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Let’s put threatened species on the election agenda

The Coalition will instate a Commissioner for Threatened Species should it form government, according to shadow environment minister Greg Hunt. The minister says that, while management plans for threatened…

Our threatened species, like this young Leadbeater’s Possum, need some attention. Flickr/Greens MPs

The Coalition will instate a Commissioner for Threatened Species should it form government, according to shadow environment minister Greg Hunt. The minister says that, while management plans for threatened species exist, they are not being enacted thoroughly enough.

For many the announcement is the first sign of relief in a campaign, from both major parties, that has been almost devoid of positive environmental policies. Most Australians do not want more of our species to become extinct, even if it does mean some constraints on development.

So, what needs to change if we’re to look after our threatened species properly?

The Coalition’s announcement also responds to messages underlying recommendations from a senate report on threatened species released last week – although a Commissioner was not explicitly recommended.

Out of the report’s 44 recommendations, five stand out.

The first is to bring the “official” roll-call of threatened species lists up-to-date. Review after review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) have recommended that the lists be updated regularly. Over 80% of the species on the list were simply adopted from an old list prepared in the 1990s.

Some should not be there at all – in fact there is one bird on the list, the Roper River Scrub-robin - that never existed – it was almost certainly a fraud.

Other species on the list are now known to be common, not threatened, and drive both government regulators and industry to distraction. Because they are on the list, conditions have to be imposed on proposals that insist on conservation work for species that need no protection.

Worse still are the species that should be on the lists but aren’t. The pace of threatened species bureaucracy is not keeping up with our growing knowledge about threatened species. Such unlisted threatened species live now in an administrative limbo in which they have no protection from development (or other factors).

While the existing vetting body (the Threatened Species Scientific Committee) does its level best to keep up with public nominations to get on the list, the process is hopelessly under-resourced and woefully slow.

The senate inquiry recommends that the process of adding or deleting species from the official list of threatened species should be expedited using the pool of talent and goodwill present in the wider community of experts.

The second major recommendation is for dedicated threatened species funding. A few years ago the Commonwealth began to emphasise a landscape approach to biodiversity conservation rather than funding many individual programs for particular threatened species. This policy change was hoping to focus on the causes and broader picture of landscape dysfunction rather than on the symptoms (individual threatened species).

But the change led to abandonment of the essential management of individual threatened species and their threats, and has had some catastrophic consequences. As recognised by the senate inquiry, there needs to be a balanced portfolio of investment in both landscapes and species.

Our research suggests that A$10 million a year should secure all Australian birds from extinction. We estimate that dedicated funding of about A$100 million a year could prevent further extinctions of just about all Australian species.

The amounts are not unreasonable. Importantly most of the money would go into creating jobs in rural and remote areas where the threatened species live, strengthening local community economies and giving value to lands that are often useless for farming or other commercial use.

Also, threatened species investments are highly effective. A submission to the inquiry from BirdLife Australia listed a string of extraordinary successes in threatened species management in Australia. We can turn things around and secure Australia’s natural heritage for the price of two cappuccinos per Australian per year. The latest success is the extraordinarily well-conceived and executed removal of rabbits and rodents from Macquarie Island, but there have been many others over the years.

The senate also recommends long-term funding be committed. AusAid now makes commitments to fund programs for eight years with potential to extend after reviews at four years. Threatened species funding should adopt the same approach. It is inconceivable that the deep-rooted problems affecting many Australian threatened species can be remedied in the one to three-year projects typical of conservation grants. The inevitable consequences of such ephemeral funding is chaotic project management, failure, frustration, waste and concern from auditors due to the poor return on investment. The management of threatened species is a long-term commitment.

The fourth key recommendation is to spend the money efficiently. Scattering the money to squeaky lobby groups and needy electorates will squander it. Australia leads the world in research on how best to allocate conservation funds. The Commonwealth, through the National Environment Research Program, funds a centre led by one of us for this very purpose. Research on cost-effective conservation allocation is already being followed by Tasmania, New South Wales and New Zealand. It is time for the Commonwealth to act on the findings of its own far-sighted research investments

Finally threatened species conservation needs proper research and planning. All successful conservation programs to date have been built on a good knowledge base. That then feeds into good planning. A random sample of recovery plans suggested that they fail as often as they succeed.

But the good ones, such as the South Coast Threatened Bird Recovery Plan in Western Australia, have proved critical to threatened species management, bringing together diverse teams with a common purpose to retain one or more species for our descendants to enjoy. The Senate committee recommends that a collaborative recovery planning approach, bringing together all key actors likely to be involved in recovery, be supported. We concur, provided such teams are managed properly.

There is still time for the major parties to commit to retaining all species in Australia. Such a commitment would be good value at twice the price. But it will require more than wishful thinking and platitudes: this recent senate inquiry provides the strategic approach on which enduring success can be built.

Join the conversation

32 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Sullivan

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Some of the 20 birds listed as critically endangered are at a extremely high risk of extinction on the next Australian Government’s watch. Yet, as this article explains, $10 million could secure the future of all threatened birds. BirdLife Australia is urging both major parties to fund the implementation of national recovery plans for threatened birds here: http://www.savethebirds.org.au/give-threatened-birds-a-voice/

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  2. Jason Begg
    Jason Begg is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Perpetually Baffled Lawnmower Man

    Thanks for this important article.

    It is very sad and a deplorable reflection of mainstream politics that these crucial issues are not more prevalent in the discourse regarding Australia's future.

    Greg Hunt seems like a really decent bloke with great intentions, but Tony Abbott seems to have a deliberate antipathy towards environmental issues and wants to treat 'environmentalism' as getting in the way of 'progress'.

    Hopefully decency can prevail and far greater political will can be harnessed to do something meaningful to help ensure the survival of our fellow creatures facing extinction.

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  3. Jenny Goldie

    president at Sustainable Population Australia

    Thanks for this article. It is surprising how little money is required to save bird species from extinction. Nevertheless, if birds are to be saved, so must their habitats. While human population continues to grow in Australia, there will be constant pressure on these habitats from urban and agricultural expansion. There must be strict laws to protect state and national parks from 'multiple use'. Farmers must be helped to restore natural habitats on their land. There needs to be a cultural change away from anthropocentrism to a situation whereby other species get the attention they deserve in order to survive.

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  4. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

    Boss

    "Let’s put threatened species on the election agenda"
    Ummm.. they are, they are called Greens.

    More seriously, do you have established guidelines for when to put the effort into reviving a species (however defined) and letting it go along the lines of survival of the fittest?
    The orange bellied parrot in west Tasmania caused some discussion along these lines 30 years ago, but I did not follow up if it ever came to anything. We were exploring part of S-W Tasmania south of Macquarie Harbour, what was claimed to be habitat and it was so desolate and uninteresting for just about everything that I thought that a bird that chose to live there had been pushed there as a last gasp after failing the competition for life test.

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    1. Colin Cook

      Scientist At Large

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      It's not about getting the ideas raised in Parliament; the Greens are doing a good job there. It's getting the major parties to actually consider environmental issues as a necessity, not as a vote buyer. Biodiversity funding in this country is appallingly low and our environmental performance in many things is pretty shabby. We're ranked 48th in the world on environmental performance (http://epi.yale.edu/epi2012/countryprofiles). The major parties don't currently care about this: how do we make them care?

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    2. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Colin Cook

      Colin,
      The same low rank and underfunding claim could be made about many things.
      I'd say the Guvmint orta do somefing about the state of our Navy, given that the submarine capacity is low and ragged - partly because modern nuclear subs are not an option, policy decision.
      We certainly need to do somefing about the delivery of medical care to the population. Earlier this week, my wife waited for 2 hours on an ambulance stretcher at a major hospital before we left in disgust and went elsewhere, not even having seen a medico there. Her condition appeared life-threatening, could not speak or use her arms.

      John Citizen feels the need for improvement of matters like the medical one because they pose a real and immediate threat. Fixing up extinctions is way down the ladder of what occupies the average mind, though specialists would have it higher. That same average mind can get quite contrary when environment funds are publicised - a hungry person will eat the last Dodo.

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    3. Colin Cook

      Scientist At Large

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      If they spent less money on defence ($24 billion last financial year), then we could fix both the hospitals and the environment. Political party spending priorities are not the priorities of the citizens and reflect political expediency, not short or long term need. Those submarines spent more time in dock than at sea anyway. Why spend money on something that won't be effectively deployed?

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    4. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      If NDIS and HOSPITALS were funded by charity and LOTTERIES millions of Australians would buy the lottery ticket.
      Also - just an observation - if Australia charged rent to the US on some of our Joint Intel Facilities, we could spend a billion dollars more on building new hospitals.
      The Greens and SO MANY who advocate for greater refugee intake do not back it up with the increased costs of services and infrastructure.
      Australia take far too many migrants and 457 Visa workers without vetting health and other

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    5. Ian Rudd

      Retired accountant

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      Nonsense, the Greens did not "diversify" into euthanasia. They are not and should not be a single issue party. Neither are they a party based on religious dogma but of moral principles and evidence.

      And you assert that they have lost many supporters by advocating the right to end ones own suffering through euthanasia. Please back up your statement with some evidence to support it.

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    6. Ian Rudd

      Retired accountant

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      You are, I'd say deliberately, conflating refugees with immigration. Refugees make up a very small proportion of total annual immigration numbers which totaled well over 100 000 each year in the last few years. Our refugee intake has been less than 20 000 pa over the same time period and the Green's policy is to bump this up to 30 000 as an immediate response to the build up of asylum seekers here and in the region.

      If you are really interested in the Green's refugee policy you can go to their website and find out for yourself.

      Incidentally I agree with Jenny Goldie that we cannot hope to save our threatened species if we continue our promotion of high immigrant numbers and high fertility rates among Australians. The high immigrant numbers are basically in response to demands by developers and other big business NOT to asylum seekers.

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  5. Fred Payne

    retired

    while I salute this initiative from the coalition, its sad that little attention is paid to the role of land clearing, water pollution and the effects of changing climate in the discussion.
    Increasing the mining and export of coal and gas must add to this problem even locally. But remarks to this effect are usually treated by the major parties as irrational. The rapid expansion of our cities and the consequent destruction of habitat also adds to the problem.
    Efficient allocation of funds is absolutely required for these programs to be effective, but the issues of habitat and our over exploitation of environmental resources need to be addressed for this to happen.

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  6. Edward Fensom

    Coordinator Brisbane Region Environment Council.

    A timely benchmark article from Prof Stephen Garnett, Dr
    Hugh Possingham and Prof John Wionarski.
    With the Coalition Policy Advance of the Green Army, One Stop Shops for developers and progression of Transnational Agreements , against the Government case of resisting BCA and little NRS money or catch up funding the environmental futures look grim.
    The listing of the environmental projects, grant funding, institutional arrangements , legislation and environmental deliverables likely to disappear…

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  7. Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow

    logged in via Facebook

    I don't see anyone, politicians or commentators, jumping up and down about transformer weeds such as gamba grass. This 4 m. high African introduction has the potential to turn much of Northern Australia into a monoculture. Gamba grass changes the nutrient/water cycle, it smothers existing flora, and its hot fires put not only existing fauna and flora but human lives and property at risk. We may well worry about individual species but with gamba grass extinction will be a free-for-all.

    and parties supporting rural people ought to be concerned as well, for it seems that infestations of gamba grass may make rural properties and cattle stations unsaleable.

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    1. Jenny Goldie

      president at Sustainable Population Australia

      In reply to Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow

      Denise

      We have a similar problem on the Monaro (south of Canberra) where African lovegrass is taking over. It burns very hotly and easily so almost weekend it seems there's another fire that has to be put out. Today's burnt out 35 hectares - not high by standards in the North - but had voluntary firefighters come out in force it would have burnt much more ground and taken houses with it.

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    2. Ian Rudd

      Retired accountant

      In reply to Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow

      I'm with you Denise. Allowing gamba grass into northern Australia is a short-sighted policy that ignores what has been known for a long time about its damaging effects on the environment. Along with the cane toad and far to frequent and extensive burning of the habitat ( plus climate change of course) they are all but certain to be the death knoll of native fauna and flora.

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  8. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    Vitally important article.

    My only quibble would the lack of emphasis on protection of environmental factors effecting bird, other fauna and flora, the importance of biodiversity to maintain even adequate living conditions for plants and animals.

    That such efforts are not a massive expense, yet vital for the continued well being of all life as it is at present (a return to some idyllic past not realistic) needs to be understood by both major parties. I cannot see any change occurring from the current electoral campaign as being a limited and narrow appeal to the lowest common denominator - more educational articles such as this a good move, but, without MSM on board even the most erudite and vocal of lobby groups are simply ignored as being mere fringe issues.

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  9. Angus Martin

    Zoologist

    The arguments go round and round. Commenting in 1991 on the parlous state of the world's five species of rhinoceros, Colin Tudge suggested that "To create a really safe array of rhinos, the world would need to spend $44 million in total. For that we could otherwise buy, say, the front end of a new fighter plane."

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  10. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    One of my main fears regarding the almost certain election of the Coalition is the lack of expressed concern for environmental [ excluding coal seam gas] and animal welfare issues and the absence of any policy announcements in these areas. Greg Hunt's stated intention to establish a Commissioner for Threatened Species is therefore heartening but would have been even more so if he had committed the funding required to guarantee, as far as one can, the survival of all threatened species. After all a sum of $110 million dollars is a very small price to pay for a very important and obligatory undertaking, especially when both major parties are effortlessly splashing billions of dollars on other programs.

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    1. Ian Rudd

      Retired accountant

      In reply to Peter Gerard

      "Commissioner for Threatened Species" ...sounds like a bit of old greenwash to me. Our existing environmental legislation, inadequate as it is, is basically side-stepped by our governments anyhow so why would they not treat this new body as anything other than a means to spin the idea of environmental protection?

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  11. Peter Bridgewater

    Visiting Professor at United Nations University

    An interesting take, but threatened species are symptoms, not problems, of broad-scale ecosystem dysfunction. The focus on land and seascapes as the sharp end of conservation action is the right one, and if some threatened species can be salvaged along the way, that’s all good. Previous posts have mentioned the issue of triage, where those species which can be saved easily (and probably cheaply) should be. Decision theory may indeed be helpful in guiding decisions but the value of using models…

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    1. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Peter Bridgewater

      Birds are essential! Climate change kills birds....on the hottest day in Australia's history 7th Jan 2013 birds on the east coast and even n the HIGHLANDS of the east coast, dropped dead from exhaustion.
      From honey eaters to predators like kookaburra's and owls, to crows and the beautiful singing doves, to parrots, finches, pitta birds, orioles, and birds of prey - wedge tailed eagles, kite hawks, birds define territories, contribute to regeneration of forests and plant species and are an essential…

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    2. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      Yes, birds should be accorded respect as part of the natural system.
      However, there are abundant, widespread newspaper reports in the archives about massive bird deaths in Australia in 1896.
      One should be less careless in making the almost obligatory, throw-away line that man-made global warming is to blame. If it is, you need to provide accepted scientific evidence of the specifics, which I have not seen.

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    3. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      7th January 2013 was incredibly hot- and for those who observed its effect on birdlife to appear 'careless' in observing without a scientific survey is a bit weird. Science begins with observation. Charles Darwin began his 'theory' on adaptation or 'evolution' with the powers of observation. Perhaps there are surveys yet to be published; across Australia that hottest day in history - 7th January 2013 - many changes took place. It was 47 degrees at Longreach. had Australia suffered temperatures this high for a decade we would have enormous amounts of data. Had the USA seen many many years of record ICE STORMS followed by melt floods and then HEATWAVES through the summer - as has been the case these last five years - the USA would not be as concerned for its future and electronic equipment that tends break down in extreme temperatures. I look forward to the ETS scheme. Its been successful - economically - on the west coast of USA

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  12. Decortes Fleur

    Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

    Threatened Species, Biodiversity and EIS Statements - are they not the GREEN TAPE issues promoted as EXTINCT under a Coalition Govt in big bold headlines so often in the Australian newspaper?
    Threatened Species, fresh water, ground water, Biodiversity are local, state and commonwealth issues; but id money is the first factor driving policy or 'compliance' by industry - a Biodiversity charity lottery and other big picture fund raising initiatives and Biodiversity Business initiatives will drive…

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      Fleur,

      Your type of pleading for more funds has ground on relentlessly since my first awareness of it in the early 1970s. It seems, from your feel of lack of progess, that monies spent in the past have been wasted. Why should more good money now be thrown after past bad?

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    2. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Australia probably didn't hire or train a REGIMENT of Biodiversity Cops.....int eh 1970's. We've only had the EPA. If politicians did not get a parliamentary pension there would be savings enough to pay for a Green Corps. Perhaps that is what Tony Abbott has in mind - with 15,000 Green Corps? Hiring out of work politicians and others.

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  13. Decortes Fleur

    Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

    If Australia cut out - axed - its parliamentary pensions scheme including the removal of forward provision to all retired Governor's General of any drivers, cars, offices and 'perennial' salary - the net annual savings across 2013-2023 would PAY the authors' estimated costs of Threatened Species and contribute generally to strengthen Biodiversity 'Cops', Endangered and Threatened Species 'Cops, ongoing' research and the 'resuscitation' of an environmental defenders office.

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  14. John Woinarski

    Professor (conservation biology) at Charles Darwin University

    Peter Bridgewater has replied to our piece on threatened species, using the familiar medical analogy that one must instead treat the underlying causes (in this case, threatening processes) rather than the symptoms (in this case, threatened species). It is a common admonishment to those who seek to conserve threatened species. But (1) aching limbs or runny noses are symptoms; threatened species are very different: they are irreplaceable entities that (typically) have existed for hundreds of thousands…

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    1. Peter Bridgewater

      Visiting Professor at United Nations University

      In reply to John Woinarski

      John is of course right in his last point, but having identified that, the real question is what do we do. while voices might eventually get heard in fora that can effect such change, for now we can only work with what we have. While i am happy with being credited with sophistry, i am less so with biological nonsense - it most certainly is not, and is really the only way forward. the idea that somehow conservation of threatened species can proceed without attention to the reasons for them being…

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    2. Ian Rudd

      Retired accountant

      In reply to Peter Bridgewater

      It is of course not an either/or matter. It is both. In many cases efforts to protect a threatened species can lead to a reduction in processes threatening ecosystems.eg efforts at saving the habitat of the black cockatoos through campaigning against habitat clearing helps save the relevant ecosystems. Ditto efforts to reduce excessive fires in the north aimed at protecting the Gouldian Finch could do the same for many other species of fauna and flora.

      But in the end nothing will be saved if the threatening processes leading to habitat destruction are not eliminated. To end these threatening processes we have to end population and consumption growth. To end growth in consumption we must do away with the present capitalistic preoccupation with growth and profit.

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