Rocket launches pose extinction-level threat to SA’s little southern emu wren, conservationists warn

A tiny southern emu wren, which conservationists fear is threatened by rocket fire, could be endangered within days.

Conservationists say planned rocket launches on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula pose an extinction-level threat to the wren, one of Australia’s smallest birds.

The southern emu wren subspecies at the site is listed as endangered under the SA Act, but as nationally vulnerable.

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Australian Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is considering upgrading the country’s status to endangered.

Such a change would matter for project approvals and funding decisions.

Southern Launch’s Missile Launch Facility is located at the tip of the Eyre Peninsula at Whalers Way, which is ‘critical habitat for the survival of the species’. Southern Launch says its wildlife eradication programs will have a positive effect on bird habitat.

Meanwhile Plibersek is considering general approval of the rocket launch site under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC). The state government will also have to approve it.

The Nature Conservation Society of SA says land clearance, disturbance by humans including noise, vibration and automobiles, as well as an increased risk of bushfires put the bird at extreme risk.

The company’s Julia Peacock said it was a very environmentally sensitive location for a variety of environmental reasons, particularly the wren.

“It’s a beautiful little bird, hard to see… it has a beautiful trill, like a glass clinking,” she said.

“There are so few left. At most 1,000 on previously known sites. It may only be 500. The Whalers Way estimate [which is rubbery] it’s maybe 100 pairs, 200 birds.

“We are talking about a truly threatened subspecies. What it needs is for its habitat to be protected.

Populations of the wren (whose body is about 6cm long) had previously been lost to bushfires, Peacock said, adding that the site was already at high bushfire risk even without rocket fire.

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 privately owned land-based spaceport that will put vessels carrying customers’ satellites into orbit. He applied for a permanent facility there.

Southern Launch chief executive Lloyd Damp said the company engaged “preeminent independent experts” as part of its environmental impact statement and development of the EPBC filing.

“The results show that we will have a very positive effect on their habitat through environmental management such as wildlife eradication programmes,” he said.

South Australian Greens MLC, Tammy Franks, is pushing for an inquiry into the initial launch site approval. She said that while she advocated for the creation of a space industry, the Whalers Way site contained a unique ecosystem and an alternative site should be found.

She was concerned about the impacts on the surrounding marine park, as well as endangered species. White-bellied sea eagles, eastern ospreys and white-bellied whipbirds were also at risk, she said.

“While the development of a space industry is welcome, it shouldn’t come at the expense of our environment when there are so many other options not yet considered,” said Franks.

“The process has been vague and community questions remain unanswered.

“It is clear that we need a full investigation into the whole project.”

Damp said Whalers Way was the right place “for both environmental and commercial reasons”.

Southern Launch’s fire plan has been approved by the Country Fire Service, he said, and the company will work alongside regulators.

Southern Launch planned to use rockets from 10 meters to 30 meters high to bring small satellites into orbit, eventually launching up to 36 per year along with six other suborbital launches.

He chose the 1,200-hectare site for reasons including its remoteness and the ability to fire rockets over the Great Australian Bight instead of populated land.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said the southern emu wren’s list was still being finalized.

Being “up” from vulnerable to nationally endangered would signal that the wren was closer to extinction.

“Threatened species listed under the national environmental law are protected as matters of national environmental importance,” the spokesman said.

“Any action requires government approval if the action has, will, or is likely to have a significant impact on a listed threatened species. The action must be referred to the Minister of the Environment and subjected to an environmental assessment and approval process”.

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