Pink batts aren’t the only bats that will be preying on Peter Garrett’s mind at the moment.

Of the many native species the Minister has responsibility for in his environment portfolio, probably none cause as much public and political controversy as flying-foxes — that is, fruit bats. Within the next two months, the Minister will have to make a decision on whether to approve the proposal by Botanic Gardens Trust to disperse, by means of noise harassment, the colony of grey-headed flying-foxes from Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney.

There will be immense political pressure on the Minister to approve the action. The gardens are within the NSW environment portfolio and, to date, the state bureaucracy has done everything it can to ensure the dispersal goes ahead. All that stands between the Botanic Gardens Trust and some bat harassing is Commonwealth approval.

But to approve the dispersal, currently the subject of a referral under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the Minister will have to place a higher value on the preservation of exotic plant exhibits in the gardens than on the protection of a federally listed threatened species.

There is a body of evidence that shows that dispersals generally don’t work and are likely to have serious implications for the bats’ welfare and breeding success.

Problematically for him, the Minister’s own department recently listed for public comment the Draft National Recovery Plan for the grey-headed flying fox. This draft, endorsed by the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (of which Botanic Gardens Trust is a part), contains criteria that will be used to determine whether habitat should be classified as critical for the survival of the species. The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney meets every single one of the criteria.

Loss of such habitat is highlighted as being a high priority threat to the recovery of the species. Approving a dispersal would be akin to dismantling a policy before the ink is even dry on the signatures.

Approving the Royal Botanic Gardens dispersal will inevitably have a domino affect on those areas of conflict where residents feel that flying fox colonies are diminishing their quality of life but are being stonewalled when it comes to applications to disperse the bats. Maclean, on the mid-north coast of NSW, is a site of ongoing conflict; Singleton in the Hunter Valley is another with a long-term history of bat-related stress and it’s only a matter of time before Kareela in Sydney’s south and Bowraville on the mid-north coast turn into political problem areas because of flying-fox conflicts.

If the Minster approves the dispersal of the colony at the Botanic Gardens — where human conflict with the bats is minimal and no one can seriously claim that their quality of life is being degraded — how will he then be able to stare down applicants at sites where there is obvious conflict but don’t have the loose change to spend on the extensive applications and approvals process (Botanic Gardens Trust has a budget for the dispersal that far exceeds what a local council could ever commit)?

Garrett’s bat problem is only going to get worse.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey