One of the region’s key wildlife groups has responded with dismay to yesterday’s announcement that the federal government will splash out on 700 ‘nesting boxes’ for native animals displaced by the encroachment of the Pacific Highway into the Blackwall Range.
The controversial Broadwater to Coolgardie stretch of the highway duplication is currently still awaiting approval from federal environment minister Greg Hunt after the revelation that it will split the northern rivers’ last remaining intact koala colony.
But the Coalition state government has steadfastly refused to consider relocating the highway through cane farmland, away from native habitat.
Instead, federal Page MP Kevin Hogan yesterday announced a ‘business opportunity’ for the installation and maintenance of 700 nesting boxes, which the government hopes the endangered species will relocate to before their existing homes are destroyed.
‘The nest boxes will assist in the relocation of animals such as squirrel gliders, sugar gliders, brushtail and ringtail possums, microbats and lorikeets by providing them with new habitats,’ Mr Hogan said in a media release issued together with fellow Nationals MPs Luke Hartsuyker and Chris Gulaptis.
‘Locations for nest boxes are chosen based on proximity to main roads, native vegetation and food supply. Structures will also be installed to help animals cross the highway, including sugar glider poles, underpasses and culverts,’ he added.
‘Businesses now have the opportunity to tender to build, install and maintain a further 700 nest boxes between Glenugie and Ballina,’ the release continued.
‘It is expected the boxes will be installed from this year and vary in size to suit the different species they will house.’
The media release said the contract would also cover ongoing monitoring of the boxes, ‘which is an important aspect of nest box maintenance because the data collected will help inform future environmental managements strategies’.
But it did not provide any background data on the use of its existing nesting boxes along the highway route.
Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass, who has been instrumental in the fight to save the Blackwall Range colony, said ‘it would have been useful if the media release had made some reference to the data collected from monitoring the 2,000 boxes that are already installed between Hexham and the border.’
Ms Vass added that she was not convinced the new nesting boxes would provide a suitable safety net for the displaced animals.
‘Let’s hope the gliders, possums and other critters that will otherwise be thrown out of their nesting hollows and quite likely killed as they crash to the ground, as thousands of trees are felled are smart enough to get out beforehand and take up the nesting boxes on offer,’ she told Echonetdaily.
‘The reality is though, that wild critters just don’t respond to direction. Whichever way you look at it, the 20-year Pacific Highway Upgrade project is destroying much of the north coast’s unique biodiversity.’
The spokesperson for Save Ballinas Koalas, Ballina councillor Jeff Johnson, has described the plan as ‘disingenuous’ and says the proposed route would ‘result in a 100 metre wide barrier being constructed through an important wildlife corridor.’
‘It’s hard to see how 700 nesting boxes will mitigate against the clearing of hundreds of hectares of habitat,’ Cr Johnson said.
‘While it does provide a good business opportunity for the successful tenderers, to imply that this measure will offset the loss of habitat and the reduction in connectivity for important wildlife corridors is disingenuous,’ he added.
‘The Ballina koala population has been proved to be of national significance due to it being the source population for the Lismore and Byron koala populations.
‘The RMS and the state government have chosen the most environmentally and culturally destructive route, which shows a total disregard for the important biodiversity values of the northern rivers, and in particular the Blackwall Range/Coolgardie region.
‘The Save Ballina’s Koalas campaign efforts have resulted in this koala population being the most studied in all of Australia and it would be a tragedy for our region to see it decimated by an ill-conceived highway deviation, particularly when there are cheaper and more direct route options available that will have little environmental or cultural impact,’ Cr Johnson said