Monday, 18 February 2013

Another tack... against NSW Government's changed shooting laws

I know you kindly read my letter opposing shooting in NSW National Parks. Thank you. I sent it off to the various politicians and have only had one response so far, which was from The Hon George Souris, who informed me that most of the shooting would be on private land, of ducks in areas near the Murray. This made me quite curious as to why the National Parks are so nicely spread over NSW, but I began to look into the duck hunting/Game Bird Management Program more closely, since wild duck numbers have been 'unmanaged' in recent years and ducks pose a threat to rice crop as it becomes established. I know local ducks quickly consumed $80 000 worth of young plants at a Canberra wetlands last year, so I believe the ducks really might be a problem to farmers however the more I read the more horrified I became about what will really happen. 

Because the NSW Government was forced to make a deal with the Shooters and Fishers Party, that party have been able to push through significant changes in the law. If you didn't know, NSW axed the duck hunting season in 1995, which like all such seasons, had a fixed term. Because ducks have been 'unmanaged' in recent years, there is now no season or bag limit for licensed shooters to 'mitigate' against these ducks. And to thwart protestors, the areas available for shooting will only be made known to those licensed. Hunters and Fishers want to get on with the job, without protestors slowing proceedings and it is illegal to interfere with 'conservation hunting'. This is part of the new law.

All this might even be ok, if it weren't for Australian native birds, who have been around since before the politicians, since before the rice crop, since before all of us white guys. Westen folk (yes including me) have had an enormous impact on the fragile Austalian biota and a number of native birds are now threatened and endangered. If you have a notion of legal processes in this country, you will know that a substantial effort has been made for such a classification to be recognised. 

But for what? The areas the birds live in, and I am now referring particularly to the endangered Australasian Bittern, are now open to conservation hunters. Don't get me wrong, I don't mean everywhere, but on private land it is possible for children as young as twelve*, to be licensed as conservation hunters, to mitigate against unmanaged ducks, any time, any amount of birds. For sure they must pass a WIT (Waterfowl Identification Test) so they know the difference between a duck and a bittern but please don't try and tell me that children, however well intentioned, won't make mistakes. And don't try to convince me that adults won't make mistakes. And any mistakes, any unecessary flushing of birds, any stressed birds is bad news for our surviving Bittern.

As a result I have written a new letter to Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation as follows. I will send it in a day or two.

* I'm not sure about the age of the youngest conservation hunters. I know ten year olds can sit for the Waterfowl Identification Test, which only ever needs to be taken once but I think the minimum age for hunting is 12. 

February 2013

Dear EPBC Referrals,

I believe that the NSW Game Bird Management Program will have a significant impact on the endangered Australasian Bittern. Australasian Bittern in inland south-eastern Australia survive within a limited range of habitat. The core range of the Australasian Bittern lies in the Riverina and it’s my belief that changes in game bird shooting laws in NSW, which enable landowners to protect ricefields from wild ducks, without regard for season or quantity of birds taken, will have a significant impact on Australasian Bittern. I believe this will occur through misidentification, misadventure and through stress, which will force the Bittern into areas where they are more vulnerable to predators. I believe that the consequences of changing shooting laws have not been properly considered by the NSW Game Bird Management Program. I would also like to know whether the NSW Game Bird Management Program have lodged an Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Referral to determine the effects of changing laws on endangered species, which inhabit the rice crop they seek to protect.

From information available on the Species Profile and Threats Database for the Australasian Bittern provided by the Australian Government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the population of Australasian Bittern, in eastern Australia has been estimated at 2000 birds (Delany & Scott 2002). The southeast Australian population is the most important for the species' survival because it is the largest subpopulation.

More recent data from Birdlife Australia suggests that numbers are much lower than this estimate and that the number of Australasian Bittern in Australia are critically low. Only 113 Australasian Bittern were recorded at 60 wetlands throughout Australia 2011-2012. Though this is higher than the 92 birds recorded the previous year, it is lower than expected, given the amount of rainfall in the Murray Darling Basin and elsewhere in eastern Australia. Of the 113, 42 Australasian Bittern were recorded in NSW. 14 of these birds were recorded in the Riverina area, making this core Bittern habitat.

Australian Bittern have specialised habitat requirements and in eastern Australia, cessation of floodplain inundation due to water harvesting and alteration of drainage systems has destroyed much of the Bittern's seasonal habitat (Jaensch 2004). Many of the Murray-Darling wetlands are no longer available or are rarely available for use by Bitterns due to river regulation and water harvesting (R. Jaensch June 2005, pers. comm.). In the inland regions the Australasian Bittern inhabits vast floodplain wetland systems, although today these are effectively reduced to small areas of remnant habitat, except in exceptionally wet years (R. Jaensch June 2005, pers. comm.). In NSW, the Australasian Bittern is frequently recorded in the Murray-Darling Basin, notably in floodplain wetlands of the Murrumbidgee, Lachlan, Macquarie and Gwydir Rivers (Marchant & Higgins 1990; NPWS 1999; R. Jaensch June 2005, pers. comm.). Aggregations of Australasian Bittern consistently occur at wetlands such as Fivebough Swamp (at Leeton, NSW), where habitat is actively managed for this species and is supplemented by nearby ricefield habitat (FTWMTI 2002).

It is the Bittern which inhabit the ricefield areas that I am writing to you about. Under the NSW Game Bird Management Program which is managed by the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, private landholders can legally protect their crops from the damage caused by wild ducks using conservation hunters licensed by Game Council NSW. No season or bag limits apply.

A letter I received from The Hon. George SOURIS, BEc, DipFMgt, FAIM, FCPA MP, Member of the Legislative Assembly, Member for Upper Hunter, Minister for Tourism, Major Events, Hospitality and Racing, and Minister for the Arts, Member of the The Nationals (NSW) assures me: "Under the new laws game bird hunting will be allowed for sustainable agricultural management purposes”. Further I was assured that: “Game bird hunting predominantly happens in rice growing areas like the Riverina and towns nearby the Murray.” My concern is that this game bird hunting, with no regard for the breeding season of any species and no bag limits will have a significant impact on the Australasian Bittern. With the tiny numbers of Bittern left, the loss of the single bird must be seen as significant. Opening private land in NSW to conservation hunters, given the pressures already on threatened and endangered species is unsupportable. In particular the massive habitat loss already outlined forces remaining sensitive species into smaller, localised areas such as ricefields which are now open to shooters.

I am aware that Australasian Bittern are not targeted through the Game Bird Management Program, rather they are a protected species. I am also aware that conservation hunters must undertake a Wildfowl Identification Test (once) and in NSW be over the age of 10 years however I am not satisfied that such measures will be sufficient to prevent the shooting of Australasian Bittern through misidentification and misadventure. Any such losses will have a significant impact on the population of Australasian Bittern. Australasian Bittern presently inhabit the same ricefields as the game birds mitigated against. Moving targets can be difficult to identify. Australasian Bittern are large, slow moving and are potentially easier targets than many of the ducks that are targeted, particularly for inexperienced hunters under the age of 18.

Furthermore I am concerned that the disturbance caused by conservation hunters and their dogs in ricefields will have a significant impact on the Australasian Bittern as this impact will stress the Bittern and expose them to danger. Disturbing the Bittern’s feeding and nesting sites may drive them into areas where they are more vulnerable to predators. Repeatedly flushing Bittern means that they will use energy needed for feeding and place them under undue stress.

To hunt, conservation hunters must gain the required licenses, then contact Game Council at Tocumwal on 03 5874 2983 for information on where and which farmers require assistance. This is hardly a transparent process and is deliberately secretive so that shooters can organise without fear of protest. For the survival of the Australasian Bittern, I urge you to investigate this matter fully. The Game Bird Management Program must be halted immediately until this is thoroughly investigated.

Australasian Bittern numbers are desperately low. These birds have specialised habitat needs and survive within a limited range. Opening their range to conservation hunters will lead to Bittern death through misadventure and misidentification. Conservation hunters and their dogs will also stress Bittern, forcing them into areas where they are more vulnerable to predators and threats. The consequences of opening Riverina areas for shooting, through the Game Bird Management Program, need to be thoroughly researched for the survival of the Australasian Bittern and other endangered and threatened species in the Riverina, including those within ricefield areas.

Act now before it is too late for our endangered birds.

Yours Sincerely,

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