ON Monday 16 February 2009, Dr Colette Harmsen, a Tasmanian veterinarian addressed a public meeting of the Waratah-Wynyard Council on a motion before council regarding the proposed new road development through parts of North West Tasmania known as the Tarkine.
Dr Harmsen spoke as a concerned Tasmanian and as a registered veterinarian. She told the meeting that the proposed new road into this forested area had the potential to increase infectious contact between devils infected with the socially-transmissible facial tumour cancer and healthy devils in this disease-free population; the last remaining in Tasmania. Dr Harmsen highlighted the fact that Tasmanian devils opportunistically use roadways as easy access to new areas especially where road-kill carrion is plentiful. Dr Harmsen also expressed concern for the loss of Tasmanian devils from this population – as road-kill victims – particularly as dispersing juvenile devils.
These statements are supported by wildlife population monitoring after road improvements to the Cradle Mountain access road in 1990s which showed the increased road-kill danger for Tasmanian wildlife and scavenging dasyurids. In cases of expanded road access through wildlife habitats, sealed highways have the capacity to cause local extinctions. A recent three-year study of road-kill frequency on main roads of Tasmania estimated that 1700 Tasmanian Devils were being killed annually. And in another 17 month-long study, Dr Menna Jones reported on the direct consequences of sealed upgrades to the main access roads into Cradle Mountain and Freycinet National Parks on the local populations of Tasmanian devils & quolls.
As scientists we are particularly disappointed and shocked that the Tasmanian Minister responsible for threatened species in this state, David Llewellyn saw it necessary to abruptly dismiss Dr Harmsen’s warnings about the impact that the construction of this new Tarkine road posed for the Tasmanian devil. In a statement made to Tasmanian media, Minister Llewellyn said Dr Harmsen’s ‘logic was flawed’ and did not represent the Government’s views.
In November 2007 Professor Hamish McCallum, Senior Scientist to the Save the Devil project publicly warned that researchers may only have a year to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction in the wild. And in March 2008, a 3-day scientific workshop on the Tasmanian Devil hosted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature heard about the importance of the disease-free devil populations in North West Tasmania.
Apart from impacts to this nationally-listed threatened species, such road developments have the potential to hasten the transfer of other unwanted organisms such as feral animals, weeds and other disease-causing pathogens. Scientific reports and technical workshops have already highlighted the westerly and southerly spread of DFTD-infected devils facilitated by major roads and the presence of road killed wildlife. Road construction and usage have also been incriminated in the spread of the chytrid fungal disease of frogs within Tasmania.
A thorough, science-based IRA of this road proposal considering the ecological effects to the local biodiversity values including the potential for accelerated spread of unwanted weeds, pests and diseases is required.
We wish to support Dr Harmsen for expressing her concerns on the adverse ecological consequences that the construction of this new road will create for the last major stronghold population of wild facial tumour-free devils in Tasmania.
We also defend Dr Harmsen’s right, as a scientist, to speak freely about the devil and the threats this road proposal creates for its continued survival in the wild.
Larissa Abbott, Ecologist, Flora & Fauna Impact Assessment, SMEC Holdings Limited
Professor Maurice R. Alley, Associate Professor of Veterinary Pathology, Pathobiology Section, Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.
Dr Sandra Berry, Visiting Fellow, Australian National University WildCountry Research and Policy Hub. Fenner School of Environment & Society.
Dr Greg P. Clancy, Fauna/Flora Ecologist, Coutts Crossing, NSW
Dr Richard Donaghey, Zoologist & Ecologist, Myalla, North West Tasmania
Dr Tony Friend, Principal Research Scientist, Science Division, Albany Research, Department of Environment & Conservation, W.A
Dr Emma Hage, Veterinarian (West Indies) & volunteer with the Save the Devil Project in 2008
Dr James Harris, Veterinarian (Tasmania), BS, DVM, FRSPH
Tamara Keeley, Wildlife Reproductive Biologist, Taronga Western Plains Zoo, NSW
Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick, Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania
Dr Alexandre Kreiss, Veterinarian (Tasmania) & completing PhD on the Tasmanian devil’s immune system and DFTD, University of Tasmania
Dr Virginie Kurowski, Veterinarian, completed veterinary thesis on the Tasmanian Devil and the DFTD, France.
Dr Neil McGlashan, Medical Geographer, D.Sc, School of Geography, University of Tasmania & member of the Save the Devil Stakeholder reference group
Dr Elizabeth Murchison, Molecular scientist, Welcome Trust Sanger Institute (UK) and the Australian National University
Dr James Macgregor, Veterinarian (Tasmania)
Erin Noonan, BSc(Hons) Zoologist & worked on the Tasmanian Devil Research Team for 3 years
Dr David Obendorf , Veterinarian (Tasmania), wildlife researcher & member of the Save the Devil Stakeholder Reference Group
Dr Melanie Panayiotou, Veterinarian (Victoria), BVSc (Hons)
Dr Justyna Zofia Paplinska, Zoologist & conservation geneticist, Zoology Department, The University of Melbourne
Chris Sanderson, Ecologist, University of Queensland
Dr Rebecca Spindler, PhD, Manager, Research and Conservation, Taronga Conservation Society Australia
Dr Andrea Reiss, Veterinarian (Western Australia) BVSc, MVS, MACVSc
Dr Kim Riddle, Veterinarian, BVSc, DipClSt (Wildlife Health)
Dr Peter Temple-Smith, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Reproduction & Development, Monash Institute of Medical Research
Dr Inger-Marie Vilcins, Postdoctoral Scholar, Microbiology, Medical Entomology & Vector-borne disease, University of California
Dr James Watson, The Ecology Centre, University of Queensland
Professor Greg Woods, PhD, Associate Professor, Immunology, University of Tasmania.
ECOLOGISTS, VETERINARIANS & WILDLIFE EXPERTS
FOR FUTURE OF TASMANIAN DEVIL
Tarkine Road Could Bring Deadly Disease into last Devil Refuge
More than twenty leading experts in fields including veterinary science, zoology, ecology molecular biology and immunology and from as far afield as California, Britain, France and New Zealand have spoken out in support of a colleague who publicly expressed scientific concerns about the plight of the endangered Tasmanian Devil and the impact of the proposed Tarkine road, in North-West Tasmania.
In an open letter sent to Tasmanian and National papers and the Tasmanian Premier, David Bartlett, Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and respective Opposition Leaders, Will Hodgman and Malcolm Turnbull, the scientists collectively support the concerns expressed by Tasmanian veterinarian, Dr Colette Harmsen. The scientists have also expressed disappointment and shock that the Tasmanian Minister with responsibility for biodiversity, David Llewellyn, should have so quickly dismissed serious science-based concerns made by Dr Colette Harmsen.
The State Government acknowledges that the spread of devil facial tumour disease has killed well in excess of half the Tasmanian Devil population across Tasmania and is threatening to push this uniquely Tasmanian species towards extinction; the devil is now listed as endangered.
The Tarkine, a 447,000 hectare wilderness area in North-West Tasmania that includes Australia’s largest tract of temperate rainforest, is the last refuge of healthy, disease-free devils. The Tasmanian government has recently rejected a regional tourism plan prepared for the Tarkine by the Cradle-Coast Authority that has the broad support of local councils, tourism operators and conservationists, and has instead decided to give Forestry Tasmania $23 million for a controversial proposal to push a new road through pristine rainforests into the heart of the Tarkine – critical habitat for the Tasmanian Devil.
A spokesperson for the group of experts is dismayed by the plight of the Tasmanian Devil and impact the Tarkine road proposal poses for the species’ survival in the wild. Dr David Obendorf is a Tasmanian veterinarian, wildlife researcher and member of the Save the Devil Project stakeholder reference group; he has worked extensively on the devil’s plight and has recently co-authored on the Devil Facial Tumour Disease soon to be published in the European Journal of Oncology.
“The Tasmanian Devil is Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial and the iconic symbol of a rapidly declining family of large dasyurids. The realization that we could spend so much tax-payer funds and community donations to prevent this unique Tasmanian animal from becoming extinct in the wild and at the same time allow road development proposals to proceed into the last stronghold of cancer-free devils is beyond comprehension,” said Dr Obendorf.
“The scientists collectively are very distressed that the Tasmanian government is considering pushing a road into the last refuge of healthy, cancer-free Tasmanian devils, and we are asking the government of Premier David Bartlett to listen to these concerns and remember the consequences of a previous Tasmanian government-sanctioned policy on the fate of the thylacine.”
“Science needs to be unfettered by politics. Scientists need to be able to speak openly about their scientific concerns and do so without fear of political interference. For Minister Llewellyn to abruptly dismiss Dr Harmsen’s concerns expressed last week was most unfortunate and he should reconsider what was the motivation behind his abrupt put-down of Dr Harmsen,” Dr Obendorf said.