By Maria Taylor
With the appearance of ACT government ecologist Don Fletcher on local radio in March running up a flag about more kangaroo culls – citing demand from a parkcare group – the Bulletin visited the responsible Minister. We wanted to ask about evaluations and monitoring.
It’s now been four years of killing Australia’s international emblem in the thousands in Canberra’s nature parks and one year at a nearby defence facility guided by the same people and a shifting array of arguments.
Shane Rattenbury is the affable Minister for Territory and Municipal Services (TAMS) that includes parks, and the sole remaining Green in the ACT Assembly who now holds the balance of power in the parliament. He would seem to be in a good position to pause or stop the culling momentum.
In the previous Assembly, he was the only MLA who publicly raised questions about animal welfare issues and the lack of evaluation and monitoring of a program that has been costing ACT taxpayers some $200,000 a year. Evaluation would be a cornerstone of evidence-based resource management.
With another cull possibly looming in May, the short answer is the Minister is still waiting for evaluation reports and he did not know when they might be forthcoming. But he said he is expecting to see material and would make it publicly available.
A source privy to a meeting between Rattenbury’s office and the ecology unit last year said it was implied then that it might be a while.
It was argued that so-called ‘conservation culling’ shows its outcomes and impacts in 3 –5 years (which would be about now if there is any data). It was also suggested that neither NSW nor Victoria monitor conservation culls. However, neither NSW nor Victoria do anything comparable as a routine matter in nature reserves (or for that matter in built up areas).
No one knows appropriate densities for urban kangaroos?
It was reportedly discussed that no-one knows what an appropriate kangaroo population density is for the ACT urban parks. The shooting quota has aimed in a mechanical fashion to reduce the number of kangaroos in a reserve (first counted by volunteers) to one per hectare and then more recently to one-half a kangaroo per hectare.
However, two kangaroos per hectare has been shown in research outside the ACT and by individual observation to be a stable situation causing no ill-effect on plant diversity (keeping the grass short is not a long-term ill effect).
Assessing what affects long-term biodiversity and soil erosion is complicated by drought, flood, past stock grazing (leaving weed seed banks) and recent massive weed eruptions and ongoing grazing of cattle and sheep on some reserves, preferred by the park service.
A national review of the science found that actual damage or land degradation by kangaroos has not been provable. The authors said this is important because it takes away the ‘pest’ stigma. Not seemingly in the ACT, where kangaroos and rabbits are accused equally of ‘overgrazing’, putting both firmly outside of ‘biodiversity’.
“You know,” said Rattenbury, “that in the past we (the Greens) were not opposed to the cull. We accepted the argument about ecological imbalance [made by grassland groups and some ACT-based scientists]. But I need to keep asking questions. I don’t want this to become a default option, a matter of habit.”
It is clear that the Minister is pulled in different directions by environmentally-minded constituencies who are at opposite poles on this issue. “You have two groups of people with similar values. It’s been fiercely contested on both sides of the argument and one of the most difficult issues since I entered the Assembly. It is confronting”, he said.
An offset solution is to focus on development in outlying areas and to work to avoid the same pattern of habitat fragmentation and lack of safe corridors that have trapped the city kangaroos. Rattenbury readily agrees that human population and development pressures are at the root of this problem.
Nevertheless after four years, an evaluation, preferably independent, of the value and full costs of lethal management of native wildlife appears overdue. Can science otherwise be invoked with this program? As NSW macropod scientist Dan Ramp puts it: killing has to be seen as a last resort: it cannot be an experimental method.