Tarkine mines last straw for Tasmanian devils?

By Hamish McCallum January 16, 2013
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Mines proposed in north-west Tasmania could devastate populations of undiseased devils, says Hamish McCallum.

A WEEK BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Environment Minister Tony Burke approved a mine near Temma, in the Tarkine region of north-west Tasmania. This approval is likely to be extraordinarily controversial: not only has this region been proposed for World Heritage listing, it is also situated within the last remaining stronghold of the Tasmanian devil.

The Tasmanian devil is threatened with extinction by an infectious cancer. Since its first discovery in north-eastern Tasmania in 1996, the cancer has inexorably spread westward, reducing Tasmanian devil populations by at least 80%.

Only the north-west remains undiseased. There are indications that the devil populations in the north-west have slightly different genetic composition from those in the remainder of Tasmania and may perhaps harbour some individuals with genotypes resistant to this lethal disease.

“Unavoidable impact” of proposed mine

Both Tony Burke’s press release and his approval of 18 December explicitly recognise the threat that this mine will pose to Tasmanian devils: the developers are required to donate $350,000 to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program Appeal to compensate for the mine’s unavoidable impact.

Within the limited area of the mine site itself, there will certainly be impacts on wildlife, including devils. More seriously, the ore will need to be trucked out by road for about 150km. Almost all of this distance will be through habitat of undiseased Tasmanian devils.

As scavengers, devils are particularly susceptible to being killed on roads, as they feed on the carcasses of other animals, such as possums or wallabies, which have previously been run over. This and other proposed mines will substantially increase total vehicular traffic in the remote north-west of Tasmania.

The approval contains several conditions intended to mitigate this threat of roadkill to devils. These include an obligation to report all incidents of roadkill, a requirement that most travel to and from the mine site must occur during daylight hours and reduced speed limits of 50 km/h or less close to the mine site.

But most of the distance mine trucks will travel through devil habitat on their way to port will be outside the reduced-speed-limit area.

A penalty of $48,000 will be applied to each Tasmanian devil in excess of two per year killed on the road by mine vehicles. This sounds a strong disincentive in principle, but I wonder what will happen in practice. There will be an even stronger incentive for vehicle operators to simply throw a carcass off the road into the bush rather than admit to killing a devil and incurring this substantial financial penalty.

Ten proposed mines in Tarkine region

More generally, this example highlights a problem with Australian environmental regulation. Up to 10 mine developments are currently proposed for the Tarkine area. The impact of each one individually might perhaps be acceptable in terms of increased risk of impacts on Tasmanian devil populations. But the impact of all 10 in aggregate will certainly be much less acceptable.

If mines are evaluated individually, we risk a scenario of “death by 1000 cuts”. The appropriate way to evaluate the risk would be to take all of the proposed developments together and assess whether the joint effect of all can be handled without unacceptable risk to biodiversity conservation.

The fact that this mine development has been approved individually does not give me confidence this approach will be taken.

Hamish McCallum is head of the Griffith School of Environment at Griffith University, Queensland. From 2006 to 2009 he was the senior scientist of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.

This is an edited version of an article first published on The Conversation.