RIFLE RANGE BEACH OFF-LEASH AREA VOTED DOWN

The proposal to establish an off-leash dog zone on Rifle Range Beach was refused at today’s Council meeting. The following report was presented at the meeting with the recommendation being carried by a vote of 8 : 3.

Please note that my views on the issue are contained after the report.

Item

02 July 2013

Item Number:O3 File Number:LE/0010 Part:Community & Cultural

Portfolio:

Community & Environmental Services

Subject:

Rifle Range Beach – Petition for Off Leash Dog Area 

Report Author:

James Stanfield, Branch Manager – Waste & Regulatory Services

Authorised by:

Gavin Steele, General Manager Community & Environmental Services

Link to Corporate Plan:

Community – 4.1.1 A safe, active and healthy community     

Background:

On 11 December 2012, Cr Greg Barnes tabled a petition containing 235 signatures, stating as follows:-

Please gazette a timed off-leash dog area at Rifle Range Beach, Bargara. Many residents utilise this isolated beach and creek area to spend time with their dogs in a friendly community atmosphere during the early mornings and late afternoons. Council officers are issuing fines to residents who take part in this activity and the residents would like to see the by-laws changed to enable them to continue without fear of penalty. Your petitioners appreciate that some residents will wish to access the beach during the day without off-leash dogs being present and propose that a gazetted off-leash period of between 4.00pm and 8.00am be adopted. Your petitioners also submit that they are responsible pet owners who undertake to abide by the Council’s by-laws including the immediate removal of any dog droppings and only taking dogs which are registered with the Council onto the beach. The residents also believe that with only two off-leash areas across the whole region, Bundaberg Council has fewer than other Queensland Councils and it is reasonable that permission be granted for this additional area.

The motion was seconded and carried unanimously.

This matter has since been investigated by Council’s Animal Management Section in association with the Natural Resource Management section. Issues taken into account were the natural protection value of the beach, the legal and practical ramifications of such a proposal and how the proposal fits into Council’s philosophy on dog off-leash parks.

The Natural Resources section of Council does not support the establishment of a dog leash free area on Rifle Range Beach due to the likely impact on shorebirds.  The beach and associated estuary has been identified on maps supplied by the Queensland Government as:

  • an identified shorebird roosting site;
  • an area of High Ecological Significance;
  • a referable wetland.

The declaration of a dog leash free area is likely to require approval under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC).   The Act lists 36 migratory species of shorebirds which are protected under the following international agreements to which Australia is a signatory:

  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention);
  • China-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (CAMBA);
  • Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (JAMBA).

Some of these species regularly visit the Rifle Range Beach and estuary, although numbers have decreased in recent years due to siltation and the subsequent growth of mangroves which are unattractive to these species. Under the Act, any action will require approval if it has or is likely to have a significant impact on a listed migratory species.  The action must be referred to the Minister and undergo an environmental assessment and approval process.

Guidelines for interpreting the Act and its application have been perused and are quoted in part below.  Under these guidelines, Rifle Range Beach and estuary would be classed as “important habitat” due to the recording of at least 15 of the 36 migratory species in the past 5 years.  The guidelines also indicate that increased disturbance and direct mortality are two threats to migratory shorebirds and specifically mentions the impact of walking dogs.  If dogs were allowed to roam freely at Rifle Range Beach and estuary, it could lead to a substantial reduction in migratory shorebirds using important habitat.  The Department assesses this on a case-by-case basis.

The background paper to EPBC Act policy statement 3.21 – Significant impact guidelines for 36 migratory shorebird species (referred to above), states:-

Disturbance

Disturbance is emerging as a major conservation issue for migratory shorebirds. The high energy demands of their migratory lifestyle means that disturbance that either reduces their feeding rate or does not allow the birds to rest properly can have a considerable impact on behaviour and energetic fitness (Davidson and Rothwell, 1993; Paton et al, 2000).

Disturbance from human recreation activities such as dog walking, 4WDs, power boating, jet skiing may force migratory shorebirds to increase time devoted to vigilance and anti-predator behaviour or may compel the birds to move to alternative, less favourable feeding areas (Goss-Custard and Verboven, 1993).

At high and sustained levels, these activities can prevent shorebirds from using all or part of the habitat and therefore have a significant impact on migratory shorebirds. Other types of continuous disturbance, such as excessive lighting, can cause roosting habitats to be permanently lost as the birds are made more vulnerable to predators (van de Kam et al, 2004).

Unrestrained dogs on other beaches and estuaries along the coastline already cause disturbance to migratory shorebirds.  The declaration of a dog leash free area at Rifle Range Beach would send a message to the community that shorebird disturbance is acceptable and increase expectations that other areas could be similarly declared (eg Elliott Heads).

Council’s philosophy on off-leash parks is yet to be determined but it is assumed that providing areas where dogs can be freely exercised would go hand in hand with a higher enforcement regime across the region.  It is presumed that the allocation of dedicated dog off-leash areas will continue to happen as the community demand requires, to a point where there are adequate numbers of such facilities within relatively easy access of the entire community.

It is anticipated that these proposed facilities will be located in areas with little or no social or environmental impact. Locating them in areas of high social activity or high environmental significance will not be a viable alternative.

Associated Person/Organization:

James Stanfield, Branch Manager Waste & Regulatory Services

Consultation:

Nick MacLean – Operation Supervisor Natural Resource Management;  Carl Moller – Natural Areas Officer;  Geordie Lascelles – Branch Manager Parks, Sport & Natural Areas;  Michael Johnston – Operational Supervisor Parks & Open Space;  Ross Macguire – Regional Coordinator, Parks, Sport & Natural Areas;  Adam Gardner – Acting Coordinator Regulatory Compliance;  Burnett Mary Regional Group;  Department Environment & Heritage Protection;  Department Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry

Legal Implications:

Council’s current Local Laws do not allow the walking of dogs off-leash unless within a dedicated off-leash area.  Any such declaration will need to be made and the subordinate Local Law amended to include any new allocated area.

Policy Implications:

A protocol for the selection, community consultation and allocation of dog off-leash areas will need to be compiled.

Financial and Resource Implications:

There are no immediate requirements for resource allocation. Depending on whether a community consultation is carried out in-house or by external consultant some costs may be incurred.  Costs associated with the installation of fences, shelters and watering points are anticipated as these facilities become more popular.

Recommendation:

That the request for a dog off-leash area at Rifle Range Beach, Bargara, be refused on environmental and social grounds.

Further, that community consultation be undertaken on options within the nearby Mary Kinross Park reserve as an alternative dog off-leash area  –  for further consideration by Council.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

My Views.

The report focused almost entirely on the identification of various species of wading birds and described the potentially adverse affect on them from roaming dogs as being “likely” rather that “possible”. I raise this because even though there was ample information to indicate that the area had been used for off-leash purposes over many years (albeit illegally), there was not one piece of information which identified that this has had an impact on any wildlife and nor did it identify a single complaint in that regard.

During the debate, one Councillor erroneously stated that the number of identified bird species in the area had reduced from 36 to 15 over recent years when in fact the report stated that 15 of the 36 species listed in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) had been identified. It should be noted that the only reference to a decreased number of birds in the area was identified as being “due to siltation and the subsequent growth of mangroves which are unattractive to these species.” No mention of dogs or any other cause. I would have thought that if the area was progressively becoming unattractive to the identified birds and that they were leaving for unrelated reasons, then this would work in favour of the arguement for an off-leash area.

Having said that, it was abundantly clear that if Council were to support the application, it would have to be referred to State agencies for consideration and the general feedback was that they would then require an environmental impact study which would come at significant cost to ratepayers ($20,000+?) and with little chance of a supportive outcome.

During the debate Council was advised that there had been a reported attack on a person by two off-leash dogs which had prompted the stricter enforcement program last year. I remain astounded that neither this information, nor any other information regarding complaints of anti-social behaviour, was mentioned in the report and yet the recommendation included the grounds of refusal being on “…environmental and social grounds“.

In his debate, Cr. Bush foreshadowed that if the motion was lost, he would move that the matter be referred for further investigation which to my mind was the most sensible thing to do as there were clearly a number of bits of pertinent information missing from the report. Unfortunately, the motion was carried as per the recommendation.

Council will now engage in community consultation to try and identify an alternative site within Mary Kinross Park however I recall that when a similar proposal was raised during the Burnett Shire days that this led to considerable controversy. Hopefully, this time the community will reach a concensus on the issue.

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