The Conversation: We must rip up our environmental laws to address the extinction crisis

The Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi) became extinct in 2009. Image credit Lindy Lumsden

By Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Desley Whisson, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University; Mike Weston, Deakin University; Raylene Cooke, Deakin University, and Tim Doherty, Deakin University.

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

Humans are causing the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, with an estimated one million species at risk of extinction.

Addressing this crisis requires transformative change, including more effective environmental law and implementation.

Improved legislation is one of five main levers for realising change identified in the recent United Nation’s global biodiversity report and the key lesson arising from the Senate’s interim report into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis.

The Senate’s interim report, based on 420 submissions and five hearings, shows Australia is a world leader in causing species extinctions, in part because Australia’s systems for conserving our natural heritage are grossly inadequate.

To allow the continued erosion of this continent’s spectacular and remarkable array of globally unique plants and animals is a travesty of the highest order.

Inadequate protections

One of the problems is species may decline from common to extinct quite rapidly – faster than the time it takes species to be listed as threatened under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

The Christmas Island forest skink was formally listed as a threatened species only four months before the last individual died in captivity, but 15 years after the decline was first reported.

Extinction of the forest skink, Bramble Cay melomys and Christmas Island pipistrelle between 2009 and 2014 may have been averted if the risk was formally recognised in a more timely manner and effective conservation actions, such as captive breeding programs, were implemented.

Currently, if a species is not listed, it is not a “matter of national environmental significance” and federal agency staff generally have no legal basis for acting to protect it.

The black-throated finch has been listed as threatened on the EPBC Act for 14 years and during this time 600,000 ha of potential finch habitat has been destroyed. Worse still, five large coal mines, including the Carmichael Coal Mine, have been given approval (pending environmental conditions being met in Queensland) to clear more than 29,000 ha of black-throated finch habitat in one of its final strongholds, the Galilee Basin.

Coal mining will drive these finches into the critically endangered threat category, pushing them perilously close to extinction, and all with federal government approval.

The controversial Toondah Harbour development in Brisbane is another example of how ministerial discretion can allow disastrous environmental outcomes. The project plans to build 3,600 apartments on wetlands that provide habitat for migratory waterbirds, including the critically endangered eastern curlew.

Despite being described as “clearly unacceptable” by the federal environment department and knocking it back twice, the minister allowed a third submission to proceed for further assessment.

It was reported this decision was made in the context of legal threats and donations from the developer in question. If true, this context would make it very difficult to make impartial decisions that protect biodiversity, as environmental law intends.

Increasing ministerial discretion was a key result of 2007 amendments to the EPBC act, which meant recovery plans were no longer required for threatened species.

The amendment allowed the minister to develop “conservation advices” instead of recovery plans. This amendment downgraded protections for threatened species because a minister can legally make decisions that are inconsistent with conservation advice, but not a recovery plan.

New environmental legislation

Based on these examples and many others that demonstrate the failings of current laws, the interim report concludes that we should rip up the EPBC act and develop stronger and more effective environmental legislation.

This includes establishing an independent Environmental Protection Agency to ensure enforcement of environmental laws, and, in a forward-looking addition by the Greens senators, an independent National Environmental Commission to monitor effectiveness of environmental legislation and propose improvements.

Australia needs a well-resourced, independent umpire for the environment, with powers to investigate environmental concerns and scrutinise government policy, akin to New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. While Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner is an excellent champion for the environment, this role provides no ability to question government actions regarding environmental protection and nature conservation.

Although replacing the EPBC act with new legislation may seem like a radical step to some (but not all), the interim Senate report, and the global UN report, have independently concluded major reform is essential. We are not in a moment of time when tweaking the current system will do the trick.

Changing Australia’s environmental legislation is a relatively minor update compared with the fundamental social and economic changes recommended by the UN report.

Such changes are already recommended by scientific societies like the Ecological Society of Australia, non-government organisations like Birdlife Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation, and are demanded by a growing section of society. New, fit-for-purpose legislation must be enforceable, apolitical and responsive.

Opinion polls show that the level of environmental concern is higher in Australia than in other countries , while 29% of ABC Vote Compass respondents ranked the environment as the most important issue, up from 9% in 2016.

This groundswell of environmental concern has spawned mass protest movements like Extinction Rebellion. Young Australians also have shown their concern. In March 2019, thousands of school students took part in 50 rallies across the country to protest against “the destruction of our future”.

Decisions about what and how much we buy, what we eat, how much we travel and by what means, and family size, all contribute to our environmental footprints, and are the fundamental instigators of the biodiversity crisis.

However, we must also look to our political leaders to support effective change. The simplest and most powerful action you can take to reverse the extinction crisis is to vote for a party with policies best aligned with credible scientific advice on how we can get out of this mess.
The Conversation

Mainstreaming human and large carnivore coexistence through institutional collaboration

Authors: Tibor Hartel, Ben C Scheele, Abi Tamim Vanak, Laurențiu Rozylowicz, John D C Linnell, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Conservation Biology

Abstract

Achieving human‐large carnivore coexistence in Human Dominated Landscapes (HDL) is a key challenge for societies globally. This challenge cannot be adequately met with the current sectoral approaches of HDL governance and an academic sector largely dominated by disciplinary silos.

In this essay, we urge academia (universities and other research institutions and organisations) to take a more active role in embracing societal challenges around large carnivore conservation in HDL. Drawing on key lessons from populated regions of Europe, Asia and South America with significant densities of large carnivores, we illustrate how academia can help facilitate cross‐sectoral cooperation for mainstreaming human large carnivore coexistence.

We propose three ways for academia to engage with human‐large carnivore coexistence in HDL.

First, academia should better embrace the principles and methods of sustainability sciences and create institutional spaces for the implementation of transdisciplinary curricula and projects.

Second, researchers should reflect on the research approaches (i.e. disciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary) they apply, and how their outcomes could aid leveraging institutional transformations for mainstreaming human‐large carnivore coexistence.

Third, researchers should engage with various institutions and stakeholder groups for creating novel institutional structures which can respond to the multiple challenges of HDL management, as well as human‐large carnivore coexistence.

Success in mainstreaming human‐large carnivore coexistence in HDL will rest on our collective ability to think and act cooperatively. Such a conservation achievement, if realized, stands to have far-reaching benefits for people and biodiversity alike.

Hartel T, Scheele BC, Vanak AT, Rozylowicz L, Linnell JDC, Ritchie EG (2019) Mainstreaming human and large carnivore coexistence through institutional collaboration. Conservation Biology PDF DOI

PhD opportunity: fire and wildlife ecology in semi-arid ecosystems

We are seeking a PhD student for an exciting, industry-funded project aimed at understanding how fire regimes influence wildlife in semi-arid Victoria. The project is expected to begin in mid-2019.

The project will use new automated methods alongside traditional methods to sample mammal, reptile and amphibian communities across a chronosequence of fire age-classes in each of two major vegetation types (lowan mallee and heathland sands) in the Victorian mallee (Big Desert and Little Desert national parks). The candidate will work closely with machine-learning experts to develop and implement automated data processing methods.

The project is funded and supported via the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, and will also involve close collaboration with research partners at La Trobe University.

For more information and to submit an expression of interest, please contact me.

Your expression of interest should include a CV and up to two pages that specifically address the following selection criteria:

  • Strong, strong first-class honours degree or equivalent at an Australian university or recognised overseas university.
  • Must be able to work independently as well as in a team and show a high level of initiative and collaboration.
  • Field experience (ideally in remote locations) in wildlife survey and ecology.
  • GIS, statistical (program R) and modelling experience will also be very advantageous.
  • Must have a current, manual driver’s license.

Expressions of interest close Tuesday 30 April 2019.

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 Conversation7

The Conversation: To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws

Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result. Image credit: Don Driscoll

By Martine Maron (The University of Queensland), Andrea Griffin (University of Newcastle), April Reside (The University of Queensland), Bill Laurance (James Cook University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Steve Turton (CQUniversity Australia).

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

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.

Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.

In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.

Persistence through tough times: fixed and shifting refuges in threatened species conservation

Authors: April E Reside, Natalie J Briscoe, Chris R Dickman, Aaron C Greenville, Bronwyn A Hradsky, Salit Kark, Michael R Kearney, Alex S Kutt, Dale G Nimmo, Chris R Pavey, John L Read, Euan G Ritchie, David Roshier, Anja Skroblin, Zoe Stone, Matt West, and Diana O Fisher

Published in: Biodiversity and Conservation

Abstract

It may be possible to avert threatened species declines by protecting refuges that promote species persistence during times of stress. To do this, we need to know where refuges are located, and when and which management actions are required to preserve, enhance or replicate them.

Here we use a niche-based perspective to characterise refuges that are either fixed or shifting in location over ecological time scales (hours to centuries). We synthesise current knowledge of the role of fixed and shifting refuges, using threatened species examples where possible, and examine their relationships with stressors including drought, fire, introduced species, disease, and their interactions.

Refuges often provide greater cover, water, food availability or protection from predators than other areas within the same landscapes. In many cases, landscape features provide refuge, but refuges can also arise through dynamic and shifting species interactions (e.g., mesopredator suppression). Elucidating the mechanisms by which species benefit from refuges can help guide the creation of new or artificial refuges. Importantly, we also need to recognise when refuges alone are insufficient to halt the decline of species, and where more intensive conservation intervention may be required.

We argue that understanding the role of ecological refuges is an important part of strategies to stem further global biodiversity loss.

Reside AE, Briscoe NJ, Dickman CR, Greenville AC, Hradsky BA, Kark S, Kearney MR, Kutt AS, Nimmo DG, Pavey CR, Read JL, Ritchie EG, Roshier D, Skroblin A, Stone Z, West M, Fisher DO (2019) Persistence through tough times: fixed and shifting refuges in threatened species conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation PDF DOI

The truth about cats and dogs: assessment of apex- and mesopredator diets improves with reduced observer uncertainty

Authors: Michael L Wysong, Ayesha IT Tulloch, Leonie E Valentine, Richard J Hobbs, Keith Morris, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Jornal of Mammalogy

Abstract

Dietary (scat) analysis is a key tool for assessing the potential effects of predators on prey and for comparing resource use between predators, information that is crucial for effective wildlife management. However, misidentification of the species from which scats originate could result in inaccurate conclusions regarding predator–prey interactions and their consequences for ecosystems, which may ultimately compromise conservation and management actions.

To address this issue, we developed a framework for decision-making in the face of uncertain scat species origin by incorporating field, laboratory, and molecular identification techniques.

We used the framework to examine the diets of two predators, a native apex predator (dingo, Canis lupus dingo) and an invasive mesopredator (feral cat, Felis catus), from 696 field-collected scats in the arid zone of Australia.

We examined how uncertainty regarding scat species origin changed perceptions of the nature of the relationship between coexisting predators and their prey.

The extent of dietary overlap between dingoes and cats varied with the method used to identify scat species origin. Dietary overlap assessed by laboratory identifications was twice as high as when uncertainty in scat species origin was resolved through our decision framework.

If uncertainty in scat species origin is not resolved in dietary studies, practitioners and decision-makers relying on this information run the risk of making misinformed conclusions regarding the ecological function of predators (including potential impacts on threatened species), which could have perverse outcomes if the wrong predators are targeted for management.

With uncertainty in scat species origin resolved through our decision framework, a low level of dietary overlap between the two predators was demonstrated, and medium-sized mammals most threatened with extinction were shown to be more at risk of impact from feral cat than from dingo depredations.

Wysong ML, Tulloch AIT, Valentine LE, Hobbs RJ, Morris K, Ritchie EG (2019) The truth about cats and dogs: assessment of apex- and mesopredator diets improves with reduced observer uncertainty. Journal of Mammalogy PDF DOI

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.

Taxonomic status of the Australian dingo: the case for Canis dingo Meyer, 1793

Authors: Bradley P Smith, Kylie M Cairns, Justin W Adams, Thomas M Newsome, Melanie Fillios, Eloïse C Déaux, William C H Parr, Mike Letnic, Lily M Van Eeden, Robert G Appleby, Corey J A Bradshaw, Peter Savolainen, Euan G Ritchie, Dale G Nimmo, Clare Archer-Lean, Aaron C Greenville, Christopher R Dickman, Lyn Watson, Katherine E Moseby, Tim S Doherty, Arian D Wallach, Damian S Morrant, and Mathew S Crowther

Published in: Zootaxa

Abstract

The taxonomic status and systematic nomenclature of the Australian dingo remain contentious, resulting in decades of inconsistent applications in the scientific literature and in policy.

Prompted by a recent publication calling for dingoes to be considered taxonomically as domestic dogs (Jackson et al. 2017, Zootaxa 4317, 201-224), we review the issues of the taxonomy applied to canids, and summarise the main differences between dingoes and other canids.

We conclude that:

  1. the Australian dingo is a geographically isolated (allopatric) species from all other Canis, and is genetically, phenotypically, ecologically, and behaviourally distinct; and
  2. the dingo appears largely devoid of many of the signs of domestication, including surviving largely as a wild animal in Australia for millennia.

The case of defining dingo taxonomy provides a quintessential example of the disagreements between species concepts (e.g., biological, phylogenetic, ecological, morphological). Applying the biological species concept sensu stricto to the dingo as suggested by Jackson et al. (2017) and consistently across the Canidae would lead to an aggregation of all Canis populations, implying for example that dogs and wolves are the same species. Such an aggregation would have substantial implications for taxonomic clarity, biological research, and wildlife conservation. Any changes to the current nomen of the dingo (currently Canis dingo Meyer, 1793), must therefore offer a strong, evidence-based argument in favour of it being recognised as a subspecies of Canis lupus Linnaeus, 1758, or as Canis familiaris Linnaeus, 1758, and a successful application to the International Commission for Zoological Nomenclature — neither of which can be adequately supported.

Although there are many species concepts, the sum of the evidence presented in this paper affirms the classification of the dingo as a distinct taxon, namely Canis dingo.

Smith BP, Cairns KM, Adams JW, Newsome TM, Fillios M, Déaux EC, Parr WCH, Letnic M, Van Eeden LM, Appleby RG, Bradshaw CJA, Savolainen P, Ritchie EG, Nimmo DG, Archer-Lean C, Greenville AC, Dickman CR, Watson L, Moseby KE, Doherty TS, Wallach AD, Morrant DS, Crowther MS (2019) Taxonomic status of the Australian dingo: the case for Canis dingo Meyer, 1793. Zootaxa PDF DOI

The Conversation: Feral cat cull: why the two million target is on scientifically shaky ground

The government’s target to kill 2 million feral cats sounds impressive, but lacks scientific rigour. Image credit Daniel Parks via Flickr

By Tim Doherty (Deakin University), Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Ricky Spencer (Western Sydney University).

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

The Australian government’s target of killing two million feral cats by 2020 attracted significant public interest and media attention when it was unveiled in 2015.

But in our new research, published today in Conservation Letters, we explain why it has a shaky scientific foundation.

The target was developed for the Threatened Species Strategy. At the time of its launch in 2015, there was no reliable estimate of the size of Australia’s feral cat population. Figures of between five million and 18 million were quoted, but their origin is murky: it’s possible they came from a single estimate of feral cat density in Victoria, extrapolated across the continent.

A recent review estimated a much smaller population size — probably varying from two million to six million, depending on environmental conditions. Using this estimate, the proportion of Australia’s cat population to be killed under the government’s target is now likely in the range 32–95%, rather than 11–40% based on the original population estimate.

Targets for the removal of pest animals should consider how they will affect an animal’s current and future population size. But because a scientific justification for the two million target was never provided, it is unclear whether or how the revised estimate would alter the target.

Hitting the target, missing the point

For cat control to have a lasting effect on feral populations, it needs to be intense, sustained, and carried out over large areas. This is because cats can rapidly reproduce and re-invade areas. To benefit threatened species, cat control also needs to be undertaken in areas that contain — or could potentially contain — native species that are threatened by cats.

Research commissioned by the government conservatively estimated that around 211,500 feral cats were killed in 12 months in 2015–16 (ranging between around 135,500 and 287,600). This estimate was used to report that the first-year target to kill 150,000 cats was met with room to spare.

The benefit to threatened species of achieving this target is unclear, because we don’t know if the control efforts had a measurable effect on cat populations; whether they took place in areas that would benefit threatened species; or how (or if) the target and related activities contributed to the estimated 211,500 cat deaths.

Around 75% of the killed cats were attributed to shooting by farmers and hunters. It is questionable whether such approaches could keep pace with high rates of population growth and re-invasion from surrounding areas.

These and other issues were known before the target was set, leading experts to recommend that an overall cat culling target should not be set.

Shifting focus

The focus on killing cats risks distracting attention from other threats to native wildlife. These threats include habitat loss, which has been largely overlooked in the Threatened Species Strategy.

Habitat loss is politically sensitive because its main driver is the clearing of land to make way for economic activities such as agriculture, urban development, and mining. The strategy mentions feral cats more than 70 times, but habitat loss is mentioned just twice and land clearing not at all. Australia has one of the world’s worst rates of land clearing, which has recently increased in some regions. For instance, clearing of native vegetation in New South Wales rose by 800% between 2013 and 2016.

A focus on feral cats is warranted, but not at the expense of tackling other conservation threats too. A comprehensive, integrated approach towards threatened species conservation is essential.

Any upside?

Despite its questionable scientific basis, it is possible that the ambitious nature of the two million target has raised the public profile of feral cats as a conservation issue. However, to our knowledge, there has been no attempt to measure the effectiveness of the target in raising awareness or changing attitudes, and so this remains a hypothetical proposition.

The Threatened Species Strategy has other targets that are more closely linked to conservation outcomes, such as the eradication of cats from five particular islands and the establishment of ten new fenced cat-free exclosures. Achieving these targets will make a small contribution to the culling target, but have a comparatively large benefit for some threatened species.

Australia’s target to kill two million feral cats is a highly visible symbol of a broader campaign, but the success of policies aimed at reducing the impacts of feral cats should focus squarely on the recovery of native species.

Conservation or politics? Australia’s target to kill two million cats

Authors: Tim S Doherty, Don A Driscoll, Dale G Nimmo, Euan G Ritchie and Ricky‐John Spencer

Published in: Conservation Letters

Abstract

The Australian Government’s five‐year Threatened Species Strategy contains four priority action areas and associated targets.

Here, we argue that the well‐publicised target to cull two million feral cats has a weak scientific basis because:

  1. reliable estimates of Australia’s cat population size did not exist when the target was set;
  2. it is extremely difficult to measure progress (numbers of cats killed) in an accurate, reliable way; and, most importantly,
  3. the cull target is not explicitly linked to direct conservation outcomes (e.g., measured increases in threatened species populations).

These limitations mean that the cull target fails to meet what would be considered best practice for pest management. The focus on killing cats runs the risk of distracting attention away from other threats to biodiversity, most prominent of which is widespread, ongoing habitat loss, which has been largely overlooked in the Threatened Species Strategy.

The culling target is a highly visible symbol of a broader campaign around feral cat research and management in Australia, rather than a direct indicator of conservation action and success. We are concerned that progress toward the 2 million target could be misinterpreted as progress toward conserving threatened species, when the link between the two is not clear.

Doherty TS, Driscoll DA, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG, Spencer R (2019) Conservation or politics? Australia’s target to kill 2 million cats, Conservation Letters PDF DOI

Improving the assessment of food system sustainability

Authors: Michalis Hadjikakou, Euan G Ritchie, Kate E Watermeyer, and Brett A Bryan

Published in: The Lancet – Planetary Health

The global food system is causing unsustainable pressures on the environment, leading to widespread land use change, increased greenhouse gas emissions, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, biodiversity loss, and freshwater depletion and pollution. Environmental pressures are mounting as populations grow and diets change, escalating the need to make food production and consumption more sustainable. Yet, there are limitations in the current analysis of global food system sustainability. We believe there are four main areas that could be improved to make such analysis more comprehensive and insightful. These improvements could have important repercussions on the development of effective evidence-based policy that ultimately promotes production efficiencies and sustainable diets.

One set of opportunities for improvement in the analysis of food system sustainability relates to the robustness of the dietary scenarios that are modelled. First, these scenarios need to be made more plausible. Although assessment of radical shifts in human diets might be useful in highlighting the effects of animal-based versus plant-based foods, we question the benefit of emphasising the most extreme of scenarios (ie, a complete switch from omnivore to vegetarian or vegan diets), when the foreseeable global trend is heading strongly in the opposite direction. In addition, analyses of these extreme diet substitution scenarios tend to focus on greenhouse gas emissions, but in such scenarios, trade-offs between sustainability indicators are highly likely—aptly highlighted by the increased use of water in scenarios that model shifts from grass-fed livestock towards water-intensive crops. We argue that it is more insightful to model ambitious yet achievable, context-specific reductions in animal products, overconsumption (particularly of discretionary foods), and food waste, in line with those recently recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission on sustainable food systems for overall planetary health.

Secondly, more granular and dynamic analyses are needed. Estimates of environmental effects underpinning global food system analyses are typically based on life cycle assessment, an environmental accounting framework that captures effects from farm-to-fork. While the rigour and comprehensiveness of available life cycle assessment data and associated meta-analyses are improving and encompassing important trade-offs between sustainability objectives,5 significant shortcomings remain, notably in terms of low commodity-level detail and the use of global averages to infer region-specific or nation-specific environmental intensities (defined in life cycle assessments as the impact per functional unit of production). In addition, most life cycle assessments are static, and therefore do not represent system feedbacks that incorporate changes in demand because of production efficiency enhancements, or marginal changes in environmental effects involved in large-scale dietary shifts—such as when animal-based products are completely eliminated. The quantification of these dynamics and their system-wide environmental impacts is an opportunity to greatly improve sustainability assessments of different food products and proposed substitutions.

Thirdly, protein sources beyond conventional livestock need greater consideration. In many parts of the world, alternative animal protein sources such as abundant native species that are better adapted to local conditions (eg, kangaroo in Australia and deer in the northern hemisphere) can contribute to human nutrition, with such sourcing having considerably lower environmental effects than farming of conventional livestock. Many countries are also host to introduced feral animal populations that could serve as alternative protein sources—for example, Australia has substantial feral deer, goat, rabbit, pig, horse, and camel populations. Partly replacing existing mainstream protein sources with wild harvests of these alternative sources could achieve co-benefits for the environment (eg, through reducing emissions, land degradation, and the effects on native biodiversity), and improve human health, since game meat is typically leaner than lamb and beef. Conventional analyses also fail to account for other transformative shifts in animal-sourced protein, such as those towards laboratory-grown meat, insect-derived protein, and feeding animals on ecological leftovers such as food waste or grass from pastures. Including potential shifts to novel low-impact protein sources would ensure more comprehensive modelling of the associated environmental effects.

Finally, analyses should better quantify the diverse effects of food production on biodiversity and ecosystems. Food production contributes considerably to species extinction, which has detrimental effects on many ecosystems and plant and animal communities that are essential for supporting human life. Yet, there is an overreliance on proxy indicators such as land use when assessing terrestrial food systems. Previous research has highlighted how the extent of agricultural land area is not a good proxy for biodiversity impact, because of differences in production intensity and heterogeneity in biodiversity values. This limited analysis also extends to marine and freshwater food production. Stock depletion, bycatch, and habitat modification or loss, resulting from intensive aquaculture and fishing practices such as trawling, have substantial effects on the biodiversity of coastal and oceanic ecosystems. However, although some studies have considered the environmental intensities of aggregate categories such as farmed fish and crustaceans, the effect of fishing on wild stocks is typically not encompassed in life cycle assessments, despite appropriate data being available. Integration of a more diverse range of biodiversity indicators into the assessment of food system sustainability would allow for more meaningful analyses.

Taking advantage of the opportunities outlined here could facilitate a more complete understanding of the environmental effects of food production and consumption. Embracing these advances is a key prerequisite for developing effective policy recommendations. Our recommendations aim to foster a more comprehensive and nuanced debate on sustainable diets and the food system within the context of global environmental limits.

We declare no competing interests. We thank D Driscoll and BG Ridoutt for their insightful comments on the manuscript.

Hadjikakou M, Ritchie EG, Watermeyer KE, Bryan BA (2019) Improving the assessment of food system sustainability. The Lancet – Planetary Health PDF DOI

Feral horse impacts on threatened plants and animals in sub-alpine and montane environments in Victoria, Australia

Authors: Rebecca C Cherubin, Susanna E Venn, Don A Driscoll, Tim S Doherty, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Ecological Management & Restoration

Summary

Feral herbivores are a major driver of biodiversity loss globally and can alter the structure, composition and functioning of ecosystems. The direct impacts of feral herbivores on plant communities are well studied, but the direct and indirect effect they have on wildlife is not well understood.

In Victoria (south‐eastern Australia), a large feral Horse (Equus caballus) population coincides with highly sensitive and nationally endangered Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens communities, and several threatened animal species.

We assessed the impact of feral horses on this ecological community and the Alpine Water Skink (Eulamprus kosciuskoi) and the Broad‐toothed Rat (Mastacomys fuscus) at 20 sites with varying levels of horse disturbance. We used scat counts to determine an index of feral horse abundance and quantified impacts associated with their presence in the landscape. Active searches were used for Alpine Water Skink and scat and runway surveys for Broad‐toothed Rat. We also measured the vegetation structure and the abundance of different vegetation types (life forms).

Our results suggest that feral horses are associated with vegetation types and characteristics that negatively influence the presence or abundance of Alpine Water Skink and Broad‐toothed Rat. Sites with high horse activity had more low‐growing forbs, and the abundance of Alpine Water Skink was negatively related to this vegetation type. Grasses, sedges, rushes and shrubs were also less dense and lower in height in high horse activity sites, and Broad‐toothed Rat was less likely to be present in areas with these habitat attributes.

We recommend that feral horses are controlled to protect these threatened vertebrate species and their Sphagnum bog habitat.

Cherubin RC, Venn SE, Driscoll DA, Doherty TS, Ritchie EG (2019) Feral horse impacts on threatened plants and animals in sub-alpine and montane environments in Victoria, Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration PDF DOI

Impacts of feral horses in the Australian Alps and evidence-based solutions

Authors: Don A Driscoll, Graeme L Worboys, Hugh Allan, Sam C Banks, Nicholas J Beeton, Rebecca C Cherubin, Tim S Doherty, C Max Finlayson, Ken Green, Renée Hartley, Geoffrey Hope, Chris N Johnson, Mark Lintermans, Brendan Mackey, David J Paull, Jamie Pittock, Luciana L Porfirio, Euan G Ritchie, Chloe F Sato, Ben C Scheele, Deirdre A Slattery, Susanna Venn, David Watson, Maggie Watson, and Richard M Williams

Published in: Ecological Management & Restoration

Summary

New evidence of impacts by feral horses in Australia’s alpine parks systems confirms they endanger threatened species and extensively damage critically endangered bog communities that could take millennia to recover. These impacts are not confounded by effects of deer and accumulate over time, even when only a small number of feral horses (∼100) are present.

With protected areas representing only a small proportion of the area of the Australian states of New South Wales (9.3%) and Victoria (17%), allowing feral horses to degrade reserves is not a reasonable management compromise, is contrary to the purpose of the protected area system and conflicts with international obligations.

Modelling and decades of management experience indicate that trapping alone does not control feral horse numbers. Trapping and fertility control can work in small populations, but not when there are several thousand horses in remote areas. Aerial culling is needed to cost‐effectively and humanely control feral horse populations.

The relatively small amount of suffering feral horses experience during a cull is outweighed by

  1. avoiding suffering and death of horses from starvation and thirst,
  2. avoiding the suffering of native animals displaced by horses, and
  3. avoiding the ethical concerns of driving threatened species towards extinction.

Objections to aerial culling on welfare and cultural grounds are contradicted by evidence.

Improving knowledge in the general community about what is at stake is long overdue because without this knowledge, small groups with vested interests and unfounded claims have been able to dominate debate and dictate management actions.

As a result of ineffective management, horse populations are now expanding and causing well‐documented damage to Australia’s alpine parks, placing at risk almost $10M spent on restoration after livestock grazing ended. The costs of horse control and restoration escalate the longer large horse populations remain in the alpine parks.

It is crucial that feral horse numbers are rapidly reduced to levels where ecosystems begin to recover. Aerial culling is needed as part of the toolbox to achieve that reduction.

Driscoll DA, Worboys GL, Allan H, Banks SC, Beeton NJ, Cherubin RC, Doherty TS, Finlayson CM, Green K, Hartley R, Hope G, Johnson CN, Lintermans M, Mackey B, Paull DJ, Pittock J, Porfirio LL, Ritchie EG, Sato CF, Scheele BC, Slattery DA, Venn S, Watson D, Watson M, Williams RM (2019) Impacts of feral horses in the Australian Alps and evidence-based solutions. Ecological Management & Restoration PDF DOI 

Animal movements in fire-prone landscapes

Authors: Dale G Nimmo, Sarah Avitabile, Sam C Banks, Rebecca Bliege Bird, Kate Callister, Michael F Clarke, Chris R Dickman, Tim S Doherty, Don A Driscoll, Aaron C Greenville, Angie Haslem, Luke T Kelly, Sally A Kenny, José J Lahoz‐Monfort, Connie Lee, Steven Leonard, Harry Moore, Thomas M Newsome, Catherine L Parr, Euan G Ritchie, Kathryn Schneider, James M Turner, Simon Watson, Martin Westbrooke, Mike Wouters, Matthew White, and Andrew F Bennett.

Published in: Biological Reviews

Abstract

Movement is a trait of fundamental importance in ecosystems subject to frequent disturbances, such as fire‐prone ecosystems. Despite this, the role of movement in facilitating responses to fire has received little attention.

Herein, we consider how animal movement interacts with fire history to shape species distributions. We consider how fire affects movement between habitat patches of differing fire histories that occur across a range of spatial and temporal scales, from daily foraging bouts to infrequent dispersal events, and annual migrations.

We review animal movements in response to the immediate and abrupt impacts of fire, and the longer‐term successional changes that fires set in train.

We discuss how the novel threats of altered fire regimes, landscape fragmentation, and invasive species result in suboptimal movements that drive populations downwards.

We then outline the types of data needed to study animal movements in relation to fire and novel threats, to hasten the integration of movement ecology and fire ecology.

We conclude by outlining a research agenda for the integration of movement ecology and fire ecology by identifying key research questions that emerge from our synthesis of animal movements in fire‐prone ecosystems.

Nimmo DG, Avitabile S, Banks SC, Bliege Bird R, Callister K, Clarke MF, Dickman CR, Doherty TS, Driscoll DA, Greenville AC, Haslem A, Kelly LT, Kenny SA, Lahoz-Monfort JJ, Lee C, Leonard S, Moore H, Newsome TM, Parr CL, Ritchie EG, Schneider K, Turner JM, Watson S, Westbrooke M, Wouters M, White M, Bennett AF (2018) Animal movements in fire-prone landscapes. Biological Reviews PDF DOI

ABC Science: If extinct animals could be brought back from the dead, should we do it?

We’re living in the middle of an extinction crisis, on par with what wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But an asteroid isn’t responsible this time; we are.

Imagine walking into the most beautiful museum, taking all the artworks off the shelves and burning them or throwing them in the bin. That’s what we’re doing. We’re losing species every day all over the world.

De-extinction science can never replicate the wonder of evolution, nor how long it takes for species to evolve…

Read the full article on the ABC website

The secret life of possums: data loggers reveal the movement ecology of an arboreal mammal

Authors: Blake M Allan, Dale G Nimmo, John P Y Arnould, Jennifer K Martin, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Journal of Mammalogy

Abstract

Understanding animal movement patterns is fundamental to ecology, as it allows inference about species’ habitat preferences and their niches. Such knowledge also underpins our ability to predict how animals may respond to environmental change, including habitat loss and modification. Data-logging devices such as GPS trackers and accelerometers are rapidly becoming cheaper and smaller, allowing movement at fine scales to be recorded on a broad range of animal species.

We examined movement patterns of an arboreal mammal (bobuck, Trichosurus cunninghami) in a highly fragmented forest ecosystem.

The GPS data showed males travelled greater distances than females in linear roadside strip habitats, but not in forest fragments. The accelerometer data showed that both sexes exhibited higher activity levels in roadside habitats compared to forest fragments. By coupling GPS and accelerometer data, we uncovered for this species an ecological pattern similar to other mammals: that male bobucks had higher activity levels than females for a given distance travelled.

Our findings also suggest that habitat fragmentation changes the amount and type of activity bobucks perform while moving, and that linear forest strips could be considered “energetically challenging” habitats, which informs how we should manage the spatial distribution of key supplementary resources for this species such as nest sites and minimum fragment sizes.

Allan BM, Nimmo DG, Arnould JPY, Martin JK, Ritchie EG (2018) The secret life of possums: data loggers reveal the movement ecology of an arboreal mammal. Journal of Mammalogy PDF DOI

Diversity in Australia’s tropical savannas: An integrative taxonomic revision of agamid lizards from the genera Amphibolurus and Lophognathus (Lacertilia: Agamidae)

Authors: Jane Melville, Euan G Ritchie, Stephanie N J Chapple, Richard E Glor And James A Schulte II

Published in: Memoirs of Museum Victoria, volume 77

Abstract

The taxonomy of many of Australia’s agamid lizard genera remains unresolved because morphological characters have proved to be unreliable across numerous lineages. We undertook a morphological study and integrated this with a recent genetic study to resolve long-standing taxonomic problems in three genera of large-bodied Australian agamid lizards: Amphibolurus, Gowidon and Lophognathus. We had broad geographic sampling across genera, including all currently recognised species and subspecies.

Using an integrative taxonomic approach, incorporating mitochondrial (ND2) and nuclear (RAG1) genetic data, and our morphological review, we found that both generic and species-level taxonomic revisions were required. We revise generic designations, creating one new genus (Tropicagama gen. nov.) and confirming the validity of Gowidon, giving a total of four genera. In addition, we describe a new species (Lophognathus horneri sp. nov.) and reclassify two other species.

Our results provide a significant step forward in the taxonomy of some of Australia’s most iconic and well-known lizards and provide a clearer understanding of biogeographic patterns across Australia’s monsoonal and arid landscapes.

Melville J, Ritchie EG, Chapple SNJ, Glor RE Schulte II JA (2018) Diversity in Australia’s tropical savannas: An integrative taxonomic revision of agamid lizards from the genera Amphibolurus and Lophognathus (Lacertilia: Agamidae). Memoirs of Museum Victoria PDF DOI

Towards meaningful monitoring: A case study of a threatened rodent

Authors: Hayley M Geyle, Gurutzeta Guillera‐Arroita, Hugh F Davies, Ronald S C Firth, Brett P Murphy, Dale G Nimmo, Euan G Ritchie, John C Z Woinarski, and Emily Nicholson

Published in: Austral Ecology

Abstract

Detecting trends in species’ distribution and abundance are essential for conserving threatened species, and depend upon effective monitoring programmes. Despite this, monitoring programmes are often designed without explicit consideration of their ability to deliver the information required by managers, such as their power to detect population changes.

Here, we demonstrate the use of existing data to support the design of monitoring programmes aimed at detecting declines in species occupancy. We used single‐season occupancy models and baseline data to gain information on variables affecting the occupancy and detectability of the threatened brush‐tailed rabbit‐rat Conilurus penicillatus (Gould 1842) on the Tiwi Islands, Australia. This information was then used to estimate the survey effort required to achieve sufficient power to detect changes in occupancy of different magnitudes.

We found that occupancy varied spatially, driven primarily by habitat (canopy height and cover, distance to water) and fire history across the landscape. Detectability varied strongly among seasons, and was three times higher in the late dry season (July–September), compared to the early dry season (April–June). Evaluation of three monitoring scenarios showed that conducting surveys at times when detectability is highest can lead to a substantial improvement in our ability to detect declines, thus reducing the survey effort and costs.

Our study highlights the need for careful consideration of survey design related to the ecology of a species, as it can lead to substantial cost savings and improved insight into species population change via monitoring.

Geyle HM, Guillera-Arroita G, Davies HF, Firth RSC, Murphy BP, Nimmo DG, Ritchie EG, Woinarski JCZ, Nicholson E (2018) Towards meaningful monitoring: A case study of a threatened rodent. Austral Ecology, PDF DOI