I spoke with Wendy Harmer about the plight of threatened species and the role of the Threatened Species Commissioner.
By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Geoffrey Heard (Charles Sturt University), James Watson (The University of Queensland), Megan C Evans (The University of Queensland) and Tim Doherty (Deakin University).
Furore erupted last week among many Australians who care for our native species.
First we heard that land clearing in Queensland soared to a staggering 400,000 or so hectares in 2015-16, a near 30% increase from the previous year. Second, the federal government’s outgoing Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, implied on national radio that land clearing was not a pressing issue for Australia’s threatened species.
This is a troubling public message, particularly as the government’s own State of the Environment Report 2016 lists “clearing, fragmentation and declining quality of habitat” as a primary driver of biodiversity decline across the continent.
These comments highlight key issues with the Threatened Species Commissioner’s current remit, made more pressing due to timing: the federal government will soon appoint a new commissioner, a “TSC 2.0”, if you will.
Threatened Species Commissioner 1.0
The commissioner’s role was established in 2014 to address the dire state of threatened species; a key initiative of the then environment minister, Greg Hunt. The remit was sixfold, including bringing a new national focus to conservation efforts; raising awareness and support for threatened species in the community; and taking an evidence-based approach to ensure conservation efforts are better targeted and co-ordinated and more effective.
Did TSC 1.0 meet the objectives?
We can confidently say “yes” in relation to the objectives of collaboration, public awareness and promotion of threatened species conservation. Andrews travelled widely and engaged directly with stakeholders, maintained active social media feeds, developed a YouTube channel, and had numerous media engagements.
Also laudable was the 2015 Threatened Species Summit, attended by some 250 delegates from a diverse set of stakeholders, which garnered significant media coverage.
But elsewhere progress has been mixed. The development of the Threatened Species Strategy is welcome, but the plan does not go nearly far enough. Key targets by 2020 are improvements in the population trajectories of 20 mammals, 20 birds and 30 plants. But this represents a mere 4% of Australia’s threatened species, excluding all threatened reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates, and most of our threatened flora.
The focus on threatening processes is equally narrow. The science tells us that habitat loss is a top threat to Australia’s biodiversity. Land clearing has been listed as a key threatening process under federal legislation since 2001.
Yet the Threatened Species Strategy mentions land clearing zero times and habitat loss just twice. Feral cats, on the other hand, are mentioned 78 times, with the plan overwhelmingly focused on culling this one invasive species. Other major introduced pests – foxes, rabbits, feral pigs and goats – are mentioned 10 times between them.
An on-ground focus and mobilising of financial and logistical resources to support threatened species recovery was a welcome development during Andrews’s tenure. His second progress report cites AU$131 million in funding for projects in support of threatened species since 2014.
This is a significant sum. But it is just 0.017% of the government’s AU$416.9 billion annual revenue – well short of what’s needed to reverse species declines.
Likewise, funding for threatened species must be better targeted. Of the 499 projects cited in the TSC second progress report, 361 were those of the Green Army and 20 Million Trees programs (costing AU$78 million, 60% of total funding). Neither program is specifically devoted to threatened species, and their benefit in this regard is doubtful.
The next commissioner’s checklist
Australians and democratic societies should have access to reliable, independent and objective information about the current state of our natural heritage, and how government decisions influence its trajectory. That’s a critical role that TSC 2.0 should play.
Expertise will be crucial for the new appointee. Given the complex science of species conservation, a background in environmental science is a clear requirement, just as a background in economics would be expected for the chair of the Productivity Commission, or a grounding in law for a human rights commissioner.
For a commissioner to work effectively, they must also be willing to comment on politically sensitive issues and put themselves at odds with the government when necessary. Commissioners typically work as the head of an independent statutory body, such as the Productivity Commission, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and the Australian Electoral Commission.
However, the TSC position sits within the Department of Environment and Energy and so, like any public servant, the commissioner is restricted in what they can say in public forums. A more accurate name for the current position would be Threatened Species Ambassador.
But if the TSC 2.0 is to be a truly informed and independent voice for Australia’s threatened species, the role must sit within a statutory authority, at arm’s length from government. This is the case in New Zealand, where an independent environment commission has operated since 1986. It’s time for Australia to follow suit.
The natural world is truly glorious in its diversity, and in the complexity of relationships between its many millions of species, and the environments in which they live. I was lucky enough to immerse myself in this wonder recently, while snorkelling on Heron Island with my family. The kaleidoscope of colours and chaos of movement I saw as I drifted over countless different fishes and corals was truly breathtaking. But they also inspired reflection.
Remember The Wild is a nature engagement charity, connecting people with the natural world.
Authors: Bronwyn A Hradsky, Alan Robley, Ray Alexander, Euan G Ritchie, Alan York, and Julian Di Stefano
Published in: Scientific Reports
Invasive and over-abundant predators pose a major threat to biodiversity and often benefit from human activities. Effective management requires understanding predator use of human-modified habitats (including resource subsidies and disturbed environments), and individual variation within populations.
We investigated selection for human-modified habitats by invasive red foxes, Vulpes vulpes, within two predominantly forested Australian landscapes. We predicted that foxes would select for human-modified habitats in their range locations and fine-scale movements, but that selection would vary between individuals. We GPS-tracked 19 foxes for 17–166 days; ranges covered 33 to >2500 ha.
Approximately half the foxes selected for human-modified habitats at the range scale, with some ‘commuting’ more than five kilometres to farmland or townships at night. Two foxes used burnt forest intensively after a prescribed fire. In their fine-scale nocturnal movements, most foxes selected for human-modified habitats such as reservoirs, forest edges and roads, but there was considerable individual variation. Native fauna in fragmented and disturbed habitats are likely to be exposed to high rates of fox predation, and anthropogenic food resources may subsidise fox populations within the forest interior.
Coordinating fox control across land-tenures, targeting specific landscape features, and limiting fox access to anthropogenic resources will be important for biodiversity conservation.
Hradsky BA, Robley A, Alexander R, Ritchie EG, York, Di Stefano J (2017) Human-modified habitats facilitate forest-dwelling populations of an invasive predator, Vulpes vulpes. Scientific Reports PDF DOI
Looking for an exciting honours project in ecology? I have three openings for 2018.
I also welcome other project ideas from students if they fit with my expertise and research priorities.
To find out more, please refer to the Deakin University website: Honours in Life and Environmental Sciences, or contact me.
Fox, cat and fire interactions in the Grampians National Park
Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie
External and co-supervisors: Dr Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University) and Dr Tim Doherty, (Deakin University)
Start date: February 2018
This project, a research partnership between Parks Victoria and Deakin University, will examine fox and cat distribution across the Grampians National Park. Specifically, it will aim to examine:
- The effect of fire on fox and cat habitat use.
- Fox diet.
Experience with using R and/or ArcGIS will be advantageous but is not essential. A manual driver’s licence is essential for this project.
The ecological role of eastern barred bandicoots in a newly established island population
Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie
External and co-supervisors: Dr Duncan Sutherland (Phillip Island Nature Parks) and Dr Amy Coetsee (Zoos Victoria)
Start date: February or July 2018
Mainland eastern barred bandicoots (EBBs) are listed as extinct in the wild, persisting only in captivity or within fox-free fenced reserves.
Phillip Island Nature Parks, together with Zoos Victoria and the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team, have established an EBB population on fox-free Churchill Island, adjacent to Phillip Island.
This project forms part of a broader effort to bring EBBs back from the brink of extinction and off the threatened species list. We seek an honours student for a project to experimentally determine the role of EBBs as ecological engineers, in particular their effect on invertebrate communities.
Experience with using R and/or ArcGIS will be advantageous but is not essential. Field accommodation on Phillip Island is available.
Large herbivore impacts on alpine ecosystems
Principal Supervisor: Dr Euan Ritchie
External and co-supervisors: Professor Don Driscoll and Dr Tim Doherty (Deakin University)
Start date: July 2018
Large feral herbivores, such as horses and deer, threaten alpine ecosystems through overgrazing and trampling of vegetation, spreading weeds, elevated nutrients, and breaking down stream banks and reducing water quality.
This project will examine the impacts of large herbivores on alpine vegetation communities, and in turn on smaller, native vertebrate species.
Experience with using R and/or ArcGIS will be advantageous, but is not essential. A manual driver’s licence is essential for this project.
Authors: Bronwyn A Hradsky, Trent D Penman, Dan Ababei, Anca Hanea, Euan G Ritchie, Alan York, and Julian Di Stefano
Published in: Ecosphere, volume 8, issue 8 (August 2017)
Fire is a major driver of community composition and habitat structure and is extensively used as an ecological management tool in flammable landscapes. Interactions between fire and other processes that affect animal distributions, however, cause variation in faunal responses to fire and limit our ability to identify appropriate fire management regimes for biodiversity conservation.
Bayesian networks (BNs) have not previously been used to examine terrestrial faunal distributions in relation to fire, but offer an alternative statistical framework for modeling complex environmental relationships as they explicitly capture interactions between predictor variables.
We developed a conceptual model of the interactions between drivers of faunal distributions in fire-affected landscapes, and then used a non-parametric BN modeling approach to describe and quantify these relationships for a suite of terrestrial native mammal species. We also tested whether BNs could be used to predict these species’ distributions using only remote-sensed or mapped variables.
Data were collected at 113 sites across 47,000 ha of continuous eucalypt forest in the Otway Ranges, southeastern Australia; time-since-fire (TSF) ranged from six months to 74 years.
Habitat complexity increased with TSF and forest wetness. Critical-weight-range (35–5500 g) marsupials and rodents were generally more likely to occur at long unburnt sites with high habitat complexity, and in wetter forest types. In contrast, large grazers and browsers preferred less complex habitats and younger or drier forest. Species occurrences were more strongly affected by habitat complexity than TSF, coarse woody debris cover, or invasive predator (Vulpes vulpes or Felis catus) occurrence.
Bayesian network models effectively discriminated between the presence and absence of most native mammal species, even when only provided with data on remote-sensed or mapped variables (i.e., without field-assessed data such as habitat complexity). Non-parametric BNs are an effective technique for explicitly modeling the complex and context-dependent influence of fire history on faunal distributions, and may reduce the need to collect extensive field data on habitat structure and other proximate drivers.
Hradsky BA, Penman TD, Ababei D, Hanea A, Ritchie EG, York A and Di Stefano J (2017) Bayesian networks elucidate interactions between fire and other drivers of terrestrial fauna distributions. Ecosphere PDF DOI
Authors: David B Lindenmayer, Emma L Burns, Christopher, Dickman, Peter T Green, Ary A, Hoffmann, David A Keith, John W, Morgan, Jeremy Russell-, Smith, Glenda M, Wardle, Graeme G R, Gillespie, Saul, Cunningham, Charles Krebs, Gene Likens, Johan Pauw, Tiffany G Troxler, William H McDowell, Jane A Catford, Richard Hobbs, Andrew Bennett, Emily Nicholson, Euan Ritchie, Barbara Wilson, Aaron C Greenville, Thomas Newsome, Rick Shine, Alex Kutt, Ayesha Tulloch, Nicole Thurgate, Alaric Fisher, Kate Auty, Becky Smith, Richard Williams, Barry Fox, Graciela Metternicht, Xuemei Bai, Samuel Banks, Rebecca Colvin, Mason Crane, Liz Dovey, Ceridwen Fraser, Claire Foster, Robert Heinsohn, Geoffrey Kay, Katherina Ng, Chris MacGregor, Damian Michael, Luke, O’Loughlin, Thea, O’Loughlin, Luciana Porfirio, Libby Robin, David Salt, Chloe Sato, Ben Scheele, Janet Stein, John Stein, Brian Walker, Martin Westgate, George Wilson, Jeffrey Wood, Susanna Venn, Michael Vardon, Sarah Legge, Robert Costanza, Danny Kenny, Peter Burnett, Alan Welsh, Joslin Moore, Carla Sgrò, and Mark Westoby
Published in: Science, volume 357, issue 6351 (August 2017)
Australia will lose its integrated long-term ecological research (LTER) network at the end of 2017 (1). The network comprises more than 1100 long-term field plots within temperate forests, rainforests, alpine grass- lands, heathlands, deserts, and savannas, with an unparalleled temporal depth in biodiversity data. Its many achievements include Australia’s first published trend data for key ecosystems (2) and a suite of IUCN ecosystem risk assessments (3).
Long-term ecological data are critical for quantifying environmental and biodiversity change and identifying its causes. LTER is especially important in Australia because many of the country’s ecosystems are subject to frequent climatic extremes. Continuity of long-term research and monitoring, and broader use of existing time series data by science and policy communities, are crucial for measuring impacts of current unprecedented global environmental change and reliably predict- ing future impacts.
Long-term research and monitoring is also essential to understanding relation- ships between the economy, ecosystems, and risks to human well-being (4). The loss of Australia’s LTER network will substantially diminish resource managers’ ability to judge the effectiveness of management interventions on which billions of dollars are spent annually (such as vegetation restoration and invasive species control). Ending the network will also jeopardize sustainability assessments of resource-based industries such as agriculture and forestry. Moreover, Australia’s capacity to participate effectively in global initiatives such as the International LTER will be impaired. The LTER network is part of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), funded by Australia’s government (5). TERN’s inclusion of existing LTER capability provided a template that others in Europe, China, and South Africa have followed. Discontinuing the LTER net- work within TERN will therefore undermine global cohesion in environmental research and monitoring.
At a time when the United States is increasing funding for its LTERs by US$5.6M annually (6), and other nations are rapidly building substantial LTER capacity, terminating Australia’s LTER network is totally out of step with interna- tional trends and national imperatives. To prevent the collapse of the LTER network and prevent the resulting irreversible impacts of breaking current time-series, urgent and direct investment by the Australian government is crucial.
- TERN, Quarterly Newsletter, Issue 16 (2017); http://www.ozflux.org.au/publications/newsletter/SuperSitesOzFluxCZONewsletter_Issue16_July2017.pdf.
- D. B. Lindenmayer, E. Burns, N. Thurgate, A. Lowe, Eds., Biodiversity and Environmental Change: Monitoring, Challenges and Direction (CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2014).
- D. A. Keith, Austral. Ecol. 40, 337 (2015).
- D. B. Lindenmayer et al., Austral. Ecol. 40, 213 (2015).
- Long Term Ecological Research Network (www.ltern.org.au).
- Nature 543, 469 (2017).