Category Archives: Media

The Conversation: Australia’s threatened species plan has failed on several counts. Without change, more extinctions are assured

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Ayesha Tulloch (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia is globally renowned for its abysmal conservation record – in roughly 230 years we’ve overseen the extinction of more mammal species than any other nation. The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy was meant to address this confronting situation.

The final report on the five-year strategy has just been published. In it, Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box acknowledges while the plan had some important wins, it fell short in several areas, writing:

…there is much more work to do to ensure our native plants and animals thrive into the future, and this will require an ongoing collective effort.

Clearly, Australia must urgently chart a course towards better environmental and biodiversity outcomes. That means reflecting honestly on our successes and failures so far.

How did the strategy perform?

The strategy, announced in 2015, set 13 targets linked to three focus areas:

  • feral cat management
  • improving the population trajectories of 20 mammal, 21 bird and 30 plant species
  • improving practices to recover threatened species populations.

Given the scale of the problem, five years was never enough time to turn things around. Indeed, as the chart below shows, the report card indicates five “red lights” (targets not met) and three “orange lights” (targets only partially met). It gave just five “green lights” for targets met.

Summary of the Threatened Species Strategy’s targets and outcomes. Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Falling short on feral cats

Feral cats were arguably the most prominent focus of the strategy, despite other threats requiring as much or more attention, such as habitat destruction via land clearing.

However, the strategy did help start a national conversation about the damage cats wreak on wildlife and ecosystems, and how this can be better managed.

In the five years to the end of 2020, an estimated 1.5 million feral cats were killed under the strategy – 500,000 short of the 2 million goal. But this estimate is uncertain due to a lack of systematic data collection. In particular, the number of cats culled by farmers, amateur hunters and shooters is under-reported. And more broadly, information is scattered across local councils, non-government conservation agencies and other sources.

Australia’s feral cat population fluctuates according to rainfall, which determines the availability of prey – numbering between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. Limited investment in monitoring makes it impossible to know whether the average of 300,000 cats killed each year over the past five years will be enough for native wildlife to recover.

The government also failed in its goal to eradicate cats from five islands, only achieving this on Dirk Hartog Island off Western Australia. Importantly, that effort began in 2014, before the strategy was launched. And it was primarily funded by the WA government and an industry offset scheme, so the federal government can’t really claim this success.

On a positive note, ten mainland areas excluding feral cats have been established or are nearly complete. Such areas are a vital lifeline for some wildlife species and can enable native species reintroductions in the future.

Priority species: how did we do?

The strategy met its target of ensuring recovery actions were underway for at least 50 threatened plant species and 60 ecological communities. It also made good headway into storing all Australia’s 1,400 threatened plant species in seed banks. This is good news.

The bad news is that, even with recovery actions, the population trajectories of most priority species failed to improve. For the 24 out of about 70 priority species where population numbers were deemed to have “improved” over five years, about 30% simply got worse at a slower rate than in the decade prior. This can hardly be deemed a success.

What’s more, the populations of at least eight priority species, including the eastern barred bandicoot, eastern bettong, Gilbert’s potoroo, mala, woylie, numbat and helmeted honeyeater, were increasing before the strategy began – and five of these deteriorated under the strategy.

The finding that more priority species recovery efforts failed than succeeded means either:

  • the wrong actions were implemented
  • the right actions were implemented but insufficient effort and funding were dedicated to recovery
  • the trajectories of the species selected for action simply couldn’t be improved in a 5-year window.

All these problems are alarming but can be rectified. For example, the government’s new Threatened Species Strategy, released in May, contains a more evidence-based process for determining priority species.

For some species, it’s unclear whether success can be attributed to the strategy. Some species with improved trajectories, such as the helmeted honeyeater, would likely have improved regardless, thanks to many years of community and other organisation’s conservation efforts before the strategy began.

What must change

According to the report, habitat loss is a key threat to more than half the 71 priority species in the strategy. But the strategy does not directly address habitat loss or climate change, saying other government policies are addressing those threats.

We believe habitat loss and climate change must be addressed immediately.

Of the priority bird species threatened by land clearing and fragmentation, the trajectory of most – including the swift parrot and malleefowl – did not improve under the five years of the strategy. For several, such as the Australasian bittern and regent honeyeater, the trajectory worsened.

Preventing and reversing habitat loss will take years of dedicated restoration, stronger legislation and enforcement. It also requires community engagement, because much threatened species habitat is on private properties.

Effective conservation also requires raising public awareness of the dire predicament of Australia’s 1,900-plus threatened species and ecological communities. But successive governments have sought to sugarcoat our failings over many decades.

Bushfires and other extreme events hampered the strategy’s recovery efforts. But climate change means such events are likely to worsen. The risks of failure should form part of conservation planning – and of course, Australia requires an effective plan for emissions reduction.

The strategy helped increase awareness of the plight our unique species face. Dedicated community groups had already spent years volunteering to monitor and recover populations, and the strategy helped fund some of these actions.

However, proper investment in conservation – such as actions to reduce threats, and establish and maintain protected areas – is urgently needed. The strategy is merely one step on the long and challenging road to conserving Australia’s precious species and ecosystems.
The Conversation

The Conversation: Australia’s threatened species plan sends in the ambulances but ignores glaring dangers

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Ayesha Tulloch (University of Sydney) and Don Driscoll (Deakin University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia is unquestionably in the midst of an extinction crisis. Some 34 native mammal species have been driven to extinction since European invasion, and threatened species and ecological communities now number more than 1,900.

On Friday, federal environment minister Sussan Ley released Australia’s second Threatened Species Strategy – a roadmap for combating threats to native plants, animals and ecological communities.

The ten-year plan builds on the first strategy launched in 2015, and contains welcome changes. But there remain serious questions about how the plan will be funded and implemented – and quite possibly undermined by other federal government policies.

In essence, the strategy sends a few extra ambulances to the bottom of the cliff, rather than installing a fence at the top to stop species tumbling over.

First, the good news

It would be useful when assessing the new strategy to know how the previous one measured up. Unfortunately, federal environment officials have not yet released the last report card for that strategy, which makes it hard to identify what worked and what didn’t.

Nonetheless, the second strategy differs from the first in important ways.

The first strategy was criticised for its heavy focus on feral cats. Other problems which are just as (and often more) threatening to vulnerable species were not given the same attention. These include altered fire regimes, land clearing and other invasive species such as weeds and rabbits. Importantly, the new strategy recognises a greater number of key threats to wildlife and their habitats.

It also expands the number of actions for threatened species recovery from four to eight. Such actions may include tackling weeds and diseases, relocating species and identifying climate refuges.

The first strategy was rightly questioned for a somewhat myopic focus on 20 mammal, 20 bird and 30 plant species. It also lacked a transparent and evidence-based process for determining how a species was selected as a priority.

The new strategy could expand the types of species targeted for conservation to include fish, amphibian, reptile and invertebrate species. Also, the process for prioritising species for action promises to be more rigorous – assessed against six principles supported by science and existing conservation frameworks.

Significantly, priority places in need of conservation will likewise be assessed through a formal process. This is welcome if it ultimately protects habitats and broader ecosystems, an essential element of avoiding species extinctions.

But challenges remain

The strategy talks of improving species trajectories, but it’s unclear what would constitute success in this regard.

If a threatened species’ population numbers were declining at a slower rate due to an intervention, would that intervention be deemed a success? Will successful actions be attributed to the strategy (and, by association, the federal government), even if they were entirely funded by philanthropic or community efforts?

Scientists have gone to great lengths to improve our knowledge about trends in threatened bird, mammal and plant species for which monitoring programs exist. However data for threatened species remains deficient, due to funding cuts for monitoring and associated infrastructure.

This means measuring progress on the strategy will be difficult, because we simply don’t have enough reliable data. And the strategy does not appear to remedy this situation with funding.

The strategy makes references to six important principles to guide decisions on which species are to be prioritised for assistance. These include how close a species is to extinction, a species’ ‘uniqueness’, the likelihood an intervention will work and whether the species is culturally significant. But these principles should not be applied in isolation from each other.

For example, it may be more cost efficient to save species with both a high chance of extinction and relatively cheap and effective interventions. But the most unique species may not be the cheapest to save, and the most endangered species may not be the species of greatest importance to one sector of the community.

So prioritisation may require trade-offs between different principles. There is no magic “one size fits all” solution, but excellent scientific guidance exists on how to keep this process objective, transparent and, most of all, repeatable.

The strategy acknowledges major drivers of biodiversity decline and extinction, including climate change, habitat destruction and pollution. However, nowhere is there an explicit declaration that to conserve or recover our species and environments we must tackle the underlying causes of these drivers.

The strategy also fails to acknowledge the key role legislation plays in reining in – or enabling – threats such as land clearing. An independent review earlier this year confirmed federal environment laws are failing abysmally. But fundamental recommendations stemming from the review, such as independent oversight and adequate resourcing, are not included in the strategy.

A better deal for nature

To be effective, the strategy must chart a path to effective environmental law reform.

And saving our threatened species and ecosystems shouldn’t be seen as a cost, but rather a savvy investment.

Increased and targeted funding for on-ground actions, such as weed and pest animal control, species re-introductions, and Indigenous ranger programs, could generate many thousands of jobs. Such measures would also boost local economies and support industries such as tourism.

A 2019 study found Australia’s listed threatened species could be recovered for about A$1.7 billion a year.

The Morrison government recently announced it would spend A$7 billion setting up a military space division to better protect satellites from attack.

What’s our best defence for an uncertain future? We argue it’s ensuring Earth’s life support systems, including its remarkable species and landscapes, are also protected.
The Conversation

The Conversation: ‘Existential threat to our survival’: see the 19 Australian ecosystems already collapsing

By Dana M Bergstrom (University of Wollongong), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Lesley Hughes (Macquarie University) and Michael Depledge (University of Exeter).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were “on a collision course”. Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a “safe space to operate”. These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.

Crossing such boundaries was considered a risk that would cause environmental changes so profound, they genuinely posed an existential threat to humanity.

This grave reality is what our major research paper, published today, confronts.

In what may be the most comprehensive evaluation of the environmental state of play in Australia, we show major and iconic ecosystems are collapsing across the continent and into Antarctica. These systems sustain life, and evidence of their demise shows we’re exceeding planetary boundaries.

We found 19 Australian ecosystems met our criteria to be classified as “collapsing”. This includes the arid interior, savannas and mangroves of northern Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay, southern Australia’s kelp and alpine ash forests, tundra on Macquarie Island, and moss beds in Antarctica.

We define collapse as the state where ecosystems have changed in a substantial, negative way from their original state – such as species or habitat loss, or reduced vegetation or coral cover – and are unlikely to recover.

The good and bad news

Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.

Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modelling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.

Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the Murray-Darling Basin, which covers around 14% of Australia’s landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than 30% of Australia’s food production.

The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they’re felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn’t forget how towns ran out of drinking water during the recent drought.

Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant Mountain Ash forests greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people’s drinking water in Melbourne.

This is a dire wake-up call — not just a warning. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.

In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often additive and extreme.

Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.

In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a heatwave spanning more than 300,000 square kilometres ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.

A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for this April.

These 19 ecosystems are collapsing: read about each

① Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, extending over 2,300 kilometres. It is home to over 5,000 species of mollusk, 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral and around 240 species of birds. It spreads over almost 4,000 individual reefs, 900 continental islands, 300 coral cays and 150 inshore mangrove islands.

In the last 30 years, climate change and many regional pressures have combined to cause ecosystem collapse across the reef, with shallower reefs worse off than deeper reefs. These pressures include five mass coral bleaching events since 1998, marine heatwaves, major tropical cyclones, freshwater floods from extreme high rainfall events, flood sediment and pollution, ocean acidification and crown of thorns starfish outbreaks.

Major feedback loops that compound the pressures are now establishing. From 1985–2017, the reef lost half of all coral cover due to five massive bleaching events, of which two were consecutive (2016, 2017). In 2017, 67% of corals died along a 700km stretch.

The reef provides around A$12 trillion of ecosystem services and over 64,000 jobs. The Australian and Queensland governments have committed billions into reef protection but there are significant challenges to overcome.

Pressures:

  • Temperature
  • Ocean acidification
  • Salinity change
  • Native species interactions
  • Heatwave
  • Flood
  • Storm
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Runoff / pollution
  • Other (dredging, fishing, boat strikes, ship fouling, tourism debris)
② Australian Tropical Savannas

Australia’s tropical savannas sweep across more than 1 million square kilometres of northern Australia, from the western Kimberley region, WA, to the eastern edge of Queensland’s tropical coast. Savanna woodlands and forests have mainly gum trees over an understory of tall grasses and very ancient, poor soils.

These savannas are currently the least altered and unpolluted in the world, but they’re changing fast because of agriculture, mining and the effects of poor management decisions of the past. Land clearing has removed vegetation permanently, reducing food availability for wildlife. Climate change is adding further pressures as rains increase in the wet season, and dry seasons are becoming hotter and last longer.

Add in cat predation, the presence of cane toads, livestock encroachment and increasing bush fire frequency, and it becomes clear why Kakadu National Park is now a hot spot for mammal extinction.

Of particular urgency is the impact of a weed called giant African Gamba grass. It grows up to 4 m in height and produces up to 74,000 seeds per square metre. This adds a huge fuel load for fires, which burn 12 times more intensely than native grass fires, with flames penetrating and killing tree canopy. Gamba grass fires are very expensive to fight, cause loss of livestock and agricultural assets, and diminish the financial viability of the low carbon farming initiative of “savanna burning”.

Damage to the savannas affects the cultural, spiritual and socioeconomic livelihoods of First Nations communities. Loss of ecosystem services, production and pastoral lands is around A$113 million per year.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Increasing CO2
  • Storm
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss/ mining
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock impacts/ harvesting
  • Water extraction
  • Human-lit fire
③ Mangrove Forests, Gulf of Carpentaria

In late 2015, nearly 40 million mangrove trees, representing around one million tons of carbon, died along 1,000 kilometres of the Gulf of Carpentaria. They succumbed to multiple pressures, including extremely high temperatures (39°C for 18 days), prolonged drought conditions, along with feral pigs, scrub fires and invasive weeds.

But most significant was the additive effect of severe El Niño conditions, which effectively pushed the sea away from the coast. This led to a short-term, extreme drop in mean sea level of around 20 centimetres, taking seawater away from mangrove roots.

Two severe tropical cyclones and damaging floods have since hampered its recovery. Continued tidal rafting of dead trunks is curtailing the establishment of seedlings and damaging remaining trees. And the decomposition of dead roots is probably affecting nursery habitat for fish and crustaceans.

The damage is expected to have lasting repercussions on the local economy and livelihoods of the region. The Gulf of Carpentaria fishing industry is worth A$30 million per year. First Nation people and recreational fishers also use the area. Ecosystem services from mangroves are worth around A$250,000 per hectare per year.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes- drought
  • Temperature
  • Salinity change
  • Sea level change – extreme lows
  • Heatwave
  • Flood
  • Storm
  • Habitat change/loss – erosion
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock impacts
  • Water extraction
  • Runoff
  • Human-lit fire
  • Other
④ Wet Tropical Rainforest, North Queensland

The wet tropics of North Queensland span around 450 kilometres, with rainforest covering around 1.85 million hectares. The region contains extraordinary diversity, with more than 3,000 plant species and over 60 vertebrate species found nowhere else on Earth. Although tropical rainforests make up only 0.1% of Australia’s landmass, they’re also home to over 50% of its ferns, butterflies and birds, and over 20% of freshwater fish, mammals, orchids, frogs and reptiles.

It’s for this reason and others, such as the significant First Nations cultural values, that the wet tropics are a World Heritage Area.

But they experience a range of pressures, many of which compound each other. These include habitat fragmentation, fringe livestock grazing, increased urbanisation, more frequent and severe fires and invasive plants and animals. Climate change poses perhaps the greatest threat overall.

Many of the region’s plants and animals live in discrete elevation bands: a “Goldilocks” combination of the right habitat and microclimate. As air temperatures increase and extremes in weather worsen, species’ areas of suitable habitat shrink. Some species have already moved to higher elevations and/or experienced striking local population declines. For example, in November 2018, a heatwave killed one-third of all spectacled flying foxes. And two possum species have disappeared from habitat under an altitude of 600 metres.

There have been four major storms or cyclones in 13 years. One event brought up to 2 m of rain, and the storm surge (seawater) inundated coastal rainforest. In 2006, one cyclone killed 35% of the regional cassowary populations, and cars and dogs killed many more as the birds left the destroyed forest.

The wet tropics are visited by around 5 million tourists per year, contributing over A$400 million to the region’s economy. In 2015, the wet tropics were valued at over A$5 billion per year, due to ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity protection, and soil and water resources.

Pressures:

  • Climate change
  • Extreme weather and climatic events (heatwaves, floods, cyclones, extended dry seasons)
  • Species interactions (such as snake losing prey due to flooding)
  • Invasive plants and animals
  • Habitat fragmentation and destruction
  • Logging and land clearing
  • Altered fire regimes (more frequent and severe fires)
  • Erosion, sediment runoff and pollution
  • Overgrazing
  • Tourism
  • Urbanisation
  • Chytrid fungus
⑤ Western-central Arid Zones

The arid zone covers around 43% of Australia and is characterised by low lands, generally less than 300 metres in elevation, occasionally punctuated by a few big hills (higher than 1,000 metres). Vegetation ranges from woodlands, shrublands and grasslands to rangelands and desert dunes. There are isolated freshwater systems through the arid zone including waterholes and lakes, underground water, clay pans and springs fed by the Great Artesian Basin.

Widespread pastoral activities over the last 100 years have altered large areas of the arid zone from their pre-European states. Changes include major loss of habitats, reduction in small mammal populations, and livestock trampling of delicate biotic soil crusts (which maintain soil and dune stability and water infiltration).

There are more than 200 weed species. Some were planted for pasture, shade trees or to suppress dust, and dispersed by machinery, vehicles and floods. The most threatening is buffel grass. It has invaded extensive areas, wreaking havoc through degradation, habitat loss and biodiversity decline. Like Gamba grass in the north, in combination with extreme heatwaves, buffel grass has altered fire frequency and intensity. Hot fires now reach well into the tree canopy, killing the trees, as well as shrubs and native grasses.

Introduced feral animals include cattle, goats, camels, foxes, cats and pigs.

The arid zone rangelands are also economically important and contribute approximately A$4.4 billion per year to Australia’s economy through tourism, pastoralism and agriculture combined.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Heat wave
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock
  • Water extraction
⑥ Georgina Gidgee Woodlands, central Australia

Georgina gidgee is a keystone tree, a species that holds an ecosystem together, and dominates low open woodlands. It occurs naturally in small patches (up to 10 hectares) in the arid zone, growing mostly along watercourses and in clay depressions between spinifex grass dunes. Georgina gidgee woodlands are important hot spots for life, acting as refuges for native rodents, small marsupials, red kangaroos and bats. They provide permanent or temporary habitat for more than 80 bird species, and animals such as lizards and ants.

Georgina gidgee woodlands are heading for collapse due to a range of pressures including climate change, fire, overgrazing, wood collection, weeds, feral animals and changes in water flow. For example, harvesting for fence posts in the Brigalow Belt, Queensland, cleared 7.4 million ha of gidgee and associated ecosystems by 1998. What remains still suffers extensive loss through pastoral activities.

As mature trees are relatively long-lived (over 200 years), their recovery is slow. Without significant intervention, this ecosystem will turn into a desert.

The consequences of desertification include loss of shade for cattle, loss of water catchment surface for refilling the artesian basin, and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function associated with their role in stabilising ancient dunes. Loss of vegetation also increases the number of giant, regional dust storms, which can travel all the way to the major cities in eastern Australia.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Heat wave
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock
  • Water extraction
  • Other
⑦ Ningaloo Reef, northern Western Australia

Ningaloo and adjacent reefs are within the World Heritage listed Ningaloo Coast, and comprise an ecosystem of immense biodiversity, and national and international ecological importance. It’s home to megafauna such as migrating whale sharks and whales, turtles, corals, and economically important habitat for fisheries.

The ecosystem is threatened by rising ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and increasingly intense and severe weather events such as marine heatwaves and tropical cyclones. Coral bleaching events have been recorded from 1990 to 2019, causing substantial reef-wide death (such as around 80% loss of coral cover of Bundegi Reef).

Fish numbers have also decreased, especially in recreational fishing areas. Pressures from human use and water quality exacerbates these changes. And crown-of-thorns starfish and carnivorous snails hamper their recovery from bleaching.

The impacts of these combined global and local pressures are felt in tourism and commercial fisheries, which are worth around A$1.5 billion per year for the region.

Pressures:

  • Temperature
  • Ocean acidification
  • Sea level change
  • Heat wave
  • Storm
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Livestock harvesting
  • Water extraction
  • Runoff / pollution
⑧ Shark Bay Seagrass Communities, Western Australia

Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area, is the home to one of world’s largest (4,300 square kilometres) and most diverse seagrass meadows. It’s a carbon storage hotspot, holding 350 million tons of carbon.

It supports an extensive food web, and diverse fauna including tiger sharks, and around 10% of the world’s dugongs, manta rays, dolphins, and green and loggerhead turtles. Southern right and humpback whales also use Shark Bay as a migratory staging post.

Over a background of chronic increases in seawater temperatures, Shark Bay experienced an unprecedented marine heatwave in the summer of 2010-11, lasting more than 10 weeks. Meanwhile, flooding from a tropical storm over the Gascoyne River catchment covered the bottom of the bay in up to 10 centimetres of mud. About a quarter of all sea grasses died, with limited recovery since.

This saw major decreases in dugongs (68% decrease), sea snakes (77% decrease). Populations of bottlenose dolphins, pied cormorants and green sea turtles decreased by 35–40%. Another marine heatwave hit in December 2019, and another is predicted for March 2021

The failure of major seagrass recovery has led to the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide as organic sediments breakdown. The ecosystem collapse caused major disruption to the local commercial fishing industry, when the scallop and crab commercial fishery had to close for five years.

Pressures:

  • Temperature
  • Ocean acidification
  • Heat wave
  • Flood
  • Storm
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Livestock harvesting
  • Other
⑨ Murray Darling River Basin — waterways

The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia’s largest river system with 23 river valleys and over 77,000 kilometres of watercourses. The basin has more than 30,000 wetlands (400 wetlands are considered “high value” in Victoria alone) home to 46 species of native fish and 120 species of water birds. Some wetlands are recognised internationally as globally important.

The overall health of the river system is poor. Since European settlement, the river and tributaries have become highly regulated, with significant water diversion for agriculture and urban uses. These impacts have been exacerbated by increasing temperatures, declining average rainfall and severe droughts, further reducing water flows (by 40% since the mid-1990s).

Salinisation (saltier water), toxic algal blooms, hypoxia (low oxygen), introduced fish species, erosion, bushfire ash and nutrient runoff also contribute to declining water quality. Today, native fish populations are just 10% of pre-European numbers. Some 20 mass fish deaths, including of threatened species, have occurred since the 1960s.

The ecosystem is increasingly non-functional with decreasing freshwater biodiversity, and loss of ecosystem services and cultural values. The 2011 plan to improve the basin set a target to recover water for the environment, diverting it from irrigation. This was estimated to cost A$542 million annually, but the additional water has added A$3–8 billion worth of ecosystem services to the entire basin.

Despite the last drought ending, and rivers are flowing again, troubles are still emerging with recent reports of toxic algal blooms.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Water level change
  • Heat wave
  • Flood
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock/harvesting
  • Water extraction
  • Runoff/pollution
  • Other
⑩ Murray-Darling River Basin — riverine

The Murray Darling Basin covers around 14% of Australia’s land area, comprising low-lying undulating areas, extensive plains and parts of the Great Dividing Range. The basin is Australia’s most important water catchment – forests and wetlands cover over 100 million hectares of floodplains and adjacent riverbank areas. The mighty river red gum is key to the health of these ecosystems that depend on frequent flooding (once every three years) for growth and reproduction.Floodplain and riparian vegetation provide corridors and habitat for millions of animals, including water birds and 46 species of native fish. More than 2 million people live in the basin, and it’s home to 46 First Nations who care for at least 10,000 culturally significant places.

Over the last 200 years, humans have altered much of the basin, including the construction of weirs, irrigation channels, farm dams and municipal water reservoirs. All these changes affect the region’s water, and have significantly deteriorated riparian (bank-side) systems and populations of dependent species such as waterbirds.

Around 40% of the highly diverse ecosystems have been cleared or otherwise modified for logging and agricultural use. In 2008, an investigation of 1,600km of river estimated only 30% of the remaining river red gums were in good condition. Extraction of water for agriculture, including 1.8 million megalitres of groundwater, has increased soil salinity. The region is experiencing chronically raising temperatures, ongoing reductions in rainfall and increasingly long and severe droughts (2003–2009, 2017–2019).

Despite some restoration efforts, ecological collapse of riverine ecosystems continues. As tree deaths are becoming more widespread, forest canopy cover is reducing. Rivers flows and groundwater levels are decreasing, contributing to loss and degradation of habitat. Populations of birds, mammals and fish are shrinking. All these changes have flow-on impacts.

The basin is Australia’s main food bowl; 40% of food worth A$22 billion is produced annually. In addition, tourism contributes some A$8 billion each year. The droughts cut farm profits by 30%.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Heat wave
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock/harvesting
  • Water extraction
⑪ Montane and Sub-alpine Forests, South Australia, New South Wales and the Victorian highlands

Montane alpine ash and subalpine snowgum forests occupy the highest forested areas of the Australian Alps. Alpine ash are giants and can grow over 90 metres tall, although trees over 40m are rare across most of the alps today.

Intense fires kill both snowgums and alpine ash. Climate change is increasing the frequency of fire through droughts, longer snow-free periods, tree stress and dry lightning in storms. This is amplified by positive feedback, where regrowth after prescribed burns or bushfire is much more flammable than long-unburnt forest. From 2000 to 2019, 84% of the entire alpine ash forests in NSW and Victoria were burned, some areas up to three times. Now, 70% of alpine ash are immature trees and over 75% of snow gums are at their most flammable age.These forests are critical to the health of one of Australia’s most important water catchments. They also store large quantities of carbon, and surround high value utility and tourism infrastructure, such as Snowy Mountain power stations and ski resorts.

Increases in wildfire amplified by positive feedbacks place a heavy economic burden on these, as well as a health and safety impact on surrounding human populations.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Heatwave
  • Storm
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock / harvesting
  • Human-lit fire
⑫ Great Southern Reef Kelp Forests, southern Australia

The Great Southern Reef extends along 8,100 kilometres of coast, covering 71,000 square kilometres from Brisbane, around the south coast of Australia and Tasmania, to well north of Perth. It comprises a large number of rocky temperate reefs that support lush kelp forests, dominated by golden kelp and, in colder areas, giant kelp. Kelp supports high levels of biodiversity including other seaweeds, sponges, crustaceans, starfish, abalone, fish and rock-lobsters.

Different combinations of pressures cause kelp forest to degrade and collapse. These include coastal development, pollution, marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and increased storm severity and frequency. For example, along 100 km of coastline reefs from Perth to Kalbarri, WA, most kelp forests have been lost and replaced with algal turfs. Giant kelp forests are now endangered.

The East Australian Current (thrust into popular culture via the film Finding Nemo) is frequently penetrating southward to Tasmania. This transports warm, nutrient- depleted waters, larvae of a NSW sea urchin and northern species of fish. The sea urchins severely damage the kelp forests, as does overfishing of large lobsters.

On conservatively estimates, the Great Southern Reef kelp forests generate at least A$10 billion per year in economic activity. Economic and social consequences of its decline include the collapse of the rock lobster, abalone and other fisheries, as well as impacts on Indigenous communities and decreases in tourism.

Pressures:

  • Temperature
  • Ocean acidification
  • Native species interactions
  • Heat waves
  • Storms
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Harvesting
  • Runoff/pollution
  • Other
⑬ Mediterranean-type Forests and Woodlands

Forests and woodlands in south-west WA extend over 10,000 square kilometres. They include the northern jarrah forest, tuart forest and woodlands, and banksia woodlands. The woodlands experience a Mediterranean-type climate, with cool, wet winters and dry, hot summers.

Vulnerable parts of these forest ecosystems experienced substantial die-off during an acute drought associated with an extreme heat wave in 2010-2011. But warming and drying of the region has been chronic since the mid-1970s. Impact was locally severe with, for example, up to 60% of Menzies banksia dying in woodlands on the Swan Coastal Plains.

Die-off sites illustrate what can happen when these forests and woodlands don’t have enough water. If die-off occurs at larger scales, forest resources and ecosystem services (such as carbon storage and seed resources) are threatened. Increased fire is also a risk, with associated damage to property and widespread pollution from bushfire smoke, as was recently experienced invFebruary 2021.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Native species interactions
  • Heatwave
  • Storm
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
⑭ Monaro Tablelands, South Eastern Highlands

The Monaro tablelands of south-east NSW are characterised by mosaics of grassy woodlands, grasslands and forests. These provide important habitat for a range of threatened plants and animal species, including koalas, spotted-tail quolls and dusky wood swallows, as well as 15 other smaller marsupial species, 95 bird species, 14 species of reptiles and more.

Like most other temperate grasslands and grassy woodlands in Australia, the Monaro ecosystems have declined since Indigenous burning regimes were replaced with livestock and feral herbivore grazing, along with clearing, cultivation and non-native plant invasions.

Tragically, since 2005, ribbon gums that once dominated the rolling plains have died in great numbers. This is likely associated with the Millennium drought, ongoing drying conditions and heatwaves, and exacerbated by invertebrate pest outbreaks. More recently, the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires burned extensive areas across the Monaro.

Widespread tree deaths are not only a loss of habitat for mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates, but significantly impact the economy through lack of shelter for livestock during the Monaro’s harsh winters and hot summers. The impacts on the landscape’s aesthetic also affects human well-being.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Native species interactions
  • Heatwave
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Livestock/harvesting
⑮ Snowpatch Herbfields, Australian Alps

The snowpatch herbfields, made up of dwarf grasses and alpine herbs, are one of the rarest and most restricted ecosystems in Australia. They occur only on steep, south-east-facing slopes of alpine and high treeless subalpine zones, where snow persists into the spring and summer growing seasons.

Over the past 50 years, climate change has caused warming of almost 1°C, and substantial decrease in snow amount and depth, cover and persistence in the Australian alpine area. Fire has also become a major force with increased frequency, dry lightning storms and extreme fire weather. And feral horses trample vegetation and cause soil erosion. These pressures, and others, are collapsing the snow patch herbfield, replacing them with larger shrubs and grasses or just eroded ground.

The collapse of the snow patch herbfields highlights the plight of the Australian alpine ecosystems in general. The alps are regional economic powerhouses; visitors to the Australian Alps generate over A$1.3 billion and the area employs almost 20,000 people.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Storm
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Human-lit fire
⑯ Mountain Ash Forests, Victorian Central Highlands

The mountain ash ecosystem in the Central Highlands of Victoria supports the world’s tallest flowering plants. It’s among the world’s most carbon-dense forests, supporting an array of threatened forest-dependent species, and generating almost all of the water for the 5 million inhabitants of Melbourne (as well as communities and agriculturalists north of the Great Divide).

The mountain ash ecosystem is under enormous environmental pressure from widespread and recurrent wildfire, coupled with widespread clear-cut logging. Extensive old growth forests once dominated the ecosystem, but now just 1.16% of the ecosystem (1,886 hectares of 170,400 ha) is old growth. The widespread young forest is highly flammable and at extreme risk of reburning at high severity. This is especially due to increased temperatures and greater numbers of days marked as “extreme” on the forest fire danger index.

The collapse will have severe economic and social effects. The value of water from the ecosystem is 25.5 times greater than the value of the timber generated from the same ecosystem. The collapse of the ecosystem also poses an enormous threat for long-term carbon storage, biodiversity conservation and the billion-dollar tourism industry in regional Victoria.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
  • Other
⑰ Gondwanan Conifer forests, Tasmania

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area covers 15,800 square kilometres. One of its key values is the high concentration of ancient invertebrate animals and plants endemic to Tasmania (often called “palaeoendemics”). An iconic example is the genus Athrotaxis in the conifer family, which is considered one of the oldest surviving plant lineages on Earth — a living fossil.

There are two existing species of Athrotaxis: Pencil pines (Athrotaxis cupressoides) and king billy pines (Athrotaxi selaginoides). Both are very slow growing and can live for more than 1,000 years.

Like other palaeoendemics, Athrotaxis species can’t tolerate frequent or intense fire, and are restricted to fireproof landscapes. Around 30% of the range of king billy pines have been lost in the last 200 years, and half the pencil pines were burnt in the summer of 1960/61 by uncontrolled fires set by graziers to renew grasslands during an intense drought.

Climate change now threatens these and other palaeoendemic species through increased fire activity due to more dry lightning storms and drought. In January 2016, lightning storms ignited numerous fires that destroyed about 1% of the remaining pencil pines. These trees are unlikely to ever return. The loss of palaeo-endemics will profoundly diminish the region’s natural and cultural values.

Securing the survival of palaeoendemics under climate change requires costly management interventions. These include establishing fire breaks, targeted planned burning to reduce fuel surrounding the palaeoendemic refuges and active restoration programs. The Tasmanian Government and the University of Tasmania currently trial these measures.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Storm
  • Fire
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Invasive species
⑱ Subantarctic Tundra, Macquarie Island

The World Heritage sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island is home to unique alpine tundra. Cushion plants and bryophytes (such as mosses) dominate this treeless ecosystem. This uninhabited island ecosystem is one of the rarest on the planet, occurring on only eight other oceanic, sub-Antarctic islands. It’s home to many invertebrate species, and is the breeding ground of thousands of seabirds and marine mammals.

The ecosystem is rapidly collapsing due to mass die-off of cushion plants. Wind, rain and regional climate patterns all have changed in recent years, due to greenhouse gas increases and loss of ozone. There have also been increases in average wind speed, sunshine hours, and “evapotranspiration” (the sum of evaporation from the land surface plus transpiration from plants). Winter rainfall, cyclones, and a drier atmosphere also appear to have increased.

This has resulted in surface drying and raised surface evaporation of cushions and byrophytes in summer, leading to their death. With plants under such stress, an unknown disease has emerged that has now devastated much of this fragile ecosystem. And this has led to the ecosystem losing World Heritage values.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Temperature
  • Native species interactions
  • Flood
  • Storm
  • Other
⑲ East Antarctica Moss Beds, Windmill Islands (66°S), Vestfold Hills (68°S)

Antarctic vegetation is limited to the small ice-free areas covering less than 0.4% of the continent. Algae, cyanobacterial mats (dense “mats” of microbes), lichens and mosses dominate the flora, and there are no flowering plants. Moss beds only occur in areas where enough moisture is available during the short summer growing season. Some of the most extensive and well-developed vegetation in continental Antarctica support century old moss “forests” near Australia’s Casey Station. These lush, green moss turfs support the majority of invertebrates in the ecosystem.From 2000 to 2013, the species composition in these Antarctic moss beds changed significantly. Moss species that can tolerate drier conditions expanded, while endemic moss, better adapted to frequent pulses of water from melted ice, declined. By 2008, half the mosses that had been green and healthy in 2003 suffered water stress, turning red or grey under drying conditions.This drying is likely due to a combination of climate change and ozone thinning,making it windier and lowering temperatures around coastal East Antarctica in summer. This makes water less available during the growing season, and less water means less moss growth.

Historically, human activity associated with research stations has reduced local moss populations, but drying appears to be more widespread than just in the Casey region. Recovery has been limited, and in the summer of 2019-20, an Antarctic heatwave melted nearby snow banks and glaciers, causing flooding. Some grey mosses greened within a month. However, others that didn’t receive floodwater remained grey, stressed or dead.

Pressures:

  • Rainfall changes
  • Native species interactions
  • Heatwave
  • Storm
  • Habitat change/loss
  • Water extraction
  • Other

What to do about it?

Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?

We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:

  • Awareness of what is important
  • Anticipation of what is coming down the line
  • Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.

In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.

In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby’s black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been removed.

“Future-ready” actions are also vital. This includes reinstating cultural burning practices, which have multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities and can help minimise the risk and strength of bushfires.

It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to warmer conditions.

Some actions may be small and localised, but have substantial positive benefits.

For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the 2019-20 fires. Brilliantly, Zoos Victoria anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — Bogong bikkies.

Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the root cause of environmental threats, such as human population growth and per-capita consumption of environmental resources.

We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as feral cats and buffel grass, and stop widespread land clearing and other forms of habitat destruction.

Our lives depend on it

The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for environments globally.

The simplicity of the 3As is to show people can do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.

Our lives and those of our children, as well as our economies, societies and cultures, depend on it.

We simply cannot afford any further delay.
The Conversation

The Conversation: To fix Australia’s environment laws, wildlife experts call for these 4 changes — all are crucial

By Don Driscoll (Deakin University), April Reside (The University of Queensland), Brendan Wintle (University of Melbourne), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Martine Maron (The University of Queensland).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The independent review of Australia’s main environment law, released last week, provided a sobering but accurate appraisal of a dire situation.

The review was led by Professor Graeme Samuel and involved consultation with scientists, legal experts, industry and conservation organisations. Samuel’s report concluded Australia’s biodiversity is in decline and the law (the EPBC Act) “is not fit for current or future environmental challenges”.

The findings are no surprise to us. As ecologists, we’ve seen first hand how Australia’s nature laws and governance failure have permitted environmental degradation and destruction to the point that species face extinction. Even then, continued damage is routinely permitted.

And the findings aren’t news to many other Australians, who have watched wildlife and iconic places such as Kakadu and Kosciuszko national parks, and the Great Barrier Reef, decline at rates that have only accelerated since the act was introduced in 1999. Even globally recognisable wildlife, such as the platypus, now face a future that’s far from certain.

To reverse Australia’s appalling track record of protecting biodiversity, four major reforms recommended by Samuel must be implemented as a package.

1. Setting standards

One of the many failings of Australia’s environmental laws is there has never been a point beyond which no further impacts are acceptable.

The government almost never says “enough!”, whether it’s undermining wetlands for a new mine, or clearing woodlands for agriculture. Species continue to suffer death by a thousand cuts.

For example, the original distribution of the endangered southern black-throated finch of southern and central Queensland has shrunk to less than 10% due to land clearing and habitat degradation. Yet, further clearing was approved for coal mines, housing developments and sugar cane farms.

Biodiversity offsets, which aim to compensate for environmental damage by improving nature elsewhere, have for the most part been dreadfully ineffective. Instead they have been a tool to facilitate biodiversity loss.

The centre piece of Samuel’s report are proposed new National Environmental Standards. These would provide clear grounds for drawing a line in the sand on environmental damage.

Legal, rigorous enforcement of these standards could turn around Australia’s centuries-long record of destroying its natural heritage, and curb Australia’s appalling extinction rate — while also providing clarity and certainty for business.

Vital features of the standards Samuel recommends include:

  • avoiding impacts on the critical habitat of threatened species
  • avoiding impacts that could reduce the abundance of threatened species with already small and declining populations
  • no net reduction in the population size of critically endangered and endangered species
  • cumulative impacts must be explicitly considered for threatened species and communities
  • offsets can only be used as a last resort, not as a routine part of business like they are at the moment.

Under the proposed National Environmental Standards, any new developments would need to be in places where environmental damage is avoided from the outset, with offsets only available if they’re ecologically feasible and effective.

2. Greater government accountability

The federal environment minister can make decisions with little requirement to publicly justify them.

In 2014, then environment minister Greg Hunt controversially approved an exemption to the EPBC Act for Western Australia’s shark cull. This was despite evidence the cull wouldn’t make people safer, would harm threatened species and would degrade marine ecosystems. Hunt could shirk the evidence, deny the impacts and make a politically expedient decision, with no mechanisms in place to call him to account.

Samuel’s report states the minister can make decisions that aren’t consistent with the National Environmental Standards — but only as a “rare exception”. He says these exceptions must be “demonstrably justified in the public interest”, and this justification must be published.

We think this epitomises democracy. Ministers can make decisions, but they must be open to public and robust scrutiny and explain how their decisions might affect environments and species.

Improved accountability will be one of the many benefits of Samuel’s proposed independent Environment Assurance Commissioner, which would be backed up by an Office of Compliance and Enforcement. Samuel says these must be free from political interference.

These are absolutely critical aspects of the reforms. Standards that aren’t audited or enforced are as worthless as an unfunded recovery plan.

3. Decent funding

Samuel urges improved resourcing because to date, funding to protect species and the environment has been grossly inadequate. For example, experts recently concluded up to 11 reptile species are at risk of extinction in the next 50 years in Australia, and limited funding is a key barrier to taking action.

And it has been proven time and again that lack of action due to under-resourcing leads to extinction. The recent extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys were all attributable, in large part, to limited funding, both in the administration of the threatened species listing process, and in delivering urgent on-ground action.

We need only look to the COVID pandemic to know when faced with emergencies, the government can rapidly deploy substantial sums of money for urgent interventions. And we are well and truly in an environmental emergency.

Spending to care for the environment is not a cost that delivers no return. It’s an investment that delivers substantial benefits, from creating jobs to cleaner water and healthier people.

4. Increase ecological knowledge

Engaging experts is key to achieving Samuel’s long-overdue proposed reforms. He calls for the immediate creation of expert committees on sustainable development, Indigenous participation, conservation science, heritage, and water resources. This will help support the best available data collection to underpin important decisions.

Ultimately, though, much more investment in building ecological knowledge is required.

Australia has more than 1,900 listed threatened species and ecological communities, and most don’t even have active recovery plans. Ecologists will need to collect, analyse and interpret new, up-to-date data to make biodiversity conservation laws operational for most threatened species.

For example, while we know logging and fires threaten greater gliders, there’s still no recovery plan for this iconic forest possum. And recent research suggests there are actually three — not simply one — species of greater glider. Suspected interactions between climate change, fire and logging, and unexplained severe population declines, means significant new effort must be invested to set out a clear plan for their recovery.

Samuel recommends Regional Recovery Plans be adequately funded to help develop some knowledge. But we suggest substantial new environmental capacity is needed, including new ecological research positions, increased environmental monitoring infrastructure, and appropriate funding of recovery plans, to ensure enough knowledge supports decision making.

Cherry picking recommendations condemns our species

Samuel’s report has provided a path forward that could make a substantial difference to Australia’s shocking track record of biodiversity conservation and land stewardship.

But Environment Minister Sussan Ley’s response so far suggests the Morrison government plans to cherry pick from Samuel’s recommendations, and rush through changes without appropriate safeguards.

If the changes we outlined above aren’t implemented as a package, our precious natural heritage will continue to decline.
The Conversation

The Conversation: It’s not too late to save them: 5 ways to improve the government’s plan to protect threatened wildlife

Numbats are among 20 mammals on the federal government’s priority list.

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Ayesha Tulloch (University of Sydney), Don Driscoll  (Deakin University), Megan C Evans (UNSW), and Tim Doherty (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s Threatened Species Strategy — a five-year plan for protecting our imperilled species and ecosystems — fizzled to an end last year. A new 10-year plan is being developed to take its place, likely from March.

It comes as Australia’s list of threatened species continues to grow. Relatively recent extinctions, such as the Christmas Island forest skink, Bramble Cay melomys and smooth handfish, add to an already heavy toll.

Now, more than ever, Australia’s remarkable species and environments need strong and effective policies to strengthen their protection and boost their recovery.

So as we settle into the new year, let’s reflect on what’s worked and what must urgently be improved upon, to turn around Australia’s extinction crisis.

How effective was the first Threatened Species Strategy?

The Threatened Species Strategy is a key guiding document for biodiversity conservation at the national level. It identifies 70 priority species for conservation, made up of 20 birds, 20 mammals and 30 plants, such as the plains-wanderer, malleefowl, eastern quoll, greater bilby, black grevillea and Kakadu hibiscus.

These were considered among the most urgent in need of assistance of the more than 1,800 threatened species in Australia.

The strategy also identifies targets such as numbers of feral cats to be culled, and partnerships across industry, academia and government key to making the strategy successful.

The original strategy (2015-20) was eagerly welcomed for putting the national spotlight on threatened species conservation. It has certainly helped raise awareness of its priority species.

However, there’s little evidence the strategy has had a significant impact on threatened species conservation to date.

The midterm report in 2019 found only 35% of the priority species (14 in total) had improving trajectories compared to before the strategy (pre-2015). This number included six species — such as the brush-tailed rabbit-rat and western ringtail possum — that were still declining, but just at a slower rate.

On average, the trends of threatened mammal and bird populations across Australia are not increasing.

Other targets, such as killing two million feral cats by 2020, were not explicitly linked to measurable conservation outcomes, such as an increase in populations of threatened native animals. Because of this, it’s difficult to judge their success.

What needs to change?

The previous strategy focused very heavily on feral cats as a threat and less so on other important and potentially compounding threats, particularly habitat destruction and degradation.

For instance, land clearing has contributed to a similar number of extinctions in Australia (62 species) as introduced animals such as feral cats (64).

In fact, 2018 research found agricultural activities affect at least 73% of invertebrates, 82% of birds, 69% of amphibians and 73% of mammals listed as threatened in Australia. Urban development and climate change threaten up to 33% and 56% of threatened species, respectively.

Other important threats to native Australian species include pollution, feral herbivores (such as horses and goats), very frequent or hot bushfires and weeds. Buffel grass was recently identified as a major emerging threat to Australia’s biodiversity, with the risk being as high as the threat posed by cats and foxes.

Five vital improvements

We made a submission to the Morrison government when the Threatened Species Strategy was under review. Below, we detail our key recommendations.

1. A holistic and evidence-based approach encompassing the full range of threats

This includes reducing rates of land clearing — a major and ongoing issue, but largely overlooked in the previous strategy.

2. Formal prioritisation of focal species, threats and actions

The previous strategy focused heavily on a small subset of the more than 1,800 threatened species and ecosystems in Australia. It mostly disregarded frog, reptile, fish and invertebrate species also threatened with extinction.

To reduce bias towards primarily “charismatic” species, the federal government should use an evidence-based prioritisation approach, known as “decision science”, like they do in New South Wales, New Zealand and Canada. This would ensure funds are spent on the most feasible and beneficial recovery efforts.

3. Targets linked to clear and measurable conservation outcomes

Some targets in the first Threatened Species Strategy were difficult to measure, not explicitly linked to conservation outcomes, or weak. Targets need to be more specific.

For example, a target to “improve the trajectory” of threatened species could be achieved if extinction is occurring at a slightly slower rate. Alternatively, a target to “improve the conservation status” of a species is achieved if new assessments rate it as “vulnerable” rather than “endangered”.

4. Significant financial investment from government

Investing in conservation reduces biodiversity loss. A 2019 study found Australia’s listed threatened species could be recovered for about A$1.7 billion per year. This money could be raised by removing harmful subsidies that directly threaten biodiversity, such as those to industries emitting large volumes of greenhouse gases.

The first strategy featured a call for co-investment from industry. But this failed to attract much private sector interest, meaning many important projects aimed at conserving species did not proceed.

5. Government leadership, coordination and policy alignment

The Threatened Species Strategy should be aligned with Australia’s international obligations such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (which is also currently being reviewed). This will help foster a more coherent and efficient national approach to threatened species conservation.

There are also incredible opportunities to better align threatened species conservation with policies and investment in climate change mitigation and sustainable agriculture.

The benefits of investing heavily in wildlife reach beyond preventing extinctions. It would generate many jobs, including in regional and Indigenous communities.

Protecting our natural heritage is an investment, not a cost. Now is the time to seize this opportunity.
The Conversation

Fabulous Fuzzballs – A collection of mammal tales tails

Mammals are extraordinarily successful animals, occupying Earth’s skies, seas and land, but many species also face significant threats and uncertain futures.

In this 35-minute presentation, I share stories about dingoes, bandicoots, tree kangaroos, bears and other mammals, highlighting their ecological and cultural importance, and how science is aiding their conservation.

The Conversation: Research reveals shocking detail on how Australia’s environmental scientists are being silenced

By Don Driscoll (Deakin University),Bob Pressey (James Cook University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Noel D Preece (James Cook University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ecologists and conservation experts in government, industry and universities are routinely constrained in communicating scientific evidence on threatened species, mining, logging and other threats to the environment, our new research has found.

Our study, just published, shows how important scientific information about environmental threats often does not reach the public or decision-makers, including government ministers.

In some cases, scientists self-censor information for fear of damaging their careers, losing funding or being misrepresented in the media. In others, senior managers or ministers’ officers prevented researchers from speaking truthfully on scientific matters.

This information blackout, termed “science suppression”, can hide environmentally damaging practices and policies from public scrutiny. The practice is detrimental to both nature and democracy.

Code of silence

Our online survey ran from October 25, 2018, to February 11, 2019. Through advertising and other means, we targeted Australian ecologists, conservation scientists, conservation policy makers and environmental consultants. This included academics, government employees and scientists working for industry such as consultants and non-government organisations.

Some 220 people responded to the survey, comprising:

  • 88 working in universities
  • 79 working in local, state or federal government
  • 47 working in industry, such as environmental consulting and environmental NGOs
  • 6 who could not be classified.

In a series of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, we asked respondents about the prevalence and consequences of suppressing science communication.

About half (52%) of government respondents, 38% from industry and 9% from universities had been prohibited from communicating scientific information.

Communications via traditional (40%) and social (25%) media were most commonly prohibited across all workplaces. There were also instances of internal communications (15%), conference presentations (11%) and journal papers (5%) being prohibited.

‘Ministers are not receiving full information’

Some 75% of respondents reported having refrained from making a contribution to public discussion when given the opportunity – most commonly in traditional media or social media. A small number of respondents self-censored conference presentations (9%) and peer-reviewed papers (7%).

Factors constraining commentary from government respondents included senior management (82%), workplace policy (72%), a minister’s office (63%) and middle management (62%).

Fear of barriers to advancement (49%) and concern about media misrepresentation (49%) also discouraged public communication by government respondents.

Almost 60% of government respondents and 36% of industry respondents reported unduly modified internal communications.

One government respondent said:

Due to ‘risk management’ in the public sector […] ministers are not receiving full information and advice and/or this is being ‘massaged’ by advisors (sic).

University respondents, more than other workplaces, avoided public commentary out of fear of how they would be represented by the media (76%), fear of being drawn beyond their expertise (73%), stress (55%), fear that funding might be affected (53%) and uncertainty about their area of expertise (52%).

One university respondent said:

I proposed an article in The Conversation about the impacts of mining […] The uni I worked at didn’t like the idea as they received funding from (the mining company).

Critical conservation issues suppressed

Information suppression was most common on the issue of threatened species. Around half of industry and government respondents, and 28% of university respondents, said their commentary on the topic was constrained.

Government respondents also reported being constrained in commenting on logging and climate change.

One government respondent said:

We are often forbidden (from) talking about the true impacts of, say, a threatening process […] especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat […] In this way the public often remains ‘in the dark’ about the true state and trends of many species.

University respondents were most commonly constrained in talking about feral animals. A university respondent said:

By being blocked from reporting on the dodgy dealings of my university with regards to my research and its outcomes I feel like I’m not doing my job properly. The university actively avoids any mention of my study species or project due to vested financial interests in some key habitat.

Industry respondents, more than those from other sectors, were constrained in commenting on the impacts of mining, urban development and native vegetation clearing. One industry respondent said:

A project […] clearly had unacceptable impacts on a critically endangered species […] the approvals process ignored these impacts […] Not being able to speak out meant that no one in the process was willing or able to advocate for conservation or make the public aware of the problem.

The system is broken

Of those respondents who had communicated information publicly, 42% had been harassed or criticised for doing so. Of those, 83% believed the harassers were motivated by political or economic interests.

Some 77 respondents answered a question on whether they had suffered personal consequences as a result of suppressing information. Of these, 18% said they had suffered mental health effects. And 21% reported increased job insecurity, damage to their career, job loss, or had left the field.

One respondent said:

I declared the (action) unsafe to proceed. I was overruled and properties and assets were impacted. I was told to be silent or never have a job again.

Another said:

As a consultant working for companies that damage the environment, you have to believe you are having a positive impact, but after years of observing how broken the system is, not being legally able to speak out becomes harder to deal with.

Change is needed

We acknowledge that we receive grants involving contracts that restrict our academic freedom. And some of us self-censor to avoid risks to grants from government, resulting in personal moral conflict and a less informed public. When starting this research project, one of our colleagues declined to contribute for fear of losing funding and risking employment.

But Australia faces many complex and demanding environmental problems. It’s essential that scientists are free to communicate their knowledge on these issues.

Public servant codes of conduct should be revised to allow government scientists to speak freely about their research in both a public and private capacity. And government scientists and other staff should report to new, independent state and federal environment authorities, to minimise political and industry interference.

A free flow of information ensures government policy is backed by the best science. Conservation dollars would be more wisely invested, costly mistakes avoided and interventions more effectively targeted.

And importantly, it would help ensure the public is properly informed – a fundamental tenet of a flourishing democracy.
The Conversation

The Conversation: Predators, prey and moonlight singing: how phases of the Moon affect native wildlife

Image credits: Wes Mountain / The Conversation

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Courtney Marneweck (Clemson University), and Grant Linley (Charles Sturt University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humans have long been inspired and transfixed by the Moon, and as we’re discovering, moonlight can also change the behaviour of Australian wildlife.

A collection of recently published research has illuminated how certain behaviours of animals – including potoroos, wallabies and quolls – change with variation in ambient light, phases of the Moon and cloud cover.

One study found small mammals were more active on cloudy nights. Another found variation in moonlight led to differing amounts of species captured in non-lethal traps. And a study on willie wagtails found males just love singing on a full moon.

These findings are interesting from a natural history perspective. But they’ll also help ecologists and conservation scientists better locate and study nocturnal animals, and learn how artificial light pollution is likely changing where animals can live and how they behave.

Moonlit predator-prey games of hide and seek

Most of Australia’s mammals are nocturnal, and some smaller species are thought to use the cover of darkness to avoid the attention of hungry predators. However, there’s much we don’t know about such relationships, especially because it can be difficult to study these interactions in the wild.

In the relatively diverse mammal community at Mt Rothwell, Victoria, we examined how variation in ambient light affected species’ activity, and how this might influence species interactions. Mt Rothwell is a fenced conservation reserve free of feral cats and foxes, and with minimal light pollution.

Over two years, we surveyed the responses of predator and prey species to different light levels from full, half and new moon phases.

Potential prey species in our study included eastern barred and southern brown bandicoots, long-nosed potoroos, brushtailed rock-wallabies, and brushtail and common ringtail possums. Eastern and spotted-tailed quolls are their potential predators.

Just as we predicted, we found that while there does appear to be relationships between cloud cover, Moon phase and mammal activity, these interactions depend on the sizes and types of mammals involved.

Both predators and prey generally increased their activity in darker conditions.
Smaller, prey species increased their activity when cloud cover was higher, and predators increased their activity during the half and new moon phases.

This suggests their deadly game of hide and seek might intensify on darker nights. And prey might have to trade off foraging time to reduce their chances of becoming the evening meal.

What happens in the wild?

It’s important to acknowledge that studies in sanctuaries such as Mt Rothwell might not always reflect well what goes on in the wild, including in areas where introduced predators, such as feral cats and red foxes, are found.

Another recent study, this time of small mammals in the wilds of Victoria’s Mallee region, sheds further light on the situation. The authors tested if variation in weather and Moon phase affected the numbers of five small mammal species – Bolam’s mouse, common dunnart, house mouse, southern ningaui, and western pygmy possum – captured in pitfall traps.

Pitfall traps are long fences small animals can’t climb over or through, so follow along the side until they fall into a bucket dug in the ground. Ecologists typically use these traps to capture and measure animals and then return them to the wild, unharmed.

At more than 260 sites and over more than 50,000 trap nights, they found wind speed, temperature and moonlight influenced which species were caught and in what numbers.

For example, captures of a small native rodent, Bolam’s mouse, and carnivorous marsupial, southern ningaui, decreased with more moonlight, whereas captures of pygmy possums were higher with more moonlight.

Moonlight songbird serenades

Research from last month has shown even species normally active by day may change their behaviour and activity by night.

It’s not uncommon to hear bird song by night, including the quintessentially Aussie warbling of magpies. Using bioacoustic recorders and song detection software, these researchers show the willie wagtail – another of Australia’s most recogisable and loved birds – is also a nighttime singer, particularly during the breeding season.

While both male and female wagtails sing by day, it is the males that are most vocal by night. And it seems the males aren’t afraid of a little stage-lighting either, singing more with increasing moonlight, with performances peaking during full moons.

This work provides insight into the importance and potential role of nocturnal song for birds, such as mate attraction or territory defence, and helps us to better understand these behaviours more generally.

Moonlight affects wildlife conservation

These studies, and others, can help inform wildlife conservation, as practically speaking, ecological surveys must consider the relative brightness of nights during which work occurred.

Depending on when and where we venture out to collect information about species, and what methods we use (camera traps, spotlighting, and non-lethal trapping) we might have higher or lower chances of detecting certain species. And this might affect our insights into species and ecosystems, and how we manage them.

As dark skies become rarer in many places around the world, it also begs a big question. To what extent is all the artificial light pollution in our cities and peri-urban areas affecting wildlife and ecosystems?

Pipistrelle bats, for example, will be roughly half as active around well-lit bridges than unlit bridges. They’ll also keep further away from well-lit bridges, and fly faster when near them.

This means artificial light might reduce the amount and connectivity of habitat available to some bat species in urban areas. This, in turn could affect their populations.

Research is underway around the world, examining the conservation significance of such issues in more detail, but it’s another timely reminder of the profound ways in which we influence the environments we share with other species.

The authors  acknowledge Yvette Pauligk, who contributed to our published work at Mt Rothwell, and that the traditional custodians of this land are the Wathaurong people of the Kulin nation.
The Conversation

 

Aussie English: Australia’s wildlife extinction crisis

In this podcast with Pete Smissen for Aussie English, I talk about a wide range of topics including:

  • how I became a wildlife ecologist
  • why large predators died out in Australia
  • how Australia’s past and present ecology differs
  • the impact of feral species in Australia including cats, foxes, and rabbits
  • why bushfires are so bad for Australia wildlife
  • the Australian wildlife extinction crisis
  • and more!

The Conversation: One little bandicoot can dig up an elephant’s worth of soil a year – and our ecosystem loves it

Eastern Barred Bandicoot, Perameles gunnii. Image credit Museum Victoria Catching The Eye via Flickr

By Euan Ritchie, (Deakin University), Amy Coetsee (University of Melbourne), Anthony Rendall  (Deakin University), Duncan Sutherland (University of Melbourne), and Leonie Valentine (University of Western Australia).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

On Churchill Island, southeast of Melbourne, small cone-shaped, shallow holes (digs) puncture the grass. They’re widespread, and reveal moist soil below the surface. A soil heap at the entrance of a dig is a sign it was made recently.

Older digs are filled with leaves, grass, spiders, beetles and other invertebrates. They are made by hungry eastern barred bandicoots – small, roughly rabbit-sized digging marsupials – looking for a juicy worm or grub.

It turns out these bandicoot digs are far from just environmental curiosities – they can improve the properties and health of soils, and even reduce fire risk.

But eastern barred bandicoots are under threat from introduced predators like foxes and cats. In fact, they’re considered extinct in the wild on mainland Australia, so conservation biologists are releasing them on fox-free islands to help establish new populations and ensure the species is conserved long-term.

Our recent research on Churchill Island put a number on just how much the eastern barred bandicoot digs – and the results were staggering, showing how important they are for the ecosystem. But more on that later.

Why you should dig marsupial diggers

Digging mammals – such as bettongs, potoroos, bilbies and bandicoots – were once abundant and widespread across Australia, turning over large amounts of soil every night with their strong front legs as they dig for food or create burrows for shelter.

Their digs improve soil health, increase soil moisture and nutrient content, and decrease soil compaction and erosion. Digs also provide habitat for invertebrates and improve seed germination.

What’s more, by digging fuel loads (dry, flammable vegetation, such as leaves) into the soil, they can help bring down the risk of fire.

Rather than leaves and other plant matter accumulating on the soil surface and drying out, this material is turned over faster, entering the soil when the badicoots dig, which speeds up its decay. Research from 2016 showed there’s less plant material covering the soil surface when digging mammals are about. Without diggers, models show fire spread and flame height are bigger.

In fact, all their functions are so important ecologists have dubbed these mighty diggers “ecosystem engineers”.

Losing diggers leads to poorer soil health

Of Australia’s 29 digging mammals, 23 are between 100 grams and 5 kilograms. Most are at risk of cat and fox predation, and many of these are officially listed as threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Since European settlement, six of Australia’s digging mammals have gone extinct, including the lesser bilby, desert rat kangaroo and pig-footed bandicoots. Many others have suffered marked population declines and extensive range contraction through habitat destruction and the introduction of foxes and cats.

Tragically, the widespread decline and extinction of many digging mammals means soil and ecosystem health has suffered as well.

Soils that were once soft textured, easy to crumble, rich and fertile are now often compact, repel water and nutrient poor, impeding seed germination and plant growth. Fuel loads are also likely to be much higher now than in the past, as less organic matter is dug into the soil.

To date, most research on digging mammals has focused on arid environments, with much less known about how digging influences wetter (mesic) environments. But our recently published study on eastern barred bandicoots provides new insights.

Just how much do bandicoots dig anyway?

In 2015, 20 mainland eastern barred bandicoots were released onto Churchill Island in Victoria’s Westernport Bay.

On mainland Australia, fox predation has driven this species to near extinction, and it’s classified as extinct in the wild. All Victoria’s islands are beyond the historic range of eastern barred bandicoots, but fox-free islands could be how we recover them.

Introducing bandicoots on Churchill Island presented the perfect opportunity to quantify how they influence soil properties when digging for food.

To do this we recorded the number of digs bandicoots made each night and measured the volume of soil they displaced through digging. We also compared soil moisture and compaction within the digs, versus un-dug soil – and we didn’t expect what we found.

In one night on Churchill Island, one bandicoot can make 41 digs an hour. That’s nearly 500 digs a night, equating to around 13 kilograms of soil being turned over every night, or 4.8 tonnes a year. That’s almost as much as the average weight of a male African elephant.

So, an astonishing amount of soil is being turned over, especially considering these bandicoots typically weigh around 750 grams.

If you multiply this by the number of bandicoots on Churchill Island (up from 20 in 2015 to around 130 at the time of our study in 2017), there’s a staggering 1,690 kilos of soil being dug up every night. That’s some major earthworks!

However, we should note our study was conducted during the wetter months, when soils are typically easier to dig.

In summer, as soil becomes harder and drier on Churchill Island, digging may become more difficult. And bandicoots, being great generalists, feed more on surface invertebrates like beetles and crickets, resulting in fewer digs. So we expect in summer that soil is less disturbed.

Bandicoots might help agriculture too

All this digging was found to boost soil health on Churchill Island. This means eastern barred bandicoots may not only play an important role in ecosystem health and regeneration, but also potentially in agriculture by assisting pasture growth and condition, reducing topsoil runoff, and mitigating the effects of trampling and soil compaction from livestock.

The benefits bandicoot digs have across agricultural land is of particular importance now that eastern barred bandicoots have also been released on Phillip Island and French Island, and are expected to extensively use pasture for foraging.

These island releases could not just help to ensure eastern barred bandicoots avoid extinction, but also promote productive agricultural land for farmers.

So, given the important ecological roles ecosystem engineers like bandicoots perform, it’s also important we try to reestablish their wild populations on the mainland and outside of fenced sanctuaries so we can all benefit from their digging, not just on islands.
The Conversation

The Conversation: How you can help – not harm – wild animals recovering from bushfires

Building one of these watering pods can help thirsty wildlife, but it must be checked for safety and hygiene, and refilled regularly. Image credits: Arid Recovery

By Marissa Parrott (University of Melbourne), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University) and Euan Ritchie (Deakin University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Since July last year, bushfires have burned more than 7.7 million hectares of southeast Australia, putting many threatened species at increased risk of extinction.

Now that fires have been extinguished in some areas, surviving wildlife face other challenges, such as a lack of food, clean water and shelter, and more exposure to invasive predators.

Australians have helped raise millions of dollars to support Australia’s imperilled wildlife, such as to set up triage centres and evacuate threatened species like eastern bristlebirds and Macquarie perch.

But beyond the vital role of providing financial support, here are a few simple things individuals can do – and avoid – to help our native wildlife recover.

Animals need fresh water, but not from a bottle

Photos of well-meaning people offering water from bottles to animals, especially thirsty koalas, often go viral online. But this is not a safe way to help koalas.

Animals must be allowed to drink water themselves, rather than us pouring water into their mouths. Animals, such as koalas, can’t drink quickly and poured water can fill their lungs, leading to potentially fatal aspiration pneumonia.

Still, providing safe, fresh drinking water is one crucial and practical way we can help them as summer grinds on.

This is particularly important since recent storms have washed ash, sediment and chemicals from burnt infrastructure into waterways, contaminating many catchments.

Water should be stationed at ground level, in a shaded location safe from predators, and in trees for birds and tree-dwelling species like possums, gliders and koalas. Check out DIY guides for building drinking fountains, or “watering pods”, for wildlife.

Sticks and rocks should be placed in the water to allow small species, such as reptiles, to climb out if they fall in. Water must be checked and changed regularly to ensure hygiene and avoid the spread of disease. And pets must be kept away from these locations (especially cats).

What to do if you spot injured wildlife by the road

Authorities are searching the fire grounds for injured animals, and the public is reminded to avoid these areas until they’re confirmed as safe to enter.

But if you happen upon an injured survivor, what should you do?

First of all, call government agencies or trained wildlife rescuers, who can assist any injured wildlife.

Many animals may be in pain and frightened and some, including kangaroos, koalas and wombats, are potentially dangerous if approached. In urgent cases, such as when an animal is in obvious distress or has clear injuries, some animals can be carefully caught and wrapped in a towel, then placed in a well-ventilated, dark and secure box for quiet transport to wildlife veterinary hospitals for care.

Sadly, many animals are hit by cars during fires when they’re disoriented and panicked, and so it’s important to slow down in such areas.

You can also check animals found by roads for injuries and surviving young in pouches, and call authorities to assist. But always be careful of traffic when attending to animals on roadsides, and help other drivers be aware of you by putting hazard lights on and wearing bright clothes.

Don’t feed native wildlife, especially not peanut butter mixes

With so much vegetation burned away, supplementary feeding has gained attention following fires in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

But feeding wildlife without expert advice and legal approval can do more harm than good.

Feeding inappropriate foods like processed foods, over-feeding, providing unhygienic foods or food stations, and attracting predators to food stations, can all be fatal for native wildlife.

Even some foods suggested online, such as bait balls (peanut butter mixes), can cause gastrointestinal issues for wildlife, potentially killing them. Similar issues can arise if wildlife are given some types of hay, vegetables, seeds, and fruits.

Supplementary feeding isn’t advised unless habitat and sources of food have been completely destroyed, and is only appropriate as a short-term emergency intervention until natural resources recover.

But leave it up to the experts and government agencies, which provide nutritionally suitable, specially developed and monitored food in extreme cases.

Somewhere to run and hide

In some cases, fire may mean native animals are more prone to predators killing and eating them. And, depending on the habitat, it may take months or even years for plants and animals’ homes to recover sufficiently to provide safety once again.

However, new approaches – such as building artificial shelters out of fencing wire and shade cloth – may help to buy species time, keeping small mammals, reptiles and other potential prey safe from hungry mouths. This could occur both on private and public land.

Show wildlife the money

Caring for wildlife after fires, whether they’re injured or have lost their homes, is a marathon, not a sprint. And given the scale of these fires, our wild neighbours need our increased support.

Often, the most helpful thing people can do is raise and donate funds to organisations, including Zoos Victoria and the Ecological Society of Australia.

Some wildife species, such as bristlebirds, corroboree frogs, and mountain pygmy-possums, are being pushed to the brink of extinction and may need long-term captive breeding and release programs, or investment in active management of wild populations (such as the newly constructed feral predator-free area for Kangaroo Island dunnarts).

We can all help to make a difference and protect our remarkable and unique wildlife that so desperately needs our help.The Conversation

The Conversation: This centuries-old river red gum is a local legend – here’s why it’s worth fighting for

By Euan Ritchie, Deakin University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, his titular character famously said: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

In the midst of a global extinction crisis, the Lorax’s call to preserve what is precious couldn’t be more apt. The greatest threat to the survival of species globally continues to be habitat destruction and modification.

A potential and local victim of this ongoing environmental catastrophe is a single tree, and a tree I have a deep personal connection with. The tree I refer to is Bulleen’s iconic 300-year-old river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis).

To me, this tree has been a constant in my life. While everything else has changed around me, it has stood there, solid, just as solid as its red gum fibres are known to be.

As a child, I fondly remember looking up at this tree in awe, as we’d often stop at the nearby service station on a hot summer’s day to buy a cold drink or ice-cream on the way to Saturday sport, the nearby Birrarung (Yarra River), or my grandmother’s house.

Bulleen’s majestic river red gum

It’s estimated to be approximately 20 metres in height with a canopy spread of 17 metres. And its trunk measures a whopping two metres across.

The tree is thought to be the oldest remnant of a once substantial red gum forest, and was saved by a local resident when the rest of the area was cleared for the construction of a service station.

It now faces destruction, as it is within the preferred path of construction for Victoria’s North East link.

While the measurements of this tree are impressive, the splendour and value for me is that it has survived for so long and, in more recent times, against tremendous odds.

Surviving against all odds

The Bulleen red gum stands beside one of Melbourne’s busiest roads and the immediate area is covered with concrete and bitumen. The tree’s roots and health have therefore been challenged for a long time, and yet this massive red gum stands, as if in defiance of the modern world and the development that has encircled it.

Since this tree has survived for so long, it undoubtedly holds a special connection with so many: the Wurundjeri-willam people of the Kulin Nation, members of Australia’s famed Heidelberg school of artists who lived and worked in the near vicinty, everyday commuters that have driven or walked by or stopped to admire it, or the war verteran Nevin Phillips who once apparently defended it with his rifle against it being chainsawed.

Further proof of the value of this tree to so many is that it was awarded The National Trust of Australia’s (Victoria) 2019 Victorian Tree of the Year.

Why we must speak for and save old trees

I grew up near this tree and, like the Lorax, I would like to speak for it.
Trees as old as the Bulleen river red gum are now increasingly rare in our world, and beyond their strong personal and cultural values, including in some places as Aboriginal birthing sites, they are tremendously important for other reasons as well.

These trees provide shade and help keep our cities cooler, improve our mental health and wellbeing, and store considerable amounts of carbon aiding our fight against climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, under their bark and in their cracks and hollows, they provide homes for many of Australia’s precious but increasingly imperilled native wildlife, including bats, birds, possums and gliders, snakes and lizards, insects and spiders.

These homes are prime wildlife real estate, especially in our big cities, where such large old trees are vanishingly rare but where considerable wildlife, common and threatened, still persists. And yet more could survive with a helping hand from us.

As cities like Melbourne continue to grow around the world, there will be more and more cases where arguments of progress are used to justify the further destruction of what nature remains. But progress shouldn’t come at any cost, and in the case of preserving iconic and valuable trees such as Bulleen’s river red gum, it would seem there’s more than enough reasons to ensure this tree’s life and its many values continue.

Perhaps again the wise sage, the Lorax, says it best. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
The Conversation

The Conversation: The dingo is a true-blue, native Australian species

Canis dingo: not a wolf, and not just another dog.

By Bradley Smith (CQUniversity Australia), Corey JA Bradshaw (Flinders University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Justin W Adams (Monash University), Kylie M Cairns (University of New South Wales), and Mathew Crowther (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Of all Australia’s wildlife, one stands out as having an identity crisis: the dingo. But our recent article in the journal Zootaxa argues that dingoes should be regarded as a bona fide species on multiple fronts.

This isn’t just an issue of semantics. How someone refers to dingoes may reflect their values and interests, as much as the science.

How scientists refer to dingoes in print reflects their background and place of employment, and the Western Australian government recently made a controversial attempt to classify the dingo as “non-native fauna”.

How we define species – called taxonomy – affects our attitudes, and long-term goals for their conservation.

What is a dog?

Over many years, dingoes have been called many scientific names: Canis lupus dingo (a subspecies of the wolf), Canis familiaris (a domestic dog), and Canis dingo (its own species within the genus Canis). But these names have been applied inconsistently in both academic literature and government policy.

This inconsistency partially reflects the global arguments regarding the naming of canids. For those who adhere to the traditional “biological” species concept (in which a “species” is a group of organisms that can interbreed), one might consider the dingo (and all other canids that can interbreed, like wolves, coyotes, and black-backed jackals) to be part of a single, highly variable and widely distributed species.

But the “biological” species concept used to name species came about long before modern genetic tools, or even before many hybrid species were identified by their DNA (such as the “red wolf,” an ancient hybrid of grey wolves and coyotes found in the southeastern United States).

Few people would really argue that a chihuahua, a wolf, and a coyote are the same species. In reality there are many more comprehensive and logical ways to classify a species. In our latest paper we argue that a holistic approach to defining species is essential in the case of the dingo and other canids.

Our work shows conclusively that dingoes are distinct from wild canids and domestic dogs based on many different criteria.

Truly wild

The first criterion is that dingoes are wild animals, and live completely independent from humans. This is fundamentally different to domestic, feral, or wild dogs, which must live near human settlements and rely on humans for food and water in some way to survive.

Yes, the dingo might have arrived in Australia with humans, and we know that Aboriginal Australians have had a close relationship with dingoes following the latter’s arrival. But neither of these observations excludes dingoes from being wild.

For example, a relationship with humans does not constitute the rigorous definitions of domestication. Consider the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), which was also introduced to Australia by people and are now free-ranging: they are also not considered to be domesticated. Neither are wild animals such as birds that we feed in our backyards domesticated simply because they are sometimes fed by us.

Ecological role

In fact, dingoes have been living wild and independently of humans for a very long time — they have a distinct and unique evolutionary past that diverged some 5 to 10 thousand years ago from other canids. This is more than enough time for the dingo to have evolved into a naturalised predator now integral to maintaining the health of many Australian ecosystems.

Dogs do not have the brain power or body adaptations to survive in the wild, and they cannot play the same ecological role as dingoes. From this ecological perspective alone, the two species are not interchangeable. Dingoes are Australia’s only large (between 15-20 kg), land-based predator, and as such play a vital role in Australia’s environment.

Shape and size

Viewed alone, the overall shape of the body and skull does not easily distinguish wild canids from dogs, mainly because of the sheer diversity among different breeds of domestic dogs.

But there are some important body differences between free-ranging dogs and dingoes, mainly in the skull region (as shown here and here).

Behaviour

Dingoes (and other truly wild canids) have some fundamentally unique behaviours that set them apart from dogs (although like shape, there are often exceptions among the artificial dog breeds). For example, dingoes have significantly different reproductive biology and care-giving strategies.

There are also differences in brain function, such as in the way the two species solve problems, and dingoes and dogs communicate differently with humans.

Genetics

While dingoes and dogs obviously share an ancestral relationship, there is a lot of genetic data to support the distinction between dingoes and dogs.

While dingoes share ancestry with ancient Asian dogs from 10,000 years ago, the dingo has been geographically isolated from all other canids for many thousands of years, and genetic mixing has only been occurring recently, most probably driven by human intervention.

Since the 1990s, genetic markers have been in widespread use by land managers, conservation groups, and researchers to differentiate dingoes from domestic dogs.

What’s at stake?

Even acknowledging the dingo’s uncertain and distant past, lumping dingoes and dogs together is unjustified.

Labelling dingoes as “feral domestic dogs” or some other misnomer ignores their unique, long, and quintessentially wild history in Australia.

Inappropriate naming also has serious implications for their treatment. Any label less than “dingo” can be used to justify their legal persecution.

Further loss of dingoes could have serious, negative ecological consequences, including potentially placing other Australian native animals at increased risk of extinction.The Conversation

The Wire: Experts call for dramatic decrease in land clearing

More than 300 scientists, practitioners and students have made a stark declaration to Australian lawmakers to curb the dramatic pace of land clearing across the nation.

The experts say that irreparable damage has already been done, and that the continued pace of current land clearing can make us more prone to bushfires and drought, accelerate the impact of climate change and severely impact Australian farmers.

Dingo dinners: what’s on the menu for Australia’s top predator?

By Tim Doherty (Deakin University), Chris Dickman (University of Sydney), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Thomas Newsome (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The dingo is Australia’s largest land-based predator, occurring across most of the mainland and on many nearshore islands.

Our new research, published in the journal Mammal Review, reveals the breadth and diversity of dingo diets across the continent.

We compiled and analysed 73 sets of data, containing details of more than 32,000 dingo droppings or stomach contents, to document the range of different species that dingoes eat, and how their diets vary between different environments.

A wide-ranging diet

We found that dingoes eat at least 229 vertebrate species. This includes 62 small mammals (less than 500 grams in mass), 79 medium-sized and larger mammals, 10 species of hoofed mammals, 50 birds and 26 reptiles. Dingoes also eat insects, crustaceans, centipedes, fish and frogs.

The true number of species is likely to be much higher because dingo diets have been poorly studied in many parts of Australia, such as Cape York Peninsula.

Large (at least 7 kg) and medium-sized (0.5 to 6.9 kg) mammals were the most common components of dingo diets, followed by small mammals, rabbits, arthropods, reptiles, birds and hoofed animals.

Average occurrence of eight food types in the diet of dingoes. Values represent the percentage of droppings/stomachs that contained each food type.

A range of introduced pest species also feature in dingo diets, including deer, goats, rabbits, hares, black rats, house mice, foxes and cats. In recent decades, the occurrence of sambar deer in dingo diets has increased as this invasive species has expanded its range.

Dingoes also eat sheep and cattle, although dietary samples are unable to distinguish between predation and scavenging, and hence tell us little about dingo impacts on livestock production. Dietary samples also do not reveal instances of dingoes killing livestock without eating them.

Regional variation

We found that what dingoes eat depends on where they live. For instance, in arid central Australia, birds, reptiles, rabbits, small mammals and insects form major parts of dingo diets. In contrast, these food groups are less important in temperate and subtropical eastern Australia, where medium-sized and large mammals such as kangaroos, bandicoots and possums are more important.

Frequency of different food groups in dingoes’ diet. Each circle represents a study and is scaled proportionally with dietary occurrence; larger circles represent a higher frequency of that food type. Top row: arthropods and small mammals (less than 500 g); middle row: reptiles and medium-sized mammals (0.5-6.9kg); bottom row: rabbits and large mammals (at least 7 kg).

The higher occurrence of medium-sized mammals in dingo diets in eastern Australia may be due to the lower extinction rates of native mammals there. In contrast, central Australia is a global mammal extinction hotspot, which probably accounts for the low occurrence of medium-sized mammals in dingo diets in arid and semi-arid areas.

Nonetheless, one medium-sized mammal was a major food item for dingoes in arid areas: the European rabbit. In some areas, more than 50% of dingo droppings or stomachs contained the remains of this invasive species. It is possible that native medium-sized mammals previously constituted a major part of dingo diets in arid Australia, but have since been replaced by rabbits.

Local prey availability plays a major role in determining what dingoes eat. For instance, in the Tanami Desert, reptiles were most common in dingo diets during warmer months when they are most active. However, very few studies have collected data on prey availability, partly because of the sheer number of different animals that dingoes eat.

Threatened species

Dingoes kill or eat at least 39 native species that are classed as threatened or near-threatened on the IUCN Red List. These include the northern quoll, golden bandicoot and bridled nailtail wallaby.

This tally is higher than the number of threatened species in feral cat diets (based on a previous study that used similar methods), even though cats eat almost twice as many different species overall as dingoes (400 and 229, respectively).

Today’s threatened native species co-existed with dingoes for a long time before European colonisation, which means they were able to withstand dingo predation without going extinct.

But now a combination of small population sizes of some threatened species and exacerbating factors such as habitat loss, foxes and cats means some threatened species could be vulnerable to even low levels of dingo predation. Predation by dingoes should therefore be a key consideration when attempting to conserve or restore threatened species.

Dietary studies are one way we can understand how dingoes interact with other species. Our study also highlights that we still have much to learn about our native top predator. In many parts of Australia, the favourite foods of dingoes are still a mystery.

The authors acknowledge the contribution of Naomi Davis, Dave Forsyth, Mike Letnic, Russell Palmer, Joe Benshemesh, Glenn Edwards, Jenny Lawrence, Lindy Lumsden, Charlie Pascoe, Andy Sharp, Danielle Stokeld, Cecilia Myers, Georgeanna Story, Paul Story, Barbara Triggs, Mark Venosta and Mike Wysong to this research.
The Conversation

The Conservation: Guardian dogs, fencing, and ‘fladry’ protect livestock from carnivores

Livestock guardian dog breeds, such as Maremma, are often raised with and trained to consider themselves part of a livestock herd and so protect their herd from threats. Image via Shutterstock.

By Lily van Eeden (University of Sydney), Adrian Treves (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Euan Ritchie (Deakin University).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farmers have struggled for millennia to protect their livestock from wolves, lions, bears, and other large carnivores. It’s expensive and time-consuming for farmers, governments and related agencies. Many current approaches have led to dramatic reductions or the complete loss of some apex predators from many regions of the globe.

Despite these substantial costs and their long history, we have remarkably little understanding of what methods best reduce livestock attacks.

A recent synthesis study, led by Lily van Eeden, Ann Eklund, Jennie Miller, and Adrian Treves with a total of 21 authors from 10 countries, found that there’s a worldwide dearth of rigorous experimental studies testing the effectiveness of interventions to protect livestock from carnivores.

Where studies do exist, results were mixed. Some management interventions did reduce livestock losses, some made little to no difference, and some resulted in increased livestock losses. This means that for some methods, farmers would be better off doing nothing at all than using them.

Poor evidence, poor outcomes

The scant evidence is cause for concern. Aside from financial waste, preventable livestock attacks cause economic, emotional, and social costs for farmers. And both livestock and carnivores may be left maimed and suffering by human failures to separate the two sets of animals.

Too often, studies and management programs measure success based on money spent or saved, numbers of community members who contributed, or carnivores killed. None of these factors necessarily mean livestock loss is prevented or reduced.

In fact, livestock owners, policy makers, and scientists should work together to build an evidence base and discover what works best to reduce attacks on livestock under different conditions.

What works and why

Where we found rigorous studies quantifying livestock loss, three methods were consistently effective: livestock guardian dogs, some kinds of fencing, and a deterrent called “fladry” (a Polish word for strips of cloth or plastic flagging hung at regular intervals along a rope or fence line).

Livestock guardian dogs have been used successfully in Europe for centuries and are now seeing a revival elsewhere, including in North America and Africa.

Livestock guardian dog breeds, such as Maremma and Komondor, are typically much larger than herding dogs. They are raised with and trained to consider themselves part of a livestock herd and so protect their herd from threats.

While dogs are most common, they’re not the only guardian animals: llamas, alpacas, and donkeys are also used to protect livestock from smaller predators like coyotes and foxes, but more research is needed to determine how effective they are.

Fencing can be simple post-and-wire, an electric fence, or corrals, kraals or bomas (circular enclosures used in some parts of Africa) constructed from stones or wood.

Livestock can be kept within fenced areas all the time, or only at night when they are most vulnerable to carnivores (who often hunt at night, dawn, or dusk).

Our study didn’t find sufficient evidence to show that all kinds of fencing work, but there was enough that they should be considered generally effective and adapted to local conditions.

“Fladry” is a Polish word for strips of cloth or plastic flagging hung at regular intervals along a rope or fence line. Fladry is usually red, which is considered the most effective colour for scaring away carnivores. This method has been proven effective at deterring predators like grey wolves and coyotes from entering pastures.

Interestingly, all three of the methods we found to be generally effective do not involve killing carnivores.

This is good news for carnivore conservation, because it means that management can simultaneously protect livestock and carnivores. Large carnivores can play crucial roles in ecosystem regulation, so removing them can cause cascading consequences for landscapes and biodiversity.

Given the damage that ineffective management can cause to farming communities, animal welfare, and ecosystems, we hope our research serves as a catalyst for policy-makers and practitioners to think critically about the methods they use and why.

Too often, we continue to use a particular method due to habit and history, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to protect assets.

Governments that continue to fund and encourage ineffective management are not giving farming communities the best chance of success.

The Conversation

YouTube: Carnivore conservation needs evidence-based livestock protection

A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology reveals certain nonlethal methods are effective for managing predators in agricultural landscapes. Twenty-one authors from 10 nations reviewed 114 peer-reviewed scientific studies measuring the effectiveness of lethal and non-lethal methods for reducing carnivore predation on livestock. Livestock guardian dogs, livestock enclosures and fladry all were scientifically shown to be effective conflict deterrents.

 

Australian Geographic: The extinction crisis: Australians call for a radical re-haul of environmental laws

Australia is failing to meet international obligations to protect our unique wildlife, experts say.

Recounting a list of Australian animals on the brink of extinction comes all too easily to Euan Ritchie, an Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University.

“Obvious examples include the orange-bellied parrot, which only has a few individuals left in the wild,” he says, referring to the multi-coloured grass parrot with a total population of less than 50 that migrates between Tasmania and mainland Australia…

Continue reading on the Australian Geographic website

The Conversation: Why the WA government is wrong to play identity politics with dingoes

Western Australian Minister for the Environment Stephen Dawson has declared that the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native. Image credit Leo via Flickr.

By Bradley Smith (CQUniversity Australia), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Lily van Eeden, (University of Sydney).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms depicts two iconic native animals – the kangaroo and the emu. Both are unquestionably fair dinkum Aussies, unique to this continent and having lived here for a very long time. A “very long time”, according to Australian legislation (the EPBC Act 1999), is any species having been present since before the year 1400.

But in Western Australia, under the state’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, no native animal is guaranteed protection. The Act includes a caveat whereby the relevant minister may determine that a native species is in fact, not.

This week, WA’s environment minister Stephen Dawson did just that, declaring that from January 1, 2019, the dingo, Australia’s native canine, will no longer be classified as native fauna.

The dingo does meet the federal government’s criterion, having lived in Australia as a wild canid for an estimated 5,000 years. But under the planned changes in WA, the dingo will lose its current listing as “unprotected fauna”, and will from next year be considered indistinguishable from either the common domestic dog or feral dogs.

What is a species anyway?

According to the biological species concept, a species is a group that has the ability to interbreed and produce viable, fertile offspring. Dingoes, dogs and other canids do interbreed (or “hybridise”), and indeed this is one of the key reasons why the pure dingo is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

But this ability to hybridise is also one of the main justifications cited by the WA government in its decision to revoke the dingo’s citizenship (the fact sheet has since been removed from the website, but can be accessed here). The rationale is that if dingoes and dogs are technically the same species, why should dingoes get special treatment?

However, the biological species concept is problematic when applied to canids. If you lump dingoes and dogs together because they readily interbreed, then logically we must do the same for wolves, coyotes, jackals or other canids that can also interbreed (and have done for millenia).

It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting that a grey wolf and a pug are the same species. This suggests that this criterion alone is insufficient to solve the conundrum. Indeed, there are at least 32 different species concepts, clearly illustrating the difficulty of defining a single rule by which all organisms should abide.

Despite this, a recent paper that argues the biological species concept should be applied to dingoes, was cited as supporting evidence by the WA government. Adopting this narrow interpretation of taxonomy is perhaps somewhat premature. It ignores other investigations that provide evidence to the contrary. Given the contention around defining species, it seems unwise to determine the species status of dingoes independently of other, more comprehensive evidence and argument.

Distinguishing dingoes

All canids share similarities, but their differences are also many and marked. The dingo can be distinguished from other dogs in various ways: their appearance, anatomy, behaviour, their role in ecosystems, and their genetics (their evolutionary history and degree of relatedness to other species). Dingoes seem to be largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication.

It is therefore reasonable for the dingo to be considered separately from wolves and domestic dogs, while also acknowledging that they all occupy the same broad species classification, Canis lupus.

Having lived in Australia as free-living, wild populations for around 5,000 years almost exclusively under the forces of natural selection, and separately from any other dog lineage until European arrival, there is no notion of the dingo as a domestic animal gone feral. To classify dingoes as nothing more than “feral domestic dogs” expunges their unique, long and quintessentially wild history. Dingoes are not ecologically interchangeable with any other type of dog, either wild or domesticated.

Labelling the dingo as a feral domestic dog changes their legal status and removes any current obligations for developing appropriate management plans. This demotion of status could lead to intensified lethal control. Indeed, control may even be legally mandated.

In the absence of thylacines, mainland Tasmanian devils, and other apex predators, the ecological role that the dingo plays in the Australian landscape is vital. Dingoes help to control kangaroo and feral goat populations, and in some cases foxes and cats as well.

Given WA’s remoteness, it remains one of the few bastions of pure dingoes, and as such it presents an opportunity to seek ways to protect them rather than pave the way for their removal. The WA government’s decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the management of dingoes, and indeed other contentious native wildlife, elsewhere in Australia.

How we choose to classify plants and animals might sound like dry science. But it has genuine implications for policy, management and conservation. Our scientific naming systems are vital for helping to organise and understand the rich biological diversity with which we share the planet, but it is important to remember that these systems are informed not just by biology but also by our values.

In this case, economic and political interests appear to have been favoured over wildlife preservation, and given Australia’s unenviable conservation record this is deeply concerning.
The Conversation