Scientists and conservationists are calling for changes to Australia’s national environment laws to urgently address failures in how it is protecting native wildlife, including bird species that have declined significantly over the past decade.
Samantha Vine, the head of conservation at BirdLife Australia, says: “Our laws are actually allowing extinction to happen.”
With the Environment Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act under review by the businessman Prof Graeme Samuel, environmentalists have pointed to several bird species as examples of the inadequate protection provided by the legislation.
Pine plantations north of Perth are home to a population of the Carnaby’s black-cockatoo, a large, dark bird with white panels on its tail and cheeks. The species is listed as endangered under the EPBC Act and is found only in Western Australia.
It’s estimated about 30,000 to 40,000 of the birds remain in the wild – at least a third of them in the Perth region – but it is under pressure because of continued habitat loss.
Its main feeding habitat is banksia woodland, 70% of which has been cleared. In Perth, cockatoos adapted to this loss by moving into pine plantations that are cleared to fulfil timber contracts.
The state government used to replant the pines but stopped in 1996 after discovering mature trees were intercepting rainfall and reducing the recharge of an important water resource for Perth, the Gnangara groundwater aquifer.
Adam Peck, a black cockatoo project coordinator for BirdLife Australia, says the pines used to cover 23,000ha but are reduced to about 5,000ha and will be gone within three or four years. He says it is having a serious impact on the Carnaby’s black-cockatoo population.
“Our research clearly shows that habitat clearance is leading to a decline in the Perth population and this will continue unless the government acts to revegetate the area,” Peck says.
Every year BirdLife Australia runs the great cocky count, a citizen science survey. A decade of counting has found the Perth population of the Carnaby’s black-cockatoo has declined by 30%.
BirdLife says it has legal advice suggesting harvesting the pine plantations is having a significant impact on the cockatoo under criteria laid out in the EPBC Act. But the clearing has not triggered an assessment under federal laws. The WA government argues the logging is exempt because it began before the laws were introduced.
For years environmental advocates have sought federal assistance. They wrote to the former environment minister, Greg Hunt, back in 2014. But the federal environment department says while the government recognises the importance of the pine plantations to the cockatoos, the WA government “has put forward the view” that the clearing was lawful because it predated the legislation.
Meanwhile, Peck says, the species is being pushed towards extinction: “I think it highlights that there are too many loopholes. We think the federal government should refer it [for assessment under the laws] and stand up to the state government and say you should do better than this.”
The species is among a “forgotten flock” of birds at significant risk of extinction in the next two decades but attract only limited resources and attention. It is among a group of species, often described as “little brown birds”, which can be overlooked in favour of more charismatic, colourful animals.
One of seven grasswren subspecies, the grey range thick-billed grasswren was thought to be extinct until it was found near White Cliffs, in north-west New South Wales, in 2008.
“This little bird was rediscovered and pretty much nothing has happened,” says Jenny Lau, BirdLife Australia’s preventing extinctions program manager. “There was no follow-up surveys to find out where the birds were.”
In 2014 it was listed as critically endangered under national laws. In 2018 it was ranked number eight on a list of 20 Australian birds that a scientific study identified as the most likely to go extinct within the next 20 years. But like many endangered species the grasswren does not have a national recovery plan. Nor has a plan been legislated at state level.
Recovery plans used to be mandatory for all species listed as threatened, but changes to the law in 2006 left registering a plan to the discretion of the minister. Most species are covered by a weaker document known as a conservation advice.
A minister must not act inconsistently with a recovery plan when making decisions under the act, but there is no system for tracking what actions are being taken and nor is there a requirement for plans to be implemented.
Several submissions to the review of the EPBC Act call for listing of a species to trigger clear requirements that governments must act to protect a species.
In the case of the grasswren, BirdLife Australia received funding from the NSW government to carry out basic surveys. It found additional birds in north-west NSW in areas covered by minerals exploration licences that have not been referred to the federal government for assessment.
Andrew Black, an honorary research associate with the South Australian Museum who sits on a NSW advisory group on the grasswren, says: “Here we have a critically endangered bird. One would hope that would be taken very seriously and every effort would be made to ensure they’re looked after.
“That’s sadly not the way the world works. The world doesn’t seem to care a great deal about biodiversity decline.”
Dean Ingwersen, the chair of a recovery team for the critically endangered swift parrot and also woodlands bird program manager for BirdLife Australia, has watched as the outlook for the migratory bird has gone rapidly downhill.
“The big failure comes from the fact that under the current laws it’s still possible to log the bird’s habitat,” Ingwersen says.
Swift parrots are a unique species found nowhere else on the planet. The bright green and red birds breed in summer and spring in south-eastern Tasmania. After breeding, they migrate across Bass Strait and spend autumn and winter feeding on flowering gums along the NSW south coast before returning to Tasmania’s southern forest region to breed again.
The parrot was first listed as endangered in 2000, just after the EPBC Act was introduced. It was upgraded to critically endangered in 2016, meaning it faces an extremely high risk of extinction. “We haven’t been able to turn it around,” Ingwersen says.
The bird was selected by the federal government five years ago for inclusion in a “20 birds by 2020” plan, a strategy that was meant to improve the trajectory of nominated species. But the parrot’s plight has continued to worsen due to an exemption in Australia’s environment laws that makes it legal to log both its breeding habitat in Tasmania and its feeding habitat in NSW.
The exemption applies to all areas covered by a regional forestry agreement, a bilateral agreement between states and territories. Forestry operations subject to an agreement do not have to be assessed under federal environment law for their impact on nationally listed threatened species.
The consequence has been continued habitat loss, one of the key drivers of extinction.
Ingwersen says the recovery team has worked hard across the swift parrot’s range to try to help it survive. It has conducted monitoring to gather data, worked with private landowners on habitat restoration, and invested in research to reduce the impact of sugar gliders, which prey on swift parrots.
“It’s not an overreach to say a lot of that work is being undermined if we keep taking habitat out of the Tasmanian forests and out of the south coast forests in NSW where they feed,” he says.
In Tasmania, researchers from the Australian National University examined forest loss from logging in important swift parrot breeding areas in the southern forest between 2007 and 2016. They found a third of the forest – 15,271ha – had been cleared.
When they narrowed their research to hollow-bearing trees and the areas most likely to be used by swift parrots, they found 23% of the most suitable habitat had been cleared.
Dejan Stojanovic, one of the researchers, says the exemption granted to forestry was “the big failing” of the EPBC Act. The extinction of the swift parrot is “inevitable” if it continues on its current path.
“It’s a priority species and [the government is] actively seeking ways to address sugar glider predations, which is exacerbated by logging,” he says. “The fact it’s exempt is laughable.”
This week the federal court made a landmark judgment in relation to forestry operations in the central highlands of Victoria. Justice Debra Mortimer ruled the Victorian state-owned forestry agency, VicForests, had breached the code of practice in its regional forestry agreement and, as a result, its exemption from national laws should not apply.
Mortimer’s judgment found logging by VicForests was having a significant impact on the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum and the vulnerable greater glider.
Although the judgment applies only to the central highlands agreement, experts will be examining whether it could have implications for other agreements and the species they affect, including the swift parrot.
In 2017 Tasmania’s agreement was rolled over for another 20 years.