Living in Tasmania stories
Science derails Tarkine alarmism
One of Tasmania’s most respected wildlife biologists, Nick Mooney, has debunked claims by environmental activists that two new mines are endangering the Tasmanian devil population in the Tarkine.
Mr Mooney, who worked in wildlife protection for the Government for 35 years, has recently completed studies for Shree Minerals and Venture Minerals on the potential impact of their iron-ore operations on the endangered species.
“The local population [of devils] will not be substantially reduced nor destroyed nor its viability challenged,” he told a Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal hearing into the impact of the new open-cut mines.
“It follows that neither the regional nor total populations will be significantly affected.”
Even more tellingly, following media disinterest in his evidence to the tribunal, Mr Mooney opted to take his case to the public through an article and a separate interview in The Mercury newspaper.
He said claims that the two new iron ore mines were a death knell for the devils were unsubstantiated and over-stated.
He told the newspaper that resource-access decisions should not be based on false claims, exaggerations and poor science.
Mr Mooney studied devil activity at Venture Minerals’ Riley Creek site and at Shree Minerals’ Nelson Bay River location.
Both companies were eventually successful in legal action initiated by Save the Tarkine.
Ironically, tumbling international iron ore prices are now impacting on planning at both mines.
Venture’s legal battle was still underway when Mr Mooney wrote: “Wild claims, dutifully reported by the press, were made by opponents that these mines, supposedly in the last disease-free population, could be the final straw for the devils.
“Data clearly showed neither mine was in key devil population areas, there are many more disease-free devils elsewhere and Riley Creek was actually on the edge of, if not within, the diseased area.”
Mr Mooney praised management at the two sites and said neither side of the debate should be afraid of quality data after he used movement-sensitive cameras, scat counts and trapping to show very low devil numbers.
Mr Mooney warned: “An irreconcilable ideological confrontation will defeat [the devils’ cause].”
Former Brand Tasmania Deputy Chair, Kim Seagram, also has appealed publicly for co-existence between miners and environmental activists in the Tarkine.
In an article about Tasmania’s future for The Examiner late last year, the environmentally sensitive Ms Seagram wrote: “Being able to bring peace to the Tarkine and show the rest of the world how we can have forestry, mining, tourism and conservation living in harmony, providing a future for the regional community while preserving such a special place to share with the rest of the planet, would be a great coup.”
The Tarkine is a word coined by environmentalists to describe an area very loosely associated with the pre-colonial tarkinner clan.
The word simplifies slogan-writing. It would be much more difficult to persuade urban Australians to fund a campaign to save the previously mined, logged and otherwise disturbed forests of, say, “the north-west Tasmanian hinterland”.
Mr Mooney is not the first visitor to be strongly influenced by the contrast between Tarkine realities and polemics.
Australia’s previous Minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, changed his mind about a total mining ban quite abruptly after visiting the area and seeing its disused diggings, rusting mine machinery and over-grown roads and tramways.
“There has never been an issue in my time as Environment Minister where my views have changed so fundamentally after a site visit,” Mr Burke said. “I was expecting to see a pristine area pretty much covered in rainforest.”
The reality was quite different to promoted images, Mr Burke said.
Even one hard-bitten news reporter from the The Mercury changed her opinions after leaving Hobart to view the area.
Former Greens leader Nick McKim was the first respondent to Mr Mooney’s media initiative, asserting in an interview that the Greens had not opposed the mines themselves, but the increased road traffic that was likely to result in increased devil fatalities.
Mr Mooney responded with a letter to the editor, that included: “Permit conditions only allow daytime mine traffic, including pooled staff movements and ore cartage, negating serious road kill risk to devils. Indeed, in several months of operation, no devil road kills have been attributable to mine traffic.”
He also pointed out that all roads being used had existed before the mines were established.
The environmental movement, including Save the Tarkine, will find Mr Mooney a difficult opponent to discredit.
Not only is he a reputable environmentalist and wildlife biologist, his field work has given him as good an understanding of devils in the wild as anybody has in Tasmania.
And he clearly cares about the endangered carnivores.
He told the ABC in 2009 during an interview to mark his retirement from the Wildlife Management Branch of the Department of Primary Industries, Water and the Environment: “I have a deep suspicion that goes beyond hope that devils have an evolutionary ability to cope with shrinking down to small sizes in their population and expanding again. I hope that’s the case.
“The history would say it is the case. Their physique, their ecology, their behaviour would say that is the case.”
He wrote more recently that the non-territorial nature of Tasmanian devils means displaced animals can survive a disruption, like a mining project, especially if there are sufficient potential dens and lay-ups near the disturbed area.
Lack of strong territoriality also means devils can move more freely across habitats than many other carnivores.
So Mr Mooney has now put forward a choice between compromise and confrontation that will be important in shaping future attitudes towards the Save the Tasmanian Devil campaign, as well as towards the Tarkine.
Image courtesy of the ABC
10 June 2014, Edition 150