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Welfare outcomes for native wildlife impacted by habitat clearance need to be improved. Wildlife corridors, law changes and more detailed planning considerations are just some of the proposed solutions. By Tracey Porter
The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is calling for changes to animal welfare legislation offering protection to those who injure or kill native animals when clearing remnant land.
The industry body made clear its position on current state and federal laws in regard to habitat clearing, noting that these should be amended to require landowner and lessees to meet a ‘duty of care’ obligation that forces them to take all reasonable steps to mitigate the death and suffering of impacted wildlife.
The recommendations were among those included in the AVA’s recently ratified Native Animal Welfare (Habitat Clearing) policy, which notes that habitat clearing affects large areas of remnant vegetation and regrowth in Australia.
“Improving animal welfare is one of the AVA’s three strategic priorities. Humans have a responsibility to protect animals. Where a person does not meet his or her obligations to the animals in their care, animals may suffer. The law must be able to adequately intervene to prevent suffering and to enforce compliance,” the policy states.
AVA Vet Conservation Biology Group executive committee member Dr Michael Banyard says habitat clearing is conducted for a number of purposes including agriculture, resource extraction, urban expansion and for infrastructure placement such as roads, railways, communications and renewable energy structures.
While native animals are at risk from mismanagement of conservation areas and other habitats as well as from land clearing, whenever the clearing of existing wildlife habitat takes place, inevitably there are negative impacts on resident wildlife and biodiversity.
Dr Banyard, who was among those who helped form the new policy, says in most states and territories across Australia, the laws governing approved land clearing generally provide landholders with an exemption from prosecution under animal cruelty legislation.
While there is the odd exception, what this means in real terms is that if animals are injured during the process, the landholder will not be prosecuted, he says.
“Under the act it just provides a blanket exemption that says that if animals which are protected are killed or injured during an authorised clearing then that’s enough of a defence.
“What we’re saying is that we should accept the fact that if we’ve approved forestry to go ahead or allowed trees to be felled then wildlife that live in those areas are clearly going to be impacted. Given that animal welfare should be a universal concept, to have an exemption in place is inappropriate.”
Dr Banyard says the AVA is seeking to have the exemption removed from the legislation and an amendment be added imposing a duty of care to ensure the relevant landowner, lessee or heavy machinery operator is able to demonstrate that they have taken “reasonable” steps to mitigate wildlife death and suffering.
However, he acknowledges enforcement of legislation is expensive and is “almost never” a solution to the main issue.
“Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say: ‘We’re going to clear this land to put a road through, we really should take a few steps initially to ensure that those animals that will be impacted will be helped’. There might be measures in place to deliberately put in place corridors of vegetation that link through the landscape, along creek lines etc., so that the animals are given a chance. That would come under the category of duty of care.”
Dr Banyard says many private landowners already voluntarily provide and enhance habitat for native wildlife on their properties, through management of wildlife corridors connecting separate habitat areas.
However, the AVA believes the provision of adequate native habitat and corridors should not be the sole responsibility of private landowners. Instead, a significant responsibility resides with governments to ensure that adequate protected areas remain intact, he says.
The welfare of wildlife can be improved through the use of impact assessments before habitat clearing takes place.
The AVA believes that such assessments should be used to review the potential impact of the proposed activity on wildlife, and if clearing is to proceed, outline what mitigation steps can be taken before, during and after clearing to ameliorate those impacts.
Dr Banyard says in an ideal world, wildlife assessments to evaluate the potential impact on wildlife and biodiversity would be conducted wherever habitat clearing is proposed.
However, in recognising the onerous impact such a requirement could impose upon landowners, the AVA has instead recommended that wildlife assessments be conducted only if the habitat is remnant or mature regrowth habitat, an area of high conservation status, or where clearing approval is required under existing legislation.
Until that happens, education, discussion and awareness—on behalf of relevant stakeholders as well as the broader public—is the best way of ensuring that native animals impacted by habitat clearing are given the same level of protection as other animals, he says.
“We all have to accept that there are things that the community condones, for example animal slaughter, but what we do is we try and put in place a mechanism that it happens in the most humane way,” Dr Banyard says.
At the end of the day, the community wants the power to determine that while animals might be displaced, they expect it will be done in a way that is as consistent as it can be.
“All you can really ask for is that the people doing this sort of work take what measures they can reasonably do that are more in line with what is socially acceptable.”