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Anatomy of a kangaroo court hearing

The controversial ACT kangaroo killing program has been based for several years on the claim by government officials and ministers, amplified by the media, that kangaroo numbers are a threat to endangered species and ecological communities.

 In July, a wildlife advocacy group took the ACT to its administrative tribunal to challenge the park service evidence of harm, required by ACT legislation, before protected wildlife can be killed.

 Frankie Seymour was present as an observer throughout the hearings. She reports that while the tribunal ruled against the wildlife group, startling testimony emerged that contradicts much of what the public has previously been told drives the culling program. Documents cited in the testimony (e.g. threatened species recovery plans) are available on the public record.      

 On the afternoon of Tuesday 9 July, Geoffrey Kennett, QC, Counsel for the Australian Society for Kangaroos (ASK), made his summary statement to the ACT Administrative and Civil Appeals Tribunal.

The matter in question was whether the ACT Government’s proposed kangaroo cull should go ahead in 2013. This ACT parks activity had been brought before the tribunal by ASK.

Kennett submitted that the central issue was: is there sufficient evidence of kangaroos damaging the environment to justify an exception to the Nature Conservation Act’s general prohibition on killing native animals?

He noted that the cull was characterised by the government at the hearing as “preventative” on the basis of a ‘kangaroo per hectare’ model which the government ecologist admitted is merely a “best guess” and inevitably wrong because “all models are wrong”.

Kennett said that on the government’s own admission, there is no actual evidence that either ecological communities or individual species within the reserves are negatively impacted by kangaroo grazing.

Kennett therefore concluded that the exception to the general prohibition on killing in the Nature Conservation Act could not be justified.

Backing away from threatened species claims

Perhaps it comes as a surprise to readers that the government actually admitted the lack of evidence that kangaroos have a negative impact on the ACT reserves.

This revelation came when field ecologist Ray Mjadwesch, the expert witness giving evidence on behalf of ASK, pointed out that nowhere in any published science  literature or recovery plans for threatened species is kangaroo grazing listed as  threatening to the species mentioned in the government’s published material supporting the cull.

Mjadwesch noted that the main threats to these species are listed as urban infill, rural land management and climate change. He also said that the Golden Sun Moth needs bare ground, not high grass, and that the Grassland Earless Dragon, Button Wrinklewort and the sun moth are doing very well in Queanbeyan Nature Reserve, just across the ACT/NSW border, where kangaroos are never killed.

Don Fletcher was the public servant giving evidence to the tribunal on behalf of the ACT Government. As government ecologist, it is Dr Fletcher who contributed much to the kangaroo management plan that guides the cull and who recommends the number of kangaroos to be killed.

In response to Mjadwesch’s evidence that kangaroo grazing poses no threat to Canberra’s endangered species, Fletcher denied that he had ever claimed that kangaroo grazing did so.

He distanced himself from the government’s public assertions by claiming he had no say in the preparation of the government’s ”PR”.

In a government media release on 6 June 2013, Daniel Iglesias, Director of Parks and Conservation, said that a chief purpose of the cull was to protect Canberra’s threatened species: “Ensuring the grasslands and woodlands are not overgrazed will protect threatened species and ecosystems”.

The Territory and Municipal Services (TAMS) web-based Questions & Answers on its kangaroo control program went further, mentioning by name no less than five of Canberra’s threatened species, saying: “culling will avert threats to endangered flora and fauna. These threatened species include the Grassland Earless Dragon, Golden Sun Moth, Striped Legless Lizard, Perunga Grasshopper and threatened plants such as the Button Wrinklewort”.

Fletcher’s admission of the lack of evidence for asserting that killing kangaroos would protect these threatened species drew a few gasps of surprise from the audience of 20-30 observers attending the hearing.  The observers included animal activists, departmental officers, members of the press and even a farmer who brought his kids along for the educational experience.

 Inward migration

 The tribunal president was Bill Stefaniak, (former Liberal MLA) joined by Allan Anforth and Adrian Davey, senior tribunal members. Bill Stefaniak had also presided at the 2009 tribunal challenge to the defence force killing of kangaroos on the Majura grasslands.

Don Fletcher was also the government ecologist who gave evidence at that hearing. On that occasion, the tribunal had allowed the killing to go ahead, reasoning that Fletcher had more local knowledge than the NSW expert ecologists who gave evidence about problems they saw with the ACT research methods.

Those independent experts argued that culling in open areas would achieve nothing because slaughtered individuals would be quickly replaced by inward migration.  On that occasion Fletcher told the tribunal that ACT kangaroos are “relatively sedentary and loyal to a particular area”, so that inward migration is unlikely to happen in the ACT. He attributed alleged rapid kangaroo population increases to rapid breeding.  

 At the 2013 hearing, in discussing the scale of rapid breeding required to deliver his own re-population estimates that appeared impossible, Fletcher reversed this evidence on migration. He agreed that kangaroos can move into a culled area more or less immediately, and in numbers sufficient to fully replace those culled. By implication therefore, culling would achieve nothing until the ACT population of kangaroos was wiped out.   

 Conserving biodiversity

 Following Fletcher’s revelation that threats to endangered species are not the reason for the kangaroo killing, he explained that the real basis for the cull is his belief that higher grass and more grass is “better” for biodiversity. Kangaroos eat grass, therefore, in his view, at densities that he has defined, they are a threat to biodiversity.

This simple view was strongly refuted by Mjadwesch who argued that diversity of landscape vegetation is better for biodiversity than homogeneity of landscape.

Landscape diversity allows a much wider range of species to thrive, and natural kangaroo densities in grassland ecosystems have preserved this diversity of landscape for millions of years. These natural densities can be much higher than the 1 or ½ a kangaroo per hectare applied by the ACT management plan.

Vegetation diversity is an accepted ecological understanding. In the Australian landscape one can compare uniform grazing by introduced hard-hoofed animals (that also trample groundcover, disturb soils and break the banks of watercourses) with the activity of native grazers. The latter move lightly on the land, graze high, and help maintain a diverse landscape of open and denser vegetation.

A startling contradiction to “preventive” biodiversity protection was highlighted by attorney Kennett who observed that cattle are being grazed on reserves where kangaroos have been culled.  Fletcher said cattle were brought in for the specific purpose of grazing the grass lower in order to avoid bushfire risk. One has to wonder why the far less destructive kangaroos were not simply left in place.

 After all this, the most astonishing thing that happened at the tribunal hearing was the outcome.

After what appeared an ample display of reversal from previous positions and self-contradictory evidence to justify the ACT cull, challenged by coherent arguments that the killing is not necessary, the tribunal judges nevertheless opted once again for the government’s in-house expert and signed off on the 2013 kangaroo slaughter that followed in July.

Frankie Seymour is a Queanbeyan social and environmental scientist who has long been an advocate for all animals and their rights and welfare.

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4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a kangaroo court hearing

  1. To say that the authors views and summary of facts is biased would be an understatement in my opinion.
    The facts are the that the tribunal judges heard all the relevant evidence and concluded that they preferred the the governments independant expert advice over Ray Mjadwesch’s arguments. My opinion is that Ray Mjadwesch is far from an “expert witness” – more like a muso, hippy from Bathurst who happens to have a science degree – and the only “expert”, using the term loosley, that ASK can muster up – evidenced by the Fact that he is used as their “expert” in everything from the propaganda ‘Thinkk’ report – to the go to, dial a quote bloke used everytime ASK needs a quote for the unsuspecting main stream media!!
    Frankie, Ray and ASK – all of them, cherry pick facts to feed the emotive ignorance of city people, treechangers, hobby farmers and anyone else who blindly supports any so called animal welfare issue!!

  2. Nick, you can scream and shout all you like but the facts remains.

    1. The government ecologist said (it’s in the transcript) that he was not responsible for the government’s “PR” claiming that “culling will avert threats to endangered flora and fauna”. He said this after it was pointed out that kangaroo grazing is not identified as a threat to any of Canberra’s threatened species in any of the national threat abatements plans for these species.

    2. It is also in the transcript that the government ecologist reversed the evidence he had given to the 2009 Tribunal regarding inward migration to culled areas. He was even adamant that this can happen almost immediately after a cull. If it is true, then culling will either (a) achieve nothing at all, because there will always be kangaroos arriving from outside to replace them, or (b) wipe them out because there will not always be kangaroos arriving from outside to replace them (eventually the reserve populations will be all that is left and then they will be culled beyond their capacity to replace themselves).

    You can call it cherry picking if you like. I call it nearly falling off my chair in amazement at these astonishing revelations. Talk about a windfall of cherries! It would have been completely irresponsible not to report them.

  3. Frankie, I’m not screaming or shouting, just summarising the outcome, and also pointing out that your experts are few and far betweeen….
    You are an animal activist. What nearly makes me fall off my chair is everytime a decision, often made by our elected government who really doesn’t have a vested interest in so called animal welfare – you people who do have an absolute vested interest – scream bias, discrimination, conspiracy………ha ha ha.

  4. Nick, it is not OK to use the comment facility to distort the facts that are on the public record and particularly not to slander an individual as you did Ray M. What you said about him professionally is in no way accurate. The record shows that Ray, a field ecologist, was in fact the only ‘independent’ expert at that hearing while the other expert was a government employee defending his own decisions. We may just take this thread down after this correction has been viewed. The Bulletin Editor

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