NOONKANBAH station has become the centre of a Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) Livestock Compliance Unit investigation after hundreds of cattle were reportedly found dead on the station over the Christmas period.
About 85 cattle were also humanely destroyed after being found suffering from severe malnutrition, although that number may rise.
The historic 170,000 hectare station, located on the Fitzroy River between Camballin and Fitzroy Crossing, is managed by the Yungngora Association Incorporated, which was established in 1978.
It runs about 7000 head of cattle and 350 horses.
DPIRD inspectors confirmed that several hundred head of cattle had died on the property – but reports have estimated that figure could rise after a number of water points on the property were found to be inaccessible or not operational and required urgent repairs.
Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said DPIRD officers responded following a report of the cattle deaths.
“The department conducted aerial and onground inspections of the property over two days on December 26 and 27 and confirmed a significant number of cattle had died,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“Estimates are in the order of several hundred head of cattle, over a period of time, however final numbers are still being confirmed as part of the investigation.”
The department has worked in co-operation with Yungngora Association Incorporated to ensure the immediate welfare of remaining cattle as the utmost priority.
“Direction notices have been issued under the Animal Welfare Act, requiring that all cattle must have access to proper and sufficient water,” Ms MacTiernan said.
She said while recent rainfall had helped alleviate immediate concerns, the station was undertaking urgent repair and replacement of infrastructure at key water points and a local contractor had been engaged by the pastoral lessee to conduct daily aerial inspections to monitor the ongoing health and welfare of cattle on the property.
DPIRD was continuing to monitor and assess the situation.
“The department’s team showed great dedication working over the Christmas period to respond to this very serious animal welfare issue in a timely manner,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“All pastoral properties need to be vigilant in ensuring cattle have access to feed and water, especially given the hot conditions and lack of surface water in the north this season.”
The Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association (KPCA) commended “the swift action of DPIRD in responding to the reported animal welfare issue”.
KPCA chairman David Stoate said the association was dismayed that animal welfare on one particular pastoral lease had been compromised in this way.
“It is a difficult job to ensure that all livestock in the Kimberley have access to feed and water in a challenging wet season such as we are experiencing,” Mr Stoate said.
“Pastoralists meet this challenge on a daily basis so it is disappointing that this station has fallen short of their responsibilities.
“We are pleased to see animal welfare concerns are being addressed and await the response of the Livestock Compliance Unit on this matter.”
Yungngora Association Incorporated chief executive officer Christopher Wilkin said two contractors had been engaged before the association had been given direction notices by the State government on December 28.
Mr Wilkin said the association would continue to address the issues, “taking any and all necessary steps needed”.
It has also been working closely with and under advice from the department in a concerted effort to ensure that immediate and long-term sustainable animal welfare was achieved.
Concern about the incident has been expressed over social media with cattle operators saying it wasn’t the first time this had happened and they hoped that those responsible would be prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act.
Comments were also made that if the incident had occurred on a live export vessel there would be calls to shut the trade down, while the RSPCA and other activist groups have been quiet concerning the cattle mortalities that could have been avoided if proper care and monitoring had occurred.
Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA livestock committee chairman Chris Patmore said the “lapse of management on the station was inexcusable” and he hoped “those responsible would be brought to account”.
He said it was an “unfortunate outcome” and “not typical of what happens within the industry”.
“It deserves a thorough investigation to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Mr Patmore said.
He said if pastoralists were aware of the seasonal challenges they would make plans to ensure stock had adequate water access, even by drilling new bores if needed, or moving stock to where water was available.
A RSPCA of WA spokesman said that because it was not their case and they had no information about it, it was inappropriate to comment on the investigation.
The RSPCA does not have inspectors in the Kimberley region.
In June last year the Yungngora community reflected on 40 years since the Noonkanbah dispute, which saw its people, after a two-year battle over land rights, stage a roadblock to prevent the mining company Amax, which was backed and encouraged by the State government, from drilling for oil on the land.
The stand-off gained international attention and led to the foundation of the Kimberley Land Council.
In April 2007 the Yungngora people had their native title recognised.