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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.