Satellite image leads to fear critically endangered species habitat bulldozed

Tens of thousands of Regent honeyeaters once flew over Australia, they now likely number less than 250 in the wild.

Satellite analysis of regional properties in northern NSW, has led to concerns habitat used by a critically endangered species may have been bulldozed.

Working to confirm their suspicions Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) sent a chopper over a beef cattle property on May 29 and filmed video showing large areas of bushland denuded of trees. ACF alleges a total of 250 hectares of woodland had been cleared across the site, and that it may have been habitat used by the Regent honeyeater.

On Wednesday, the Federal Department of Environment confirmed with Yahoo News Australia it was investigating ACF’s claims the habitat may have been impacted. The landowner confirmed works had been stopped, but denied there was any illegality in the clearing. He warned he would take "take any necessary legal steps to preserve our reputation".

ACF flew a helicopter over land west of Armidale to try and confirm whether Regent honeyeater habitat had been impacted. Source: ACF
ACF flew a helicopter over land west of Armidale to try and confirm whether Regent honeyeater habitat had been impacted. Source: ACF

Race to protect Regent honeyeater from extinction

Tens of thousands of Regent honeyeaters once flew across Australia's landscape, but they now likely number less than 250 individuals in the wild. Because there are so few, experts are unable to determine where the survivors are living at any given time. Over the last 30 years there have been 130 sightings in the forested woodland area west of Armidale, although there have not been any spotted since 2019.

But BirdLife Australia’s Sean Dooley warns this doesn’t mean they’re not present in the area. The broader region is one of the last four remaining areas where they’ve been sighted in the last 20 years. “They’re very hard to find because there are so few of them and they’re really mobile,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Less than 250 Regent honeyeaters now survive in the wild. Source: Getty
Less than 250 Regent honeyeaters now survive in the wild. Source: Getty

His organisation has worked for decades as part of a multi-agency effort to identify and protect remaining Regent honeyeater habitat. Because the species is teetering on the brink of extinction, he argues every site they may utilise is precious.

“There’s really good work happening to protect them in public reserves, but a lot of the best-remaining woodland habitat for Regent honeyeaters is actually on private land, and we still don’t get access to many of these properties,” he said.

“They’re a really difficult bird to protect because they don’t stay in one spot, their natural life history is that they move across the landscape in response to flowering eucalyptus in the woodlands. You can’t just protect one site, you need to preserve the network of rich woodland sites.”

Beef producer calls on ACF to support endangered species claims

In an email sent to Yahoo on Wednesday, beef producer Campbell Tonkin denied any land had been illegally cleared, but confirmed works had been suspended.

“We note that Australian Conservation Foundation have not provided any specific evidence to support their claims that any habitat of the Regent Honeyeater has been actively destroyed by us,” he said. “In any event, since the matter was first raised by the Australian Conservation Foundation, we have ceased any further works on our property until their claims have been properly investigated.”

Mr Tonkin said land clearing has been done in consultation with NSW Local Land Services.

Yahoo News Australia contacted NSW Local Land Services. The agency was unable to locate a formal record of providing him with advice relating to land clearing, nor a formal record of having issued him with an authorisation to conduct land clearing. That does not rule out the possibility that Mr Tonkin has been involved in informal consultation or obtained general advice/guidance from Local Land Services, including directly or in a community conference. Mr Tonkin has been contacted for further comment.

ACF says land clearing must be investigated by government

The Department of Environment told Yahoo it is making enquiries into ACF’s allegations about “alleged clearing” at the site. But added that clearing of native vegetation in the state is “the primary responsibility of the NSW government”.

ACF’s Jess Abrahams took exception to the department’s response, arguing nationally listed threatened species habitat is the responsibility of the federal government.

“It shouldn’t be up to environment groups like ACF to be identifying and exposing potential breaches of national environment law, the current Federal Environment Department… should be doing this,” he said.

Following publication of this article, the NSW Department of Planning and Environment confirmed it is also investigating the matter.

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