In 1999, Robert Hill’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act (EPBC Act) was enacted. One of its hard-fought provisions was that threatened species (and ecological communities) had to be considered as part of any development. Attached to the Act was a list of the species to be considered.
This original EPBC list was inherited from the former Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council. The Council created an amalgam of lists from the states and territories. Each list had a different level of skill and thoroughness in its making, and degree of sensitivity to local politics and special pleading.
Since then it has been managed by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, a group of eminent biologists from around the country with expertise in different animal and plant groups. They advise the minister on what should be listed and what not.
However, though the committee has put in long hours, it is a cumbersome process, dependent in large part on ad hoc public submissions. Changes since the original composition of the list have been few compared to the number needed. There are still errors from the original list that fail to reflect real extinction risk.
The result is that the EPBC list looks quite different to the lists of Australian threatened species developed under the guidelines of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Yet the IUCN Red List guidelines, refined over a 50 year period and applied globally, differ little from the criteria used for EPBC listing.
A recent review of the status of Australian birds shows the discord with current EPBC Act listing. The review concluded that 54 bird species or subspecies are missing from the EPBC Act list but meet the IUCN Red List criteria. That is, they merit listing but aren’t listed, and hence have no protection under the EPBC Act.
Another 22 bird species and susbpecies listed as threatened under the EPBC Act shouldn’t be – meaning that companies all over the country are put through hoops protecting species that aren’t threatened. And, because these are often relatively common, they make up most of the referrals for approval, absorbing vast amounts of company and public time and money.
Just 88 are listed as threatened on both lists, of which 45 have exactly the same status.
This high level of disagreement, between what is listed as threatened under the EPBC Act and what should be listed, is similarly evident in a recent (but not yet published) assessment of the status of Australian mammals.
So why the difference?
The principal reason is administrative inefficiency. The EPBC Act process is reactive and slow, based mostly on an annual set of public nominations of a small set of species, and a long assessment period.
Though not perfect, the Red List process is more systematic, with the status of some groups, such as birds and mammals, being reviewed globally every four years. While many plants, invertebrates and reptiles are reviewed less regularly or comprehensively, the review system is now considered good enough to allow assessment of species status to be used as a measure of progress against the Millennium Development Goals and the Convention for Biological Diversity – an approach recently applied to Australian birds.
In Australia, bird reviews are undertaken under the auspices of the NGO, BirdLife Australia. BirdLife Australia provides advice to the IUCN through a series of voluntary committees involving experienced ornithologists in each jurisdiction.
Involving BirdLife International, which is responsible for maintaining the Red List for birds, ensures consistency across the globe. The process is independent of government and tries to be as objective as possible, sometimes in the face of intense lobbying.
To their credit, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee is making renewed efforts to rationalise the EPBC list to reflect reality, but that too is proving arduous. However, a failure to do so risks losing the protections of the EPBC Act altogether.
The inconsistencies are certainly contributing to the push against “green tape” that might see all powers to protect species returned to the states. The list needs to be reliable and credible to be effective and to deliver conservation protection where it is most needed.
Over coming months we will be profiling Australia’s critically endangered animals. See the list here.