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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Lisa Cox

Tanya Plibersek urged to save Gouldian finches from NT defence development

Colourful bird with purple, yellow and read highlights sits of a branch
Gouldian finch numbers crashed in the 1990s and early 2000s due to changed fire regimes, cattle grazing and infection. Photograph: Tobias Aakesson

The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, is being urged to intervene to save a population of endangered Gouldian finches threatened by a defence development in the Northern Territory.

The first stage of clearing to allow a defence housing development in savannah woodlands at Lee Point, in Darwin’s north, has already occurred, having been approved in 2019.

A campaign to halt the second phase of bulldozing has won backing from residents and citizen scientists after more than 100 of the colourful finches were spotted in bushland marked for imminent clearing.

“We feel this is a world-class and much undervalued area,” said Ian Redmond, a member of the Friends of Lee Point conservation group. “We’re hoping [the minister] will put a pause on the development until this can be properly investigated.”

Lee Point is home to hollow-bearing trees that provide nesting and breeding habitat for a range of species, and is also used by migratory birds. Gouldian finch sightings in the area were rare until 2019 when a handful of juvenile birds were observed.

Gouldian finches are native to northern Australia. Their numbers crashed in the 1990s and early 2000s due to changed fire regimes, cattle grazing and infection from air sac mites. The largest known population is found near Katherine.

As the birds recover, scientists believe they are returning to old habitat, including around Darwin.

In May, citizen scientists observed more than 100 finches at Lee Point and believe they are now breeding there.

They have been documenting sightings and have sent records and a letter to Plibersek, who they are calling on to revisit the previous government’s decision to approve the development by Defence Housing Australia.

Under Australia’s environment laws, the minister has the power to vary an approval if she receives new information about potentially significant impacts on a nationally listed species.

“What’s happened felt like magic,” said Kirsty Howey, co-director of the Environment Centre NT, which wrote to Plibersek on behalf of concerned residents.

Howey said the clearing would “obliterate” a corridor connecting one side of Lee Point to the other.

“People do hope that the development will be paused and the impacts assessed.”

Jess Abrahams, of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said he hoped the minister would review the development in light of the species that “against the odds, is clawing its way back from the brink”.

Beautiful Gouldian finch with red head, green back and yellow belly takes a drink from a pool of water
Citizen Scientists have been documenting sightings and have sent records to the government. Photograph: Tobias Aakesson

Stephen Garnett, a professor of conservation at Charles Darwin University, said the value of Lee Point extended well beyond the finch population.

“It just seems very shortsighted to be clearing a greenfield site in 2022 on the fringes of an urban area,” he said.

“There are far more degraded sites they could open up for defence housing.”

A spokesperson for the federal environment department acknowledged the “marked increase” in Gouldian finches at the site and said it was considering the new information provided, including records supplied by community members.

“The department is aware that the next stage of this development is scheduled to commence in the coming weeks and is actively working with Defence Housing Australia to assess the implications for the project,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Defence Housing Australia (DHA) said the agency took its environmental responsibilities seriously and had undertaken a robust assessment at Lee Point.

They said DHA continued to work with experts and the government “in relation to the project, which will provide much needed accommodation for Australian Defence Force members and their families”.

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