200 deaths in just two years: Devastating toll of deadly Aussie road
First the region lost its Tasmanian tigers, now devils could be next
WARNING — CONFRONTING IMAGES: If 200 cats, dogs, or even horses were killed by cars on a single road, authorities would likely reduce the speed limit. But a Tasmanian council has defied calls to do the same and protect a native devil population that's being mowed down at a horrifying rate.
Concern is centred around a remote 25km stretch of council-owned road in Woolnorth, in the state's northwest, that concerned animal lovers describe as a "hoon's delight". Across its paved surface, locals have recorded 186 devil deaths over the last two years.
Despite overwhelming evidence that high speeds result in wildlife mortality, council has refused to lower the limit from 100km/h to 80km/h.
Farmer fears devils could go way of Tasmanian tiger
Fifth-generation Montagu farmer Kim Anderson, 55, is working desperately to stop the carnage but fears no one is listening. The situation is personal. Her husband Bevan's grandfather Wilfred Batty shot the last wild tiger in 1930 at nearby Mawbanna as it approached his chook shed.
"We realise how important it is to save the Tasmanian devils," Kim said. "The Tasmanian tiger didn't last, do we want to see the devil go the same way?"
Gruesome photos show devils flattened, flayed and decapitated across Woolnorth. Bodies collected by Kim and local wildlife carer Alison Carson, 47, are often “so destroyed” it’s impossible to determine the sex.
Woolnorth Road along with its West Montagu Road extension accounts for around a quarter of the state's devil deaths. "They sealed the road and there's been devil deaths ever since,"Kim said.
Rare disease-free devil population under threat from 'speedway'
Tasmanian devil populations are yet to recover after an outbreak of devil facial tumour disease, an infectious cancer that caused a decline of up to 80%.
Woolnorth's devils have one of the state's highest known densities and are one of two remaining disease-free colonies.
A government survey across 25 square kilometres of Woolnorth resulted in an estimate of 227 individuals. Over the last five years, counts have remained largely consistent — 197 in 2018, 158 in 2019, 184 in 2020 and 173 in 2021.
Despite numbers appearing healthy, biologist Nick Mooney believes there were many more devils in the area 30 years ago. Land clearing has impacted their range, and they lost a food source when farmers swapped small sheep for large cattle.
But it's the impact of the road that's high among Mr Mooney's concerns. "It's like a speedway, it's a hoon's delight you might say. It's certainly one of the fastest roads to drive along up there."
Devils are nocturnal and deaths occur when vehicles roar through late evening or early morning. A wind farm and Chinese-owned dairy are the source of much of the road's traffic, and both are supportive of devil conservation programs.
Council refuses to lower speed limit to protect devils
Working to reduce devil deaths, Circular Head Council purchased a virtual fence warning system and erected a small number of crossing signs, but these measures haven't stopped the carnage.
Kim and Alison believe reducing the road's speed limit is essential to saving the devils. Dropping it to 80km/h is supported by the owner of Woolnorth's Van Dairy and Mayor Gerard Blizzard and wind farm operator Woolnorth Renewables favours a change between dusk and dawn. However, in January elected members of Circular Head Council voted down a motion to reject the proposal.
On Friday, the devil death toll in the Woolnorth region was 184, by Monday it had reached 186. The total doesn’t include the babies that were likely left to starve to death in dens after their mothers were killed, or those that were injured and dragged themselves into the bush to die.
Kim is fed up with the situation and fears the remaining animals living there could be wiped out. “It's not unusual to have three killed in a night,” she said. “It's just been one after another and no matter what we say people don't seem to care.”
She believes most programs aimed at saving the species are too focused on research and captive animals, but not wild populations.
Government believes lower speed limits protect wildlife
To protect the devils, Scott Jordan from wildlife advocacy group Bob Brown Foundation believes all levels of government must work together. “This is a species on the edge of extinction and this is one of the last disease-free populations left in the wild. None of us can stand by, least of all those in positions of authority,” he said.
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek was approached for comment, but her office directed questions about the protection of Woolnorth’s Tasmanian devils to her department. It did not directly respond to questions about this population, but said it is working with the state government to “encourage conservation outcomes for devils”.
Tasmanian environment minister Roger Jaensch issued a lengthy response, saying the state government "is concerned about the incidence of all roadkill" and this includes Woolnorth's devils. He said management spans several areas of government and the private sector, but success also "requires the collective efforts of road-users, road-owners'.
He noted the effectiveness of reduced limits. "Raising driver awareness and slowing down between dusk and dawn are the single most effective measures for reducing roadkill, he said. "Slowing down from 100km/h to 80km/h can reduce the number of animals killed on our roads by 50 per cent."
He said the Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania Department is collaborating with the Menzies Medical Research Group to develop a vaccine to treat facial tumour disease.
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