Tweed shire councillor Barry Longland has stuck by his controversial move to push for koala-protection gates at the Blacks Rocks sports field south of Pottsville to be replaced by a grid, which has angered koala campaigners and led to three public protests in the past week.
Cr Longland’s notice of motion on the move at the last council meeting was passed with the backing of conservative Crs Warren Polglase, Phil Youngblutt and Carolyn Byrne in a 4-3 vote, sparking an outcry from onlookers and a protest outside Cr Longland’s home village of Uki on Wednesday.
A former mayor before his replacement five months ago by Cr Gary Bagnall, Cr Longland told media he had been ‘vilified’ since his original notice of motion calling for the gate to be removed was made public earlier this month.
Yesterday a defiant Cr Longland told Echonetdaily he ‘will continue to make decisions in what I regard as the best interests of the Tweed community’, saying he was not ‘party aligned’, in response to claims he had sided with the conservative faction in the move, his first for 2015.
Cr Longland also rejected a suggestions by campaigners he had misrepresented the views on the grid by koala expert Dr Stephen Phillips saying he had ‘said nothing more than repeat his assessment of the use of koala grids in the Lismore City Council area where he reports that they have been 100 per cent effective in preventing koalas from crossing’.
According to an APN Media report, Cr Longland told the council meeting the koala grid had been suggested by Dr Phillips during a recent meeting, who ‘assured’ him they were being ‘used successfully elsewhere’.
Cr Longland’s successful motion also called for a study to obtain baseline data on koala numbers at Black Rocks and said the gate would not be removed until the koala grid was in place.
At Wednesday’s gathering in Uki, an email from Dr Phillips was read out in which he told a koala campaigner that ‘specially designed koala-grids will work to stop the movement of koalas into the adjoining urban landscape, but (depending on their width) may not work to stop access by domestic dogs (i.e. dogs will be able to jump over the grid)’.
In the email, Dr Phillips also said he believed taking the issue out of the hands of councillors was ‘desirable, with a concern that advice can often be taken out of context and misrepresented’.
At the Uki protest, attended by around 40 people, president of the Northern Rivers Guardians, Scott Sledge, read a message from Cr Longland saying he ‘was looking to find a middle way and would be happy to meet to discuss motor vehicle hooning and other threats to the koala colony at Pottsville’.
Mr Sledge told the gathering that more than 200 hectares of primary and secondary koala habitat was devastated by the Christmas Day bushfire at Pottsville, and the surviving koalas will most likely take refuge in favourite food trees like swamp mahogany at the Black Rocks sports field site ‘which was the only part of their habitat not affected by the fire’.
‘This is not a time to reduce protection for the koalas but to improve it,’ Mr Sledge said.
Mayor Gary Bagnall said council staff did not support removal of the gates and were not consulted prior to Cr Longland’s notice of motion.
Cr Armstrong’s amendment to look into the effects of replacing the gates was rejected by Crs Longland, Byrne, Polglase and Youngblutt.
Cr Bagnall said research shows that ‘dogs can navigate across a grid’ and hence ’it will be possible for unleashed dogs in the Black Rocks by the Sea residential estate to cross a grid and enter koala habitat’.
He said there ‘would be no restrictions both day and night to motor vehicles driving over the grid, putting resident koalas at high risk of vehicle strike and stress from impactive activities’.
Cr Bagnall said fire experts had told him the Christmas Day fire near the sports field was deliberately lit.
Mr Sledge told the meeting that in October 2014, the NSW Scientific Committee recognised the plight of the Tweed Coast koalas by making a preliminary determination that their threatened status be upgraded to ‘endangered’.
Cr Bagnall said that ‘under council’s charter, decision-makers have a duty of care and moral obligation to implement immediate effective management plans to ensure that we do not lose threatened species’.
He also said that he had arranged to meet with the state environment minister next week to ‘discuss council’s limited ability to protect endangered wildlife populations’.
The mayor said he would also ask minister Rob Stokes whether the Office of Environment and Heritage would be prepared to take koala protection at Black Rocks out of the hands of the Tweed Shire Council.
Mr Sledge said koala campaigners fear the removal of the protection gate at Black Rocks would lead ‘almost certainly result in the Tweed Coast koala population becoming extinct’.
Just over a week ago, a protest was staged through the streets of Murwillumbah against Cr Longland’s move by koala campaigners, and another smaller but vocal one held near council’s car park during the meeting.