‘Out of sight and out of mind’: conservationists alarmed as NT land clearing threatens endangered ghost bat habitat

A farming operation in the Northern Territory has proposed clearing almost 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of woodlands in a stronghold for the threatened ghost bat, Australia’s largest predatory bat.

The territory’s peak conservation organisation, the Environment Centre NT, and a scientific expert on the species have called on the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, to use her powers to call in the project in the Daly River region for assessment under commonwealth nature laws.

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Conservationists have expressed alarm at what they say is an “out of sight and out of mind” attitude from the federal government towards the scale of habitat destruction proposed for new agricultural projects in the NT.

Almost 30,000 hectares of clearing has been proposed in current applications before the territory’s pastoral land board alone, with the average size of permits sought being about 3,000 hectares.

None of those projects have been referred for assessment under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act for their potential effects on nationally threatened species or ecosystems.

The Daly River project proposes clearing on two neighbouring properties – Claravale Station and Claravale Farm – owned by the Top End Pastoral Company.

Earlier this year, the NT government took legal action against the company for alleged land-clearing without a permit at Claravale Station.

The company’s new clearing applications propose removing savanna woodlands from 3851.7 hectares on Claravale Station, which is covered by a pastoral lease, and 1909.4 hectares on Claravale Farm, which is freehold land.

Claravale Station has caves that are known roosting sites for a large colony of ghost bats, a threatened species listed as vulnerable under national laws.

One of the caves is one of only six known maternity roosts in the NT.

Ghost bats are a large bat and a rarity among Australian bat species in that they prey on vertebrates such as birds, reptiles and small mammals in addition to insects. Scientists are still learning about the ghost bat’s foraging habits but the animals are known to fly for kilometres in search of food.

Nicola Hanrahan, a post-doctoral researcher of ghost bats based at Charles Darwin University, said the Claravale site was significant for the population because it had natural roosting habitat underground that met the species’ precise temperature and humidity requirements and an abundance of foraging habitat above ground.

She said there was a “clear case for referral” of the project to the federal government for assessment to consider whether the clearing of foraging habitat could have a significant impact on the resident ghost bat population.

“The proposed clearing would disrupt the assemblage of prey available to the species for food,” Hanrahan said.

“The clearing for approved pasture would remove everything. It would remove those very important trees and structure and vegetation.”

Hanrahan added the site was particularly significant due to the presence of a maternity roost. She said pregnant or nursing female bats had greater energy needs and were more reliant on having good quality foraging habitat close by.

Guardian Australia contacted the Top End Pastoral Company but the company declined to comment.

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The Albanese government recently introduced legislation to create a national environment protection agency, which Plibersek has said will prioritise the examination of illegal land clearing. But it has delayed broader reforms to fix Australia’s failing system of nature protections to an unspecified date.

“A new EPA will do nothing to stop the escalating crisis of habitat destruction in the Northern Territory, particularly when it’s administering broken laws,” the Environment Centre NT executive director, Kirsty Howey, said.

“It’s no good for the ghost bats of the Daly River if a federal regulator investigates after their foraging habitat has been destroyed.”

Howey said Plibersek had the power to call in pastoral clearing applications in the NT for assessment “but she’s not using it”.

“Out of sight and out of mind, northern Australia has the largest intact savanna ecosystem in the world, yet we’re seeing its woodlands bulldozed at a shocking rate while the Australian government turns a blind eye,” she said.

Euan Ritchie, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at Deakin University with expertise on northern Australia, said Australia’s savannas “have rich biodiversity value in part because they’re still relatively unmodified and largely intact”.

“Further fragmentation and destruction of savanna habitat will put wildlife and threatened species at risk,” he said.

Guardian Australia contacted Plibersek for comment, which was provided via a spokesperson for the federal environment department.

They said the minister could not comment on whether she would call in a project because doing so would risk prejudicing the statutory process.

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They said “all proponents are obliged to self-assess proposed actions” and substantial penalties applied if activities that could have a significant impact on threatened wildlife and ecosystems occurred without approval.

The spokesperson said the NT government was largely responsible for the regulation of land-clearing in the territory but the department engaged with the territory’s agricultural sector, including through site visits, to ensure companies were aware of their obligations under national laws.

A spokesperson for the NT environment department said the department had sought further information from the developer about the clearing proposed on Claravale Farm and recommended they refer it to the NT’s Environment Protection Authority under the NT’s environment assessment laws.

“The Claravale Station application is currently undergoing assessment under the Pastoral Land Act,” they said.