their seasonal foraging grounds in the last two years. Flying-foxes are nectar and blossom eaters but when the rain is heavy, the nectar gets washed away and the bats have to find alternate food sources or they quite simply starve (or look to commercial orchards as an alternate food source and risk being shot). Many wildlife rescue groups report that the condition of animals coming into their care in the last year or so has been exceptionally poor with many animals 20% below minimum healthy weight.

Habitat loss has forced many flying-foxes to seek shelter in urban environments as these often provide access to more reliable, year around food sources than could be found in rural environments. This adaptation to urban environments brings the flying-foxes into conflict with people and peaceful co-existence is the exception rather than the rule. The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney is the most well known instance of “not in my backyard” sentiment towards flying-foxes and, in May 2010, then Federal Environment Minister Garrett approved a proposal to disperse the flying-foxes from the Gardens

The approval of the project was challenged in the Federal Court on the grounds that the Minister failed to consider matters that he was obliged to consider. The challenge was dismissed and it would appear that the eviction will go ahead starting in May. The dispersal represents another government sanctioned action which seems to be at odds with the obligation to protect and recover the species. 

In fact more than being a government sanctioned action, it was an action proposed by the state government agency in charge of administering threatened species legislation in NSW. The Botanic Gardens Trust is part of the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW). This relationship allows the department that proposed the action to also approve it. 

Which brings us to Luke Hartsuyker’s Bill. The colony of flying-foxes in Maclean has been a source of conflict for many years and Mr Hartsuyker’s Bill seeks to add an amendment to the EPBC Act to exclude the Commonwealth  from any decisions relating to the dispersal of flying-foxes from the Maclean area. The reality is that the majority of politicians that voted in favour of the Bill were probably more interested in embarrassing Gillard than they were in supporting Hartsuyker. And, as a result, one of the most significant pieces of Commonwealth environmental legislation has been undermined for cheap political point scoring. 

If the Bill passes the Upper House and the Commonwealth are excluded from the decision making process, it will be left to NSW DECCW (the department that both applied for and approved the dispersal of flying-foxes from Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney) to determine whether a dispersal at Maclean can proceed. The state legislation is far weaker than the Commonwealth EPBC Act and approval by NSW DECCW of a dispersal of flying-foxes from Maclean is almost a given. 

Looking forward, we can almost certainly see both federal and state politicians making a real and tangible contribution to the decline and inevitable loss of the grey-headed flying-fox. You don’t have to care about flying-foxes to be worried by this trend. If our governments have an inclination to write-off one species, it would be foolish to think that they wouldn’t be inclined to do the same for any other species.

[A previous version of this appeared on Crikey]