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Displaying items by tag: biodiversity

Tuesday, 28 June 2022 21:09

Report card on our biodiversity

Australia is losing more biodiversity than any other developed nation. Already this year the charismatic and once abundant gang gang cockatoo has been added to our national threatened species list, the koala has been listed as endangered and the Great Barrier Reef suffered another mass bleaching event.

The Australian public consistently rates the loss of our unique plants and animals as a key concern. Indeed, in a recent poll of 10,000 readers of The Conversation, 'the environment' was identified as the second-biggest issue affecting their lives, behind climate change at number one.

The Coalition has been in government since 2013. So what has it done about the biodiversity crisis? Unfortunately, the state of Australia’s plants, animals and ecological communities suggests the answer is - not nearly enough.

In fact, as the extinction crisis has escalated, protection and recovery for threatened species has declined. Poor decisions are contributing to the problem, rather than solving it.

The sorry state of Australia’s biodiversity

Australia has formally acknowledged the extinction of 104 native species since European colonisation, but the true number is likely much higher.

Threatened bird, mammal and plant populations have, on average, halved or worse since 1985. Species recently thought to be safe – such as the bogong moth, gang gang cockatoos, and even the iconic koala – are being added to the global and national threatened species lists following drought, catastrophic fires and habitat destruction.

The federal government listed the koala as an endangered species in February this year. Shutterstock

Today, 19 ecosystems show clear signs of collapse. This includes the Great Barrier Reef, savannas, mangroves, tropical rainforests, and tall mountain ash forests. These losses have profound ramifications for clean air and water, productive agriculture, pollination, and well-being.

Biodiversity is a crucial part of Australia’s national identity and Aboriginal culture. It delivers billions of dollars in tourism revenue and underpins most sectors of our economy.

It’s important for our health, too. COVID lockdowns recently brought the critical role of nature to our well-being into sharp focus, with thriving biodiversity shown to deliver avoided costs to the healthcare system.

Ignoring key recommendations

A 2018 Senate inquiry into the extinction crisis of Australian animals (fauna) concluded that native fauna was declining. It found biodiversity protection was under-resourced and failing, and Australia urgently needs an independent environmental regulator.

In 2022, the federal Auditor-General reviewed the government’s implementation of Australia’s threatened species legislation, finding:

limited evidence that desired outcomes are being achieved, due to the department’s lack of monitoring, reporting and support for the implementation of conservation advice, recovery plans.

The national Threatened Species Strategy focuses on 100 species and a few iconic places. But more than 1,800 species and ecosystems are threatened with extinction.

And economic analyses indicate we currently spend about around 7% of the targeted A$1.6 billion per year required to halt species loss and recover nationally listed threatened species.

These findings were reinforced in 2020 by a major independent review of Australia’s environment law – Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

The review by Professor Graeme Samuel made 38 recommendations, but almost none have been implemented. They include establishing an Environment Assurance Commissioner, rigorous national environmental standards and resourcing compliance and enforcement of environmental regulations.

Failure to protect what we have

Land clearing is a key threat to Australian wildlife, yet the government has not made meaningful progress to halt it.

The hectares cleared in New South Wales over the last decade have tripled, and a staggering 2.5 million hectares have been cleared in Queensland between 2000 and 2018.

Worryingly, more than 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat have been cleared since the EPBC Act came into force (between 2000 and 2017), including 1 million hectares of koala habitat.

Invasive species – such as cats, foxes, rabbits, deer and buffel grass – continue to wreak havoc on many of our most endangered species.

Cats alone kill 1.7 billion native animals each year and threaten at least 120 species with extinction. While feral predator control has received some focus, the effort still falls well short of what’s required.

Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Lack of transparency and accountability

Official reviews have consistently found the federal government’s approach to protecting biodiversity lacks transparency and accountability.

Questions have also been raised about the federal government’s delay in releasing its five-yearly State of the Environment Report ahead of the election.

And investigations have raised serious concerns about how the government handled decisions regarding grasslands illegally destroyed by a company part-owned by a government minister.

long-nosed potoroo
The long-nosed potoroo is extremely vulnerable to cats and foxes. Shutterstock

A key advisor to the government recently labelled a major scheme to promote forest restoration as carbon credits as environmental and taxpayer 'fraud'.

A federal integrity commission, if it existed, could have explored these cases.

The government also continues to back activities that cause damage to biodiversity, including the fossil fuel and forestry industries.

On agriculture, the government is pursuing a 'biodiversity stewardship' policy, to financially reward farmers for protecting wildlife.

But ongoing approval of unsustainable land management practices, particularly land clearing (of which agriculture is responsible for the lion’s share) will likely overshadow any stewardship gains.

The 26 Australian frogs at greatest risk of extinction | Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

So what’s needed to prevent future extinctions?

Labor has not yet revealed its full suite of environment policies. This week it told Guardian Australia it will release more details before the election, and has called on the government to release the State of the Environment report.

So what policies are needed to reverse the biodiversity crisis? The answer is: spend more and destroy less.

Just two days of Coalition election promises (estimated at $833 million per day) would fund recovery for Australia’s entire list of threatened species for a year.

Systems for protecting biodiversity need stronger legal mandates and less discretion for ministers to override decisions about project approvals, species listing and other matters.

Biodiversity should be integrated into key aspects of government practice. For example, it makes no sense to invest in protecting koalas while simultaneously approving koala habitat clearing.

And we need investment in every threatened species, not just a hand-picked few.

bleached coral
The Great Barrier Reef this year suffered the fourth mass bleaching event since 2016. Shutterstock

Finally, transformative policies are needed to support the substantial opportunities to enhance and restore biodiversity. This includes:

The fate of nature underpins our economy and health. Yet in the election campaign to date, there’s been a deafening silence about it. The Conversation

Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University and Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of Ecosystem and Forest Science, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Published in STEP Matters 216

At last we have some good news to report. The country is breathing a sigh of relief following the defeat of the Morrison government, even expressing whoops of joy.

The major areas relating to the environment where we are hoping for big new effective policy change are outline below.

Energy

The new Albanese government has been thrown in the deep end with a crisis in energy supply. Gas and petrol prices have soared because of the war in Ukraine. Electricity has been in short supply because of the failure of several coal-fired power stations, the need to use expensive gas and the rise in demand in response to the cold snap. All these factors highlight the abysmal management and policies of the Morrison government.

At last we will see some real action with rapid expansion of the transmission grid to facilitate the use of renewable energy and more support for these projects. There is more positive action proposed to support the transition to use of electric vehicles. These actions will take time to be effective but 2030 is not far away!

The emissions reduction target will be improved to a 43% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030. This is still viewed as inadequate by the Climate Council and the ‘teal’ candidates. Labor is still not strong enough on closing down coal mines and stopping new projects.

A review will be held of Australia’s controversial carbon offset programs, to be conducted independently of government departments and agencies. This is vital for the effectiveness of plans to reach net zero emissions – see the previous STEP Matters.

Land clearing

Labor has promised to set a domestic target to protect 30% of land and 30% of sea areas by 2030.

Great Barrier Reef

Labor has promised to increase funding to tackle agricultural pollution, more sustainable fishing practices and research into thermal tolerant corals. But the really meaningful solution is rapid reduction in carbon emissions

Murray–Darling Basin

After years of the Nationals favouring big irrigators and undermining the Murray– Darling Basin Plan, the new government has a chance to restore more natural flows to the rivers of the Murray–Darling Basin, establish integrity and transparency for water management, and get the plan to revive our rivers back on track.

The review of the Murray–Darling Basin Plan will occur during this term of parliament, so there is the possibility of increasing water recovery targets towards what the science says is necessary for healthy rivers, wetlands and floodplains.

Biodiversity

The previous environment minister, Sussan Ley, refused to release the State of the Environment Report that was finalised last December. The new Minister for Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek has indicated that it tells an ‘alarming story’ of decline, native species extinction and cultural heritage loss. She will release the report in a speech to the National Press Club on 19 July.

Labor has promised to create a federal Environmental Protection Agency to improve environmental compliance, information and analysis. We hope this agency will be genuinely independent and have real teeth.

Furthermore, there’s been a failure to address one of the most egregious failings of our system which is to evaluate cumulative impacts of projects on the environment as opposed to a license by license approach.

Published in STEP Matters 216

The EPA released the three-yearly State of the Environment Report (SoE) in February. There are some pluses but mostly it paints a sorry picture. It boils down to the human impact from climate change and population growth.

The Australian SoE was sent to the Minister for the Environment, Susan Ley, in December. But it is has not been made public yet. The minister is required to table the report in parliament within 15 sitting days of receiving it. Parliament has sat only briefly this year so the government is not legally required to release it until the next parliament forms. What is she trying to hide?

For a change the NSW report does acknowledge the significance of population growth ‘population growth is the main driver of environmental issues’.

Yet, the NSW government’s top bureaucrats have urged the premier, Dominic Perrottet, to take a national leadership position and advocate a temporary five-year doubling of the pre-pandemic migration rate, which would increase the NSW population by about 2 million in 5 years. The argument is that this would rebuild the economy and address labour shortages.

The economy seems to be doing all right, thank you! Labour shortages seem to be a perpetual issue despite high immigration for most of this century. Perhaps it is more to do with wages being too low in the affected sectors of the economy. In 2018, Gladys Berejiklian, called for a pause to enable the state’s infrastructure to catch up. This still hasn’t happened.

Some pluses in this SoE report include:

  • Air and urban water quality are generally good but the state’s major inland river systems continue to be affected by water extraction, altered river flows, loss of connectivity and catchment changes such as altered land use and vegetation clearing.
  • Greenhouse gases are declining having fallen by 17% since 2005. Renewable energy sources have grown but they are still only 19% of electricity power in 2020. But, unlike the federal government, there is actually a plan to get to net zero by 2050.
  • About 9.6% of NSW is conserved in the public reserve system. The rate of new reservations has increased markedly, with around 305,000 ha being added to reserves since 2018.

What about biodiversity?

The story on biodiversity is very different. Much loss can be attributed to the Black Summer bushfires but the downward trend has accelerated due to climate change and land clearing.

Improvements have been made through the Saving our Species program. $175 million has been allocated to the program for the 10 years to 2026, and $240 million has been allocated over five years to support a greater commitment to long-term conservation of biodiversity on private land.

Land clearing is the greatest threat to biodiversity. Land clearing and logging of native forests continue at record levels (54,500 hectares in 2019). Unrealistic logging contracts are driving the rates of tree felling which is crazy when several reports have shown that the government is losing money on logging operations. Land clearing is now so bad that in February the koala was declared an endangered species under the Commonwealth EPBC Act.

Money is going into saving species but the amount of land clearing is likely to be creating more threatened species. Invasive species are also a major threat. The regulatory framework under the Biodiversity Conservation Act is failing as was predicted by environment groups and the EDO.

Published in STEP Matters 215
Friday, 17 December 2021 02:42

Feeling adrift in a sea of false hope

A couple of months ago, I sat in on an Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) event via Zoom for its donors and supporters that promoted its latest climate change campaign. As a long-serving councillor and former vice president of ACF, I was interested to hear about their campaign plans, which they explained are based on a poll of 15,000 people who indicated a desire for firm action on climate change. However, at the end of it, I felt isolated and alone. I felt I had moved on in my thinking, while ACF has not.

The presentations by senior ACF staff were earnest and uplifting and the comments posted in response were enthusiastic and supportive. But I felt myself estranged from the event. I found myself recalling how often, over my 30 years of enthusiastic involvement with ACF, I had felt uplifted and inspired by the same style of presentations by ACF’s key personnel. Now, not so and it felt a bit like having lost a faith.

So, what has changed for me as ACF barrels along in its customary manner? It comes down to a realisation that ACF, and environmentalism more generally, is stuck with talking about the symptoms of the environmental crisis, while ignoring the underlying causes. It is also locked into a largely fruitless campaign mode that is focused on targeting marginal seats in each Federal election. This has been its style since I joined its council in the 1980s and it remains a deeply entrenched, culturally embedded modus operandi.

The ACF people are intelligent, well-meant and deeply committed environmentalists, and for that they have my great respect. But they, and seemingly their supporters and donors who joined in this event, now appear to me to be tunnel-visioned and misguided in their fervour. First, and foremost, there is the assumption that climate change is the major existential threat that ACF and the wider environmental movement must address. It is their highest priority. And second, there is the additional assumption that this threat can be averted through a political campaign focussed on key marginal seats that will somehow bring about a radically different response. I hear myself thinking, ‘same old, same old’, looking back over forty years of ACF campaigning strategy. When will the penny drop that this is a fruitless strategy?

I could have submitted a comment to the event along the following lines:

When will ACF connect its climate change and biodiversity work to a deeper sustainability agenda that encompasses population growth, consumption, economic growth and technology – the underlying drivers of imminent collapse?

That would have been a real ‘party pooper’ contribution that I am sure would not have been welcomed by the ACF organisers on the night. It probably also would have been dismissed as inappropriate or irrelevant by most of the supporters and donors participating in the event.

The reality is that these deeper and more complex issues have been either ignored or dismissed by most ACF staff for much of its existence. This is despite the efforts of a number of its elected councillors and former Presidents over many years (ranging from Sir Garfield Barwick in the early 1970s to Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe more recently), to draw attention to them. The focus within ACF staff remains on an agenda dominated by the twin environmental pillars of climate change and biodiversity. But it would be unfair to level this criticism only at ACF. The environmental movement more generally, both here in Australia and in most other Western countries overseas, has largely displayed the same myopia in framing their campaigning and advocacy efforts.

As to the reasons for this behaviour, a fellow ex-ACF councillor, Jonathan Miller, offered me recently the following salient observations:

  • The internal perception that it is easier to attract public support for issues such as climate change and biodiversity than for complex and less tangible issues such as population growth, consumption and economic growth.
  • The additional perception that tackling the drivers of unsustainability is more difficult conceptually, much harder to win in the long-term and that it is more difficult to identify ‘wins’ to supporters and members.
  • A shift in the profile of ACF (and other ENGO organisation) activists and their collective culture from those who deeply understand and love the bush (e.g. bushwalkers and those with natural science degrees) to those with broader social issue concerns (and whom, in turn, are particularly reluctant to tackle issues such as immigration-driven population growth in Australia).

Reinforcing the first of these points, the US founder of the Post Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg, has offered the following observation about environmentalists more generally in a recent blog (The Only Long-Range Solution to Climate Change, Museletter #343 September 2021):

It’s understandable why most environmentalists frame global warming the way they do (by targeting the fossil fuel industry). It makes solutions seem easier to achieve. But if we’re just soothing ourselves while failing to actually stave off disaster, or even to understand our problems, what’s the point?

This succinctly echoes exactly where my own thoughts have arrived at after over 40 years of involvement with environmental law and environmentalism. I have come to believe that:

  • climate change is essentially a symptom (admittedly a very powerful one) of an underlying ‘growth’ disease; and
  • that the current political system, which is the hand maiden of capitalism and completely in its capture, is incapable of producing an effective response to climate change, much less the deeper challenge of avoiding ecological collapse and transitioning to sustainability.

On the latter score, the efforts by ACF and other ENGO’s to scramble for the crumbs falling from the table at each, successive federal election, seem both flawed and largely fruitless. Over the years, even though ACF does not directly support any political party, it has often engaged in targeting marginal seats where the ALP may have a chance of defeating the Coalition. The relationship with the Australian Greens has remained strained. And, after watching on ABC TV this week the first episode of the series, Big Deal, which laid bare the lack of any safeguards with respect to corporate political donations, it is clear where the most powerful influences on federal politics come from.

So, this is why I am left feeling alone and isolated. Where are the voices to raise the larger sustainability agenda? What is the point of environmentalism, however well-intentioned, if it proceeds in almost deliberate disregard of this larger agenda? How can this agenda be pursued when those most likely to support it do not, or are not willing to, recognise it? And what is the point of trying to engage with the current, corrupt political system in which a large proportion of Australian citizens have lost all confidence?

My response to these questions, perhaps surprisingly, remains hopeful. There are many voices emerging globally in support of a deeper sustainability agenda, including some luminaries in Australia. Environmentalism has been a meritorious movement over the past fifty years but it now must be seen as one that is limited in its vision and incapable of promoting a deeper sustainability agenda. This agenda must and will emerge from other sources and directions. And the goal must be to promote this agenda through radical social, economic and political reforms – these will be the pathways of the transition to a sustainable future that embodies ecological resilience and a human civilisation that is living within its means.

To develop these ideas further, I am engaged currently in writing a book entitled The Great Transition: From the Anthropocene to the Ecolocene which I hope to get published in about eighteen months from now.

This article is reproduced with permission. It was published in the Sustainable Population Australia newsletter, issue #145, November 2021. It was written by Rob Fowler, Adjunct Professor at the School of Law, University of Adelaide. He was a vice-president of the ACF from 2008 to 2015.

Published in STEP Matters 213

In May 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its global assessment of the state of the earth’s biodiversity and its prospects for change up to 2050. This is the first such report since the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment published in 2005. The IPBES Assessment is the outcome of negotiations by 134 governments using data provided by 500 biodiversity experts from over 50 countries.

The aim of the IPBES Assessment is explained by its chair, Sir Robert Watson:

The loss of species, ecosystems and genetic diversity is already a global and generational threat to human well-being. Protecting the invaluable contributions of nature to people will be the defining challenge of decades to come. Policies, efforts and actions – at every level – will only succeed, however, when based on the best knowledge and evidence. This is what the IPBES Global Assessment provides.

It examines causes of biodiversity and ecosystem change, the implications for people, policy options and likely future pathways over the next three decades if current trends continue, and other scenarios.

My question is how did IPBES work out the number of species existing and at risk of extinction?

How many species are there?

Several different approaches have been used to estimate the actual total number of species on earth. Frankly it is impossible to know the number with any reasonable level of precision. The various methods give a very wide range of answers – from 3 million to over 100 million. Most of the more recent estimates based on thoughtful approaches are in range of 5 to 20 million.

The main point is to understand the relative level of extinction that could take place. We are finding new species all the time. There are frequent reports of excursions into rainforest finding lots of new beetles or other insect species. New species are even being found in our local area, viz Julian’s Hibbertia.

The report uses the results of a study published in 2011 [1]. The study uses data of past records showing how the knowledge of the number of phyla, classes, families, genii and species for each taxa have increased over time. For each level of the description hierarchy (phyla, class, etc) if fewer and fewer new types are being found then it is assumed that we are getting close to finding the final actual number. The method fits a regression line to the asymptotic graph of the known number over time to estimate the point where the line would reach the limit of increases. Then the phyla build into the number of classes and so on.

graphOne argument in favour of this method is that species that are yet to be identified are living in small numbers or in niche areas so they are of less significance in terms of total life on the planet.

This approach was validated against well-known taxa such as mammals. When applied to all eukaryote kingdoms the approach predicted:

  • ∼7.77 million species of animals
  • ∼298,000 species of plants
  • ∼611,000 species of fungi
  • ∼36,400 species of protozoa
  • ∼27,500 species of chromists

In total the approach predicted that ∼8.74 million species of eukaryotes exist on earth. Restricting this approach to marine taxa resulted in a prediction of 2.21 million eukaryote species in the world's oceans.

In spite of 250 years of taxonomic classification and over 1.2 million species already catalogued in a central database, the study’s results suggest that some 86% of existing species on earth and 91% of species in the ocean still await description.

How did IPBES derive the million at risk figure?

Species are defined as being at risk of extinction if their numbers are declining to the extent that the population may no longer be viable. They may not become totally extinct for a long time. For example, plants may live for many years but may not be reproducing.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species’ definitions of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered are used to encompass the overall concept of being at risk of extinction.

The IUCN Red List is the world's most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species. It uses a set of quantitative criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species. These criteria are relevant to most species and all regions of the world. With its strong scientific base, the IUCN Red List is recognised as the most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity.

Currently the IUCN Red List status is that 36% of the 47,677 species assessed are threatened with extinction, which represents:

  • 21% of mammals
  • 30% of amphibians
  • 12% of birds
  • 28% of reptiles
  • 37% of freshwater fishes
  • 70% of plants
  • 35% of invertebrates

that have been assessed.

Averaged across all the taxonomic groups of animals and plants that have had IUCN Red List assessments, about 25% of species are threatened. But the sparse data for insects so far suggest it might be lower – estimates range from 10 to 15% – so IPBES used a figure of 10% that might turn out to be conservative. If insects are three-quarters of animal and plant species, there are 5.5 million of them, of which 10% are threatened (so, more than half a million insect species are threatened). If 25% of the other 2.6 million species are threatened, that’s more than half a million non-insect species threatened. Hence the rounded total figure is about 1 million species at risk of extinction.

Are the headlines about loss of species meaningful?

Some very broad assumptions have been used in coming up with the figure of 1 million species at risk of extinction over the next few decades. One wonders if this is a meaningful exercise.

Are people going to take more notice of this announcement?

Is there a better way of illustrating the significance of the threat of massive biodiversity loss over the next few decades?

Maybe the percentages quoted earlier mean more, such as 70% of plants and 21% of mammals?

Another factor that may be more significant is the loss of biomass of plants and animals. Recent studies have pointed to the significant decline in biomass of insects. Dr Sanchez-Bayo from Sydney University pointed this out in a recent paper to the journal Biological Conservation [2].

Besides all the important functions that insects play in our ecosystems - such as pollination, or recycling nutrients - they are also an essential element in the food chain that supports life on our planet. When the insects go, the frogs, birds and mammals don't have food.

The IPBES Assessment is mostly devoted to describing the reasons for species decline and what should be done about it. The reasons are not hard to find: exploitation, land clearing, weed and pathogen invasion, climate change.

Currently biodiversity law and policy is inadequate to redress the situation. If we are to halt the continued loss of nature, then the world’s legal, institutional and economic systems must be reformed entirely. And this change needs to happen immediately.

Reference

[1] Mora, C; Tittensor, DP; Adl, S; Simpson, AGB; Worm, B (2011) How Many Species are there on Earth and in the Ocean? PLOS Biol 9(8): e1001127

[2] Sánchez-Bayo, F and Wyckhuys, KAG (2019) Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of its Drivers. Biological Conservation 232, 8–27

Published in STEP Matters 201

It is estimated that there are fewer than 21,000 koalas left in NSW. The population may have reduced by more than a quarter over the past 20 years. The species is listed as vulnerable to extinction under the federal EPBC Act in NSW.

The major reason for the decline is habitat loss with the worst areas being in the Pilliga and South Coast. NSW is a heavily cleared landscape. Almost 40% of native forests and bushland has been removed since European settlement, and only 9% of remaining vegetation is in close-to-natural condition.

Eastern Australia is one of the world’s top 11 deforestation hotspots, along with the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo according to a report prepared by the NCC and WWF. Between 1990 and 2016, at least 2 million hectares of forest and bushland in NSW have been destroyed out of the total state area of 81 million hectares.

So what is being done about this? There are a number of decisions over recent years that will make the situation worse:

  1. As a result of the new biodiversity laws implemented in 2017, 99% of identified koala habitat on private land can be bulldozed.
  2. Last November the government commenced new logging laws called Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals. The laws reduce protections for forest wildlife, including koalas. One of the worst changes is the introduction of an intensive harvesting zone over 140,000 ha of coastal forest between Taree and Grafton. The intensive harvesting zone will see large-scale clear-felling legalised on the north coast for the first time. Because most of the trees will be gone, it’s likely that most of the koalas will be too!
  3. In December the Premier Gladys Berejiklian gave the green light to renew the Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) with the Commonwealth for another 20 years. RFAs are the mechanism by which the states are permitted to log native forests under accreditation from the Commonwealth. They are meant to balance the needs of the logging industry with conservation and public recreation. Conservationists argue that the RFAs have not been properly reassessed with a thorough scientific analysis of the values of native forests, for example for carbon storage and enhancement of catchment water.

NSW Koala Strategy

One positive development, albeit with limitations, is the government announcement last May of a strategy aimed at securing the future of koalas in the wild. $45m has been committed. It involves:

  • setting aside 20,000 ha of state forest as koala reserves on the Central Coast, Southern Highlands, North Coast, Hawkesbury and Hunter
  • transferring 4,000 ha of native forest on the North Coast to national parks
  • allocating $20m to purchase prime koala habitat that can be added to national parks

However the strategy fails to commit to protecting areas known to be home to koalas from a major intensification of logging in state forests under new IFOA laws.

In early February 2019, as the election looms, some parts of the strategy have been implemented. A cattle property once used as a recreational dirt motorbike and horse recreation area has been bought by the NSW government to become part of the first national park to be gazetted in NSW in 11 years. It borders the Wollondilly River in the Southern Highlands and is about 3,680 ha. Actually 1,150 ha of this land is already protected so the addition is only 2,164 ha. There is no information about how much of this area is currently cleared and degraded from its previous use. How long before it becomes genuine koala habitat?

Great Koala National Park is a Better Idea

The National Parks Association has developed a proposal that will provide definite security for koala populations. This is for a 175,000 ha Great Koala National Park on the NSW mid-north coast, new national parks for the last remaining koala populations in southwest and western Sydney, or new national parks in other areas of known koala significance. The choice of the north coast has been confirmed as most effective by studies completed by the Office of Environment and Heritage, copies of which were obtained under Freedom of Information laws.

Funding Announced for Improvements to Popular National Parks

Another government announcement is for a $150m investment to improve access to existing national parks that includes upgraded walking tracks, better visitor facilities and new digital tools such as virtual tours and live-streaming cameras. The main investment is in the Blue Mountains and Royal National Park where visitor numbers have increased rapidly. This is all aimed at the tourist dollar, not conservation that is meant to be the main purpose of national parks.

Will there be an increase in funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to look after the additional reserves? After the massive cuts in funding of the service highlighted in previous issues of STEP Matters one wonders!

Removal of Feral Horses from Kosciuszko National Park has been Stopped

In December the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee declared feral horses to be a key threatening process because they place dozens of species at risk closer to extinction. In response a spokesman for Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the government was preparing a plan of management that would:

identify the heritage value of sustainable wild horse populations and set out how those will be protected while maintaining environmental values.

That goal will be impossible to achieve.

Meanwhile, in response to the passing of the Wild Horse Kosciuszko Act, the number of feral horses being removed by current methods has been reduced to nil since August 2017 even though the Act was not passed until June 2018. The Invasive Species Council has obtained data showing that the peak number of removals was 600 in 2012.

The Nationals Parks and Wildlife Service in 2016 estimated there were 6000 brumbies in Kosciuszko National Park. Scientists estimate the population may grow by up to 20% a year. The drought though is believed to have curtailed brumby numbers.

Labor has committed to repeal the legislation to protect the brumbies.

Published in STEP Matters 199
Monday, 13 August 2018 19:11

NSW Government News

2018 Budget

The NSW government is flush with money thanks to the property boom. But, according to the Opposition, the June budget continued the trend of spending below the budget allocation and cutting future allocations to the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) for a second year. OEH contains the National Parks and Wildlife Service where 26% of permanent rangers and 35% of area managers have been dismissed.

Last financial year there was a large under-spend of $165 million and this year there was a budget cut of $66 million for the OEH. Together this is $231 million less funding available to spend on the state’s environmental challenges.

$231 million is equivalent to 20% of all spending allocated to OEH in 2018-19.The budget for the OEH is less than the government’s first budget eight years ago.

I did try to verify these figures from the Budget Papers but they keep on changing the descriptions of funding categories so it is impossible to compare year on year figures.

Another Challenge to the Land Clearing Codes

Conservationists have been very unhappy about the NSW government’s attitude to the environment for a long time. One of their worst actions is the relaxation of the land clearing codes under the so-called Biodiversity Conservation Act.

In March the Nature Conservation Council won a case in the Land and Environment Court that declared the native vegetation clearing code that came into force in August 2017 was invalid. The grounds for the decision were based on a technicality that the primary industries minister failed to follow due process and obtain the concurrence of the environment minister before making the codes, as required by law. The government immediately reintroduced the same codes without any consideration of the objections for scientists.

Now the Nature Conservation Council has found better grounds to fight against the land clearing code and has launched another legal action through the Environment Defenders Office (EDO).

On the basis of the documents received under freedom of information laws, it appears that the minister for the environment failed to give proper, genuine and realistic consideration to the decision to grant concurrence for the making of the 2018 code and to the principles of ecologically sustainable development, as required by law. The documents indicate that the minister for the environment did not have sufficient time or material to enable to her to make the decision and that as a result, the 2018 code was made unlawfully.

The CEO of the EDO David Morris has stated:

This is a remarkable state of affairs. The legal regime makes it clear: the responsibility for ensuring that the code does not have an unacceptable impact on the environment lies with the Environment Minister. The code is predicted to have significant and far reaching impacts to biodiversity.

Further Details of the Code

The land clearing code allows landholders to carry out significant amounts of self-assessed clearing of native vegetation without further approval or environmental assessment, including in areas that might be home to threatened species and ecological communities. It doesn’t require any cumulative assessment of greenhouse gas emissions arising from clearing under the code. Under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 both clearing and climate change are listed as key threatening processes to biodiversity. Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to biodiversity.

While the 2017 code was intended to be released with native vegetation regulatory maps to assist landholders to identify where clearing of native vegetation on rural can and cannot occur, those maps are yet to be released, which means landholders continue to be required to self-assess whether such land management clearing codes even apply to their land.

If this case is successful, it will mean that there has not been a valid code in force under the act since the new native vegetation laws came into force. Given the ongoing legal uncertainty around the code, any clearing done in reliance on the code is potentially unlawful.

Published in STEP Matters 197
Monday, 13 August 2018 19:09

Biodiversity in Ku-ring-gai

Over 700 native plant species and 300 vertebrate species have been recorded in Ku-ring-gai. On 19 June Chelsea Hankin (council’s Natural Areas Officer) gave an overview of council’s fauna monitoring program, including the latest results of their three long-term monitoring programs. She made the following points.

batGrey-headed Flying-fox

The Ku-ring-gai Flying-fox Reserve (KFFR) in Gordon has been home to flying-foxes since the 1960s with reports of occupation in the 1940s.

Every third Thursday in the month (in collaboration with Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society and regular volunteers) council conduct fly-out counts at strategic locations surrounding the KFFR.

Monthly counts provide long term data and ties in with the national census.

Numbers flying-foxes have fluctuated, though a downward trend is clear.

KFFR is important during extreme heat when temperatures climb to over 40°C because it has good structural complexity of vegetation layers (canopy, mid- and understorey) so flying-foxes are able to move down into the lower cooler layers of vegetation.

pygEastern Pygmy Possum

The Eastern Pygmy Possum monitoring program has been running for more than three years in collaboration with volunteers.

28 nest boxes have been installed.

Eastern Pygmy Possums have not been identified on the western Lane Cove NP side of the LGA. We’ve had continued presence of EPP in areas with connectivity to either Ku-ring-gai Chase NP or Garigal NP, with evidence of successful breeding.

Eastern Pygmy-possum have been observed foraging on a range of flora species, including Banksia ericifolia, B. spinulosa, B. serrata, Lambertia formosa, Angophora hispida and Callistemon citrinus.

Cameras have detected plenty of other wildlife: Swamp Wallabies, Feathertail Glider, Brushtail Possum, Antechinus and Sugar Glider.

Microbats

Council began monitoring microbats at Pool to Pond (WildThings program) sites and creek lines in 2017. In 2018 the program was expanded to include natural bushland areas, wetlands, golf course dams and backyards without water features (a total of 64 sites).

Thirteen species have been detected, half of which are threatened.

The three most common species have been Eastern Freetail Bat, Eastern Bentwing-bat (threatened) and Gould’s Wattled Bat (a generalist species and highly adaptable to the urban landscape – sometimes seen taking advantage of insect concentrations around lights).

The specialist fishing bat Southern Myotis (threatened) has only been detected at larger bodies of water like dams, creeks and sediment ponds/wetlands. Southern Myotis require open stretches of water without clutter (aquatic vegetation or algae on surface) so they can ‘trawl’ using their large feet to catch small fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Three new records have confirmed the presence of Chalinolobus dwyeri, a species which until now had only been recorded once in 1992.

Freshwater Crayfish

Targeted surveys of freshwater crayfish in the last year have shown that two native species are co-existing, Euastacus australasiensis and E. spinifex.

Report Sightings

Contribute to council’s biodiversity database by report interesting fauna sightings to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Useful Apps

FrogID    https://www.frogid.net.au

OzAtlas   https://www.ala.org.au/who-we-are/downloadable-tools/ala-mobile-app/ contribute directly to the Atlas of Living Australia database

Published in STEP Matters 197
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:32

Biodiversity Laws Court Case

The Nature Conservation Council with the help of the Environmental Defenders Office won the case challenging the process of implementation of the land clearing codes.

The court decision was an opportunity for Premier Berejiklian to amend the bad laws her government had implemented and make some key improvements to protect habitat.

Instead, she has chosen to stick rigidly with the same destructive laws and ignore the science that highlighted the likely destruction. By the government’s own assessment, they will lead to a spike in clearing of up to 45% and expose threaten wildlife habitat to destruction, including 99% of identified koala habitat on private land.

Published in STEP Matters 195

The Australian government has a framework of strategies and programs for the management of biodiversity. According to the Department of Environment and Energy, Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy 2010–2030 guides how governments, the community, industry and scientists manage and protect Australia's plants, animals and ecosystems.

The recent review of the strategy is puzzling. A well-defined program seems to have been thrown out the window in its implementation but some parts of it are working well such as the Threatened Species Action program.

The Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia recently released their joint submission on the 2018–19 budget. This revealed that the Australian government has slashed environment spending by one-third since 2013. This cut in spending is one of the reasons for the sorry record in maintaining biodiversity.

State of the Environment reports document the extent of the problem. For example, between 2011 and 2015, there was a 66% increase in the number of critically endangered animals (from 38 in 2011 to 63 in 2015) and a 28% increase in critically endangered plants (112 in 2011; 143 in 2015). By critically endangered, we mean that extinction is a real possibility in the short term for these species. Immediate action is needed if we are to avoid terminating millions of years of independent evolution, as these biological lineages die out.

2010 Biodiversity Strategy

The Australian government first developed a biodiversity strategy in 1996. An update was made in 2010. It is intended to provide a guiding framework for all levels of government to conserve our national biodiversity over the next 20 years.

The document is comprehensive, comprising 100 pages. It provides an overview of the state of Australia’s biodiversity and outlines collective priorities for conservation. The vision of this strategy is that Australia’s biodiversity is healthy and resilient to threats, and valued both in its own right and for its essential contribution to our existence.

The strategy identifies three national priorities for action to help stop the decline in Australia's biodiversity:

  • engaging all Australians in biodiversity conservation
  • building ecosystem resilience in a changing climate
  • getting measurable results

The strategy contains 10 interim quantified national targets for the first five years.

Five Year Review of the Strategy

A review of the first five years of the strategy was released in 2016.

The review report is very critical of the strategy but to my mind the main reason is that not enough effort has gone into its implementation. For example it is criticised for being long and technical but also for providing inadequate guidance for decision makers to determine how best to direct investment for biodiversity conservation. That detail would have made the document much longer and even more technical. There is confusion in the review between the roles of the strategy and the programs to implement action.

New Strategy – How can they be Serious?

On 25 November 2016, Australian, state and territory environment ministers agreed to revise the 2010 strategy taking into account the findings of the five year review.

Called Australia’s Strategy for Nature 2018–2030: Australia’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Inventory, the draft revised strategy is open for public comment until 16 March 2018. Click here to make a submission.

In response to the review the government has thrown out the baby with the bath water. The Department of Environment and Energy’s website states:

The strategy has been revised to improve its ability to drive change in biodiversity management priorities, and its alignment with Australia's international biodiversity commitments.

How can that be? The 100 page document has been replaced by one with 17 pages. There is a complete absence of actions, only statements about what could be done.

Vision

The vision of the new draft is that:

Australia’s nature, now and into the future, is healthy and resilient to threats, and valued both in its own right and for its essential contribution to our health, wellbeing, prosperity and quality of life.

Basically unchanged from the previous strategy.

How much information can be contained in a 17 page document that uses up lots of pages in preambles and background?

The goals are simplistic to say the least; that is:

  • to connect people with nature
  • to care for nature
  • to build and share knowledge

The priorities in meeting these goals as described are all text book stuff. They could be applied to any country. There is nothing specific to Australia’s characteristics and biodiversity situation. As usual with the current governments there is no mention of climate change.

Here are three quotes to give an idea of the lack of specifics:

Objective 3. Increase understanding of the value of nature

Australians understanding of the value of nature, and its role in health and wellbeing can be improved through increasing children’s learning about nature, encouraging organisations and businesses to report their performance against environmental measures, or using environmental accounts to more clearly demonstrate the value of nature.

Objective 8. Use and develop natural resources in an ecologically sustainable way

… Sustainable use and management of natural resources can be achieved through strategic planning and trade-offs between use and protection …

Objective 10. Increase knowledge about nature to make better decisions

There are opportunities to target research to reduce gaps in knowledge and improve management strategies, to support development and implementation of innovative tools and techniques, and to build connections between the environmental disciplines and social sciences …

Is there any Action Guidance?

The draft strategy devotes one whole page to the proposed actions but there is no proposed action. The proposal is for governments to develop an ‘action inventory’, a giant database that will illustrate efforts that ‘contribute to the strategy’s goal and objectives’. The content of this one page then goes on to suggest what information might be included and who might find the inventory useful:

It is a concept for testing and discussion. The online capabilities, content and timelines for an action inventory are yet to be finalised and will be informed by this consultation process.

Threatened Species Action

The biodiversity document is puzzling when there are examples of successful action. In 2015 the government launched a threatened species strategy and promised to make it a priority. The year one report card showed that 21 of the 26 objectives in that report were achieved. The targets and actions were clearly defined and included tackling feral cats and fox-baiting programs. Certain species were identified for action to improve their population numbers and habitat. This contrasts with the overall biodiversity strategy that should be focused on actions that reduce the risks of more species becoming threatened such as land clearing and increasing the reserve system.

The government doesn’t seem to know what to do about our loss of biodiversity or are they just totally disinterested?

Published in STEP Matters 194
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