Photo: Kristian Bell

Without ecologists at the policy table, new nature laws could lead to extinctions

“Ecologists have important data and expertise to inform the review of Australia’s nature laws so they can be more effective at protecting species and ecosystems,” says Dr April Reside from the University of Queensland.

In the two decades since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act was introduced, a staggering 85% of Australia’s threatened species have lost habitat.

“If this law is supposed to protect biodiversity, it hasn’t achieved this,” says April.

April is in the devastating and increasingly common position of an ecologist studying an imperilled species. Whilst she’s being studying the endangered black-throated finch – recently voted Bird of the Year and at threat from many developments, including the Adani coal mine – its habitat has been progressively destroyed.

A new development was recently given the go-ahead on land where a breeding colony of 15 finches was found, but “black-throated finches are at the point that every little flock of 15 is so important that we can’t lose that habitat,” says April. “It’s just a death by 1000 cuts.”

“How is the national environmental law that’s meant to protect these species continually allowing the approval of projects that lead to the loss of their habitat?” she asks.

One of the main issues April sees is that ecologists are not always invited nor involved in discussions of environmental law reform – and there are no ecologists on the newly established expert panel for the current review of the EPBC Act. The panel has begun consulting with some scientific groups, but consultation is unlikely to achieve the same outcome as having embedded ecological expertise in the panel.

“A lot of the discussions I’ve been having around improving the environmental law have been with lawyers who are doing this really amazing job,” says April. “But it really struck me was that I was the only person using the names of animals, talking about ecosystems. Unless you have that ecological understanding, we could be ending up with perverse outcomes in law.”

“We need to ensure that important, expert ecological knowledge is considered in these decisions.”

“At the moment, developments are being approved with conditions, such as to offset the habitat that is lost. The grim reality is that most offsets that have been implemented have led to species losses. If our objective is to prevent the decline of species, offsets are not doing that. So let’s talk about offsets, but let’s be honest about what they can achieve.”

A recent global review of offsetting programs found there’s never been an offset project on land that has prevented biodiversity decline. “Offsetting the cleared land isn’t the answer to conserving threatened species.”

The current legislation is so broken that not only is it permitting this death by 1000 cuts, but we’re also seeing an impact assessment process can allow for poor environmental impact assessments, resulting in poorly-informed decisions.  As an example, April cites a case of consultants undertaking bat surveys for an environmental impact assessment in the middle of winter, when bats aren’t active.

“That is the worst time to survey for bats. You’re trying to understand how important this habitat is for a threatened species but you’re not even looking when the species is going to be there. That a consultant can go out and survey for one night in the worst time of year, and that be acceptable practice… there’s something wrong there,” explains April.

“Without input from ecologists I’m afraid that the review of the EPBC Act will not prevent ongoing decline in biodiversity.”

April will be presenting a plenary on ‘Bringing ecology into Australia’s Environmental Law Reform’ today at the Ecological Society of Australia’s 2019 Annual Conference in Launceston.

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