Fears for future of tiny lizard stalling construction of 310,000 new homes

Victorian grassland earless dragons were believed to be extinct, then during a routine ecological survey of farmland 2023 they were rediscovered.

Plans to clear farmland and build a multi-million dollar housing project could push a rare Australian lizard back towards extinction, ecologists are warning.

With over five million people living in Melbourne, the population is verging on soaring higher than Sydney's, and the government has committed to building 800,000 new homes by 2034, many of them to the city's west, the region where the critically endangered reptile has been found.

The rediscovery of the Victorian grassland earless dragon at a 90-hectare farm south of Bacchus Marsh in 2023 came as a surprise as it had not been seen since the 1960s, and was thought to be extinct. Its presence has already stalled a 500-hectare development plan for the wider area, and dragon population surveys are now being undertaken to determine how much land is affected.

A Victorian grassland earless dragon in captivity at Melbourne Zoo.
The Victorian grassland earless dragon has been rediscovered. Source: Zoos Victoria

A dragon breeding program established at Melbourne Zoo has produced 50 hatchlings, but it’s the future of wild populations that is causing angst amongst some experts who are calling for its home range to be urgently protected. More land has been cleared in Victoria than any Australian state, and while the state government has reduced its harvesting of native forests, grassland habitats remain particularly vulnerable to exploitation, and less than one per cent of viable dragon habitat remains intact.

Frustration over 'slow' response to protect dragon habitat

Two dragon experts who have direct knowledge of its ecological needs spoke to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity. These ecologists believe measures taken by the state to safeguard the species in the wild have been too slow, and are particularly “frustrated” that more than a year since the dragons were found, the rediscovery site is not adequately protected.

The wider area is mostly farmland but much of it is slated to be rezoned for industrial and urban use. The ecologists want the government to immediately commit to supporting the ongoing stewardship of the land where rediscovery site is located. Sheep grazing and cropping there have provided conditions “just right” for the highly picky dragons which are often described as a “Goldilocks species”.

Dragons could halt development at other sites

Yahoo News has chosen not to name the project to protect the dragons living at the site, as the rare creatures remain at risk from poachers as well as amateur photographers who could accidentally crush them. The development is being facilitated by the Victorian Planning Authority (VPA), which has declined to answer questions about the rediscovery of the dragons.

The rediscovery of the dragons has also prompted hope other remnant populations may also survive on land to the north and west of Geelong – the state’s second largest city – however these areas have also been earmarked for development. If the dragons are to persist in nature in the wild, ecologists say multiple areas of viable habitat may need to be protected. Isolated populations are vulnerable to extinction from disease and extreme weather events such as drought and bushfire.

Left - housing at the edge of Melbourne next to farmland. Right - farmland at the development site near Bacchus Marsh.
There is pressure to develop farmland around Melbourne's west because of the city's booming population. Source: Getty/VPA

Developer calls for industry certainty after dragon find

Its not just ecologists who are unsettled by the uncertainty created by the dragon discovery — developers and property owners are also concerned. The Urban Development Institute of Australia estimates 310,000 homes and 230,000 jobs could be impacted by the find. “This issue must be treated as a priority to ensure the longevity of the species, and to give industry certainty,” it told The Age.

After the species was first rediscovered, the state and federal Labor governments issued a joint press conference pledging $188,000 to help find wild lizards. Their highly publicised announcement raised the profile of the dragons, making it harder for their protection to be undermined. A related species in the ACT is also under threat from development, and a search is underway for another dragon species in the Bathurst region that has not been seen since the 1990s.

“I want to protect our precious creatures for our kids and grandkids,” environment minister Tanya Plibersek said at the time. Victoria’s then state environment minister Ingrid Stitt said it is an amazing discovery, and offers an opportunity for us to "recover a species once thought lost to our state and the world".

Government continues to survey habitat for dragons

Victoria's Department of Environment (DEECA) did not respond directly to questions from Yahoo News about which specific sites would be retained as dragon habitat, or if it could commit to protecting the rediscovery site.

It confirmed it has been working with the VPA and councils to help them map habitat where dragons could be living, and these assessments will likely inform decisions on which areas will eventually be protected from development.

“We’re continuing our conservation efforts following the rediscovery of the endangered Victorian grassland earless dragon last year — this includes the ongoing assessment of population distribution, habitat modelling and delivery of a National Recovery Plan in partnership with the Commonwealth," a Victorian government spokesperson said in a statement.

A map showing Victoria's volcanic plains.
Its hoped remnant populations of dragons could have survived on pockets of grasslands on Victoria's basalt plains. Source: Corangamite CMA

Animals across Australia being killed by development

Across Australia, governments and developers are having to make decisions between protecting endangered species, and carving up their land for much-needed housing.

In Queensland where koalas are listed as endangered, remnants of habitat have been carved up for houses, roads, a KFC, McDonald's, a Toyota dealership and a Westfield. NSW has faced similar issues — a large development by LendLease is being constructed next to the state's last disease-free population of koalas.

In Western Australia, the Albanese government approved a new road through the centre of a population of endangered western ringtail possums. Fragmentation of habitat prevents populations from expanding and leaves them vulnerable to the impact of extreme weather — during a recent heatwave, rescuers responded to more than 150 injured animals.

In the Northern Territory, a plan by the government-owned Defence Housing Australia would have resulted in the destruction of 400 new trees, known to shelter endangered species including the Gouldian finch and black-footed tree rat at Lee Point. That project is on hold following protests by Indigenous elders who said they had not been adequately consulted.

Even common species like eastern grey and western grey kangaroos have become landlocked by development, resulting in high numbers of mortality, mostly due to car strikes as the animals cross busy roads in search of new homes.

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