A tiny southern emu wren, which conservationists fear is under threat from rocket launches, could be listed as endangered within days.
Conservationists say planned rocket launches on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia pose an extinction-level threat to the wren, one of Australia’s smallest birds.
The subspecies of southern emu wren at the site is listed as endangered under SA law, but as vulnerable nationally.
Australia’s environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, is considering lifting the national status to endangered.
That change would matter for project approvals and funding decisions.
Southern Launch’s rocket launch facility is on the tip of the Eyre Peninsula at Whalers Way, which is “habitat critical to the survival of the species”. Southern Launch says its feral animal eradication programs will have a positive effect on the bird’s habitat.
Meanwhile Plibersek is considering the overall approval of the rocket launch site under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The state government will also need to approve it.
The Nature Conservation Society of SA says land clearance, disturbance by humans including noise, vibrations and cars, as well as an increased risk of bushfire, put the bird at extreme risk.
The society’s Julia Peacock said it was a very environmentally sensitive spot for a range of environmental reasons, particularly the wren.
“It’s a beautiful little bird, difficult to see … it makes a beautiful trilling, like a tinkling of glass,” she said.
“There are so few of these left. At best 1,000 across previously known sites. It could be as few as 500. The Whalers Way estimate [which is rubbery] is possibly 100 pairs, 200 birds.
“We’re talking about a subspecies that’s really threatened. What it needs is its habitat to be protected.”
Populations of the wren (whose body is about 6cm long) had previously been lost in bushfires, Peacock said, adding that the site was already high risk for bushfires even without the rocket launches.
Southern Launch has tested suborbital rocket launches at its inland Koonibba Test Range. The company has a second site at the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex, a spaceport on private land that will put craft into orbit carrying customers’ satellites. It has applied for a permanent facility there.
The Southern Launch chief executive, Lloyd Damp, said the company had engaged “pre-eminent independent experts” as part of its environmental impact statement and EPBC documentation development.
“The outcomes show we will have a very positive effect on their habitat through environmental management such as feral animal eradication programs,” he said.
The South Australian Greens MLC, Tammy Franks, is pushing for an inquiry into the initial approval of the launch site. She said while she supported the establishment of a space industry, the Whalers Way site contained a unique ecosystem and an alternative site should be found.
She was concerned about impacts on the surrounding marine park, as well as on endangered species. The white-bellied sea eagle, eastern osprey and white-bellied whipbird were also at risk, she said.
“While the development of a space industry is welcome, it shouldn’t come at the cost of our environment when there are so many other options not yet considered,” Franks said.
“The process has been vague and community questions remain unanswered.
“It’s clear that we need a comprehensive inquiry into the whole project.”
Damp said Whalers Way was the right place “for both environmental and commercial reasons”.
Southern Launch’s bushfire plan had been approved by the Country Fire Service, he said, and the company would work alongside the regulators.
Southern Launch planned to use rockets from 10 metres to 30 metres tall to carry small satellites into orbit, eventually launching up to 36 a year along with another six suborbital launches.
It chose the 1,200 hectare site for reasons including its remoteness and the ability to launch rockets over the Great Australian Bight instead of populated land.
An environment department spokesperson said the listing for the southern emu wren was still being finalised.
Being “uplisted” from vulnerable to endangered nationally would signal that the wren was closer to extinction.
“Threatened species listed under national environment law are protected as matters of national environmental significance,” the spokesperson said.
“Any action requires government approval if the action has, will have, or is likely to have a significant impact on a listed threatened species. The action must be referred to the minister for the environment and undergo an environmental assessment and approval process.”