Scientists and conservationists have called on the federal government to strengthen Australia’s national environment laws, chiefly the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBCA).
They also want an independent watchdog to oversee environmental policy, with the power to force governments to take action to protect species if they are not already doing so and to make the management of critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species more transparent and accountable.
They say data published by the Department of Environment and Energy shows that for most of our wildlife little stands between existence and extinction.
According to the department’s 2016–17 annual report, of the 1885 nationally-listed threatened species in Australia, only 712, or less than 40%, have recovery plans in place to secure their long-term survival. A further 176 plant and animal species and ecological communities were identified as urgently requiring recovery plans but did not have them.
A recovery plan outlines a species’ population and distribution; threats to its survival, such as habitat loss and predators; and what should be done to avoid extinction. Some species that are threatened in a particular state also have separate state government recovery plans.
Before amendments to the EPBCA in 2006 it was mandatory for any animal, plant or ecological community that was listed as threatened to have a recovery plan. Since 2006 however, plans are at the discretion of the minister.
Threatened species without a recovery plan can have a conservation advice, which offers weaker legal protection. It does not bind the minister to make decisions to protect the species, they only have to consider it when making approvals under the EPBCA.
But even for those species with a recovery plan in place, there is no obligation on governments to actually implement or fund it.
Lack of action
National director of the Wilderness Society Lyndon Schneiders said: “Nobody seems to have ultimate responsibility for protecting these plants and animals.
“We have this almost zombie-like system where the laws say you have to look after critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species — and we know the community supports protecting our threatened species — but when it comes to implementation, it’s like a giant machine that generates no action.”
Professor Lesley Hughes from the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University told the Guardian the system of recovery plans and conservation advices was “a virtual black hole” in which it was often impossible to find out what plans had been activated, what had been funded and what was the outcome.
According to the Department of the Environment and Energy’s Species Profile and Threats database, four of Australia’s seven critically endangered mammals have no recovery plans. One of these — the southern bent-wing bat — has been waiting for a recovery plan since 2008.
The vulnerable grey-headed flying fox has been identified as requiring a recovery plan since 2001. The vulnerable green and golden bell frog has been listed as requiring a recovery plan since 2009.
Other vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species have plans that are years and sometimes decades out of date and have no detail on what actions have or should be taken to avoid extinction. Only two new recovery plans were adopted last year.
Victoria’s faunal emblem, the critically-endangered Leadbeater’s possum, has a recovery plan dated 1997. The central rock rat has a recovery plan dated 1999. The Christmas Island shrew, which was moved from endangered to critically endangered this month, has a recovery plan dated 2004, but there is no information about whether any populations still exist on the island.
None of the recovery plans for Australia’s five critically endangered frogs are current. Two are more than five years old and three are more than a decade old.
Bird advocacy group BirdLife found only five of 67 critically-endangered and endangered birds have current recovery plans. At least 10 critically-endangered birds had no plan and most that did were out of date.
The King Island scrubtit, one of Australia’s rarest birds with an estimate of fewer than 50 remaining individuals, has neither a conservation advice nor a recovery plan.
BirdLife head of conservation Samantha Vine said: “An alarming number have the much less robust conservation advices.
“A good example is the thick-billed grasswren of north-west NSW. They are critically-endangered, with only a handful left, possibly no more than 10 birds. They have a conservation advice yet to the best of my knowledge there is absolutely nothing currently happening to address threats, such as overgrazing by livestock and pests, which we know led to the extinction of a closely related subspecies.”
There is no requirement on governments to implement or fund plans once they have been developed. This means governments often act too late to implement recovery plans — a factor in the recent extinction of the Bramble Cay melomys and the Christmas Island pipistrelle.
Professor of conservation biology at Charles Darwin University John Woinarski said: “There is no comprehensive ongoing monitoring of how recovery plans are being implemented or whether they are having an effect.”
Mandatory recovery planning
Scientists, conservationists and environmental organisations are pushing for a return to mandatory recovery planning and greater coordination and transparency from federal and state governments on what is being done to ensure species survival and whether it has been successful.
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has called for an independent audit of what benefits Australian endangered wildlife are getting from government grant programs after revelations that threatened species funding is being used for restoring historic ships, weeding bike paths and other unrelated projects.
ACF policy analyst James Trezise said: “Funding for the Federal Environment Department has been slashed by almost a third since the 2013–14 budget. We need to make sure what is left is well-targeted and effective.
“It is scandalous that some of these projects are being passed off as helping threatened species. Australia has one of the worst extinction rates in the world and we need to have trust that our elected representatives are taking serious action to avert species loss.
“The problem in threatened species protection is more evidence that Australia needs new national environment laws to ensure a stronger and more independent system. Only then can the community have complete confidence our national laws are working to save Australia’s animals and plants.”