Threatened species win support

Major failings in current systems to help save threatened species were revealed in a recent Senate report.  The Coalition says it will act to end this crisis facing native fauna, putting a largely ignored issue on the election agenda.

By NARDINE GROCH

Helmeted honeyeater
Helmeted honeyeater

The Coalition’s promise to create the position of threatened species commissioner if elected has sparked fresh political debate around a largely unmentioned campaign issue.

The announcement comes just weeks after the release of a Senate report in August found that far greater Commonwealth leadership and funding for threatened species recovery plans was needed to avoid impending extinctions.

Birdlife Australia’s head of conservation, Samantha Vine, said the idea of appointing a threatened species commissioner had a lot of potential.

“I think having someone who is charged with accountability of threatened species is a good move, but it will also require a strong mandate and funding commitment to actually implement recovery plans and change the status of species that are on the brink of extinction,” she said.

The Labor Government has vowed to increase current environmental strategic assessments if re-elected, but both major parties have yet to mention any direct funding for threatened species recovery. The Greens have promised a $120 million biodiversity fund.

Ms Vine said that while new assessments might be useful, it was the overall lack of funding for threatened species that governments needed to address.

“I am yet to see enough detail of strategic assessment really working and stopping people developing in the critical habitat of the most endangered species” she said.

“There is just no money to implement recovery plans. If we were serious about saving threatened species, then let’s dedicate an endangered species fund so that we can implement some of these plans.

“It’s not that expensive. It costs, on average, $380,000 a year to save one critically endangered bird species from extinction,” she said.

The Coalition’s promise to devolve approval powers under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act  to the states and territories has also been widely criticised by environment experts.

CEO of the Environment Defenders Office in Victoria, Brendan Sydes, said that while institutional reform was necessary, handing environmental legislative power over to the states would be hugely problematic.

“We know from long experience that state governments don’t have the resources or are too involved in development proposals to be trusted with dealing with matters of national environmental significance,”  he said.

“Regional forest agreements, for example, have locked in bad outcomes and have tended to be inflexible in the long term. They have led to the Leadbeater’s possum issue at the moment where the science is really clear in terms of what needs to happen, but the state and commonwealth governments just seem to be frozen on the trajectory that they are on and are unable to respond to that information,” he said.

There are 1800 species and ecological communities listed as threatened under the EPBC Act. However, the Senate committee report found inconsistencies between the Act’s list, the state/territory list and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species. The report said the Government should act on the recommendations of an earlier Australian Law Reform Commission review of the EPBC Act.

Mr Sydes said two previous attempts to improve the Act under the ALP government had failed.

“It’s not part of the platform of any of the major parties going into this election to undertake any major threatened species reforms.

“There are lots of things that can be done to rationalise and improve our system federally. We need to be looking at how this all works across government levels. One way would be to move toward having a consistent set of criteria for listing threatened species,” he said.

Birdlife Australia’s Ms Vine agreed that poor listing protocols had meant governments did not understand how dire things had become for threatened species.

“The reason we don’t focus on recovery is because we don’t have the numbers to tell us how things are going and governments can just ignore it as a problem because we are not regularly seeing the numbers saying our species are in trouble,” she said.

We have 20 bird species alone that are at imminent risk of extinction and any of those could go on the next government watch.”

National Threatened Species Day coincides with the federal election this Saturday,  September 7. It commemorates the death of the last known Tasmanian tiger at Hobart Zoo in 1936.