At 10-16 cm long, there’s not much of the rare sandhill dunnart to see even with an expert knowledge of the four remote locations it inhabits.
But now the pint-sized carnivore could vanish from one of those sites altogether, with fears Western Australia’s proposed Mulga Rock uranium mine will wipe out its home among the spinifex hummocks east of Kalgoorlie.
In fact, because the so-called marsupial mouse hasn’t been seen in the Northern Territory since its discovery there in the late 1800s, it’s more likely its habitat would be reduced to just two spots on the entire continent.
State and national environment groups are calling for a fresh review of the contested Mulga Rock project, which is Australia’s third largest undeveloped uranium site and owned by Perth-based Vimy Resources.
The Conservation Council of WA and Australian Conservation Foundation claim the miner is in a self-described race to demonstrate “substantial commencement” before a key approval date expires next month.
“Works at the site are pointlessly destructive,” according to ACF environmental investigator Annica Schoo.
“The company lacks a series of required approvals, plans and agreements, does not have the capital to start mining and has not made a final investment decision to proceed.”
On the contrary, interim Vimy chief executive Steven Michael last month declared the securing of approvals to commence ground disturbing activities at Mulga Rock “a significant milestone”.
First production, he said, was likely by 2025.
Both green groups want the WA and federal governments to urgently investigate a potential breach of conditions at the primary mine site, on the southwestern edge of the Great Victoria Desert.
They insist rapid clearing of vegetation for an airstrip there is happening without a necessary conservation plan and in an area beyond that covered by national environment law.
It’s also said to be unacceptably close to where the sandhill dunnart has so far managed to survive despite the encroachment of livestock and predation by introduced foxes and cats.
While its burrowing capabilities have also enabled it to resist the threat of fires, the removal of spinifex is not so easy for the dunnart to overcome.
The elimination of hummocks to create farmland on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula over recent decades has caused an alarming 60 per cent reduction there in its viable habitat, one of two in the state.
Mulga Rock is known to contain 76.8 million pounds of uranium in four deposits, which Vimy intends extracting using shallow open-pit methods.
Cobalt, copper, nickel and zinc concentrates will also be removed and sold separately.
The WA Environmental Protection Authority says Vimy’s original project gained approval in 2016 but it is assessing claims the miner is moving ahead with a proposal which is now materially different.
A spokesman for federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told AAP her department was aware of certain claims and “making a number of inquiries”.
Premier Mark McGowan said in 2017 he hoped Mulga Rock and other major WA uranium projects would not be built but declined to block them and risk compensation payouts worth “hundreds of millions, if not billions”.