Tagged: Environment Protection Biodiversity and Conservation Act

Rats of spring

In Ronald Strahan’s revised edition of The Mammals of Australia, C. H. S. Watts describes the Plains Rat as among “the loveliest of Australian rodents”. While its loveliness might be in the eye of the beholder, it’s certainly among the most tenacious, being adapted to some of the driest, most inhospitable country: the stony gibber deserts and cracking clay soils of the Lake Eyre Basin.

There, it can survive without drinking, obtaining water from food starches, aided by its highly concentrated urine and absence of sweat glands. During the day, colonies shelter from predators and the intense heat in complex burrow systems that can be more than 40 kilometres long, yet separated from each other by only a matter of metres, interconnected by runways on the surface.

Plains Rat. Minden Pictures/Alamy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that water is a problem for the plains rat right now. Surveys at Andado Station, a cattle property in the south-east of the Northern Territory abutting the western edge of the Simpson Desert, are showing a spike in numbers following unseasonal winter and spring rains. And it’s places such as Andado, and animals like the plains rat, that are helping prompt a rethink of how we might save what is left of our desert fauna.

It’s well known that Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with 30 species – more than 10 percent – lost since European settlement. Many more are at imminent risk of extinction. What might seem unusual is that most of those extinctions have occurred in our remote areas, far from the major urban centres of the eastern seaboard.

Cats and foxes take much of the blame, but the causes of the ecological catastrophe are multifaceted. Changed fire regimes are a big problem, so too overgrazing, not only by cattle but feral herbivores including rabbits, goats and camels. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play: in a country of climatic extremes, our native fauna often rely on small pockets of the landscape in which to take refuge during drought.

Once, the Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was thought to be far more widespread, from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range straddling Queensland and New South Wales, and from the Nullarbor east all the way to the mouth of the Murray. It’s thought to have declined by up to 90 per cent since European settlement, and it’s nationally listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Andado – where the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin, the sand dunes and spinifex of the Simpson Desert and the runout of the Finke River all intersect – is a plains rat refuge, a place where it has always survived through the bleakest times. It booms and busts according to prevailing conditions; at least some of the historic records from further afield were probably never an indication of stable populations.

Overlooking Andado swamp at dusk, Andado Station, March 2015

Many of our arid-zone animals and birds have existed this way forever. The Flock Bronzewing, a pigeon that still occasionally darkens desert skies in aggregations of hundreds of thousands, is one. The Long-haired Rat is another, and the Letter-winged Kite – the world’s only nocturnal hawk – follows its periodic irruptions: as the rats spread, only to die off as conditions return to normal, so too do the kites.

It follows, then, that if a refuge is excessively degraded or disturbed, we go a long way to wiping out the animals that depend upon it, too. The difficulty is in identifying these areas. A refuge may be not much more than a dot on the map. It has taken a century, for example, to locate a stable, apparently sedentary population of the Night Parrot, long believed extinct. And refuges vary from species to species.

Dr Diana Fisher, a fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, is trying to map where these areas are. She points out that a species refuge “might not look much different to the rest of the landscape, but there’s something about it that protects them, not just from the dry conditions, but also predators and disease”.

Finding out where feral predators themselves eke out a living during bad times is helpful, too. “Cats are very good at surviving in the desert, but they have some limitations where they don’t do as well with very hot conditions,” Fisher says. “They have to find a refuge themselves, so finding where [they are] might enable us to use that information to control them.”

Non-government organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have had some success creating their own wildlife refuges: heavily fenced areas, purged of feral animals, with surviving populations of native fauna such as the Woylie, a species of bettong, reintroduced from other areas, in miniature simulacrums of what the Australian landscape might once have looked like.

“There is now consensus at a policy and scientific level that a network of feral predator-free areas are required,” says Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the conservancy. He points to the Bilby. “The Bilby now lives in less than 5 percent of its original distribution and the population’s estimated at less than 10,000,” he says. “About 15 percent of the world population is on AWC land in feral predator-free areas.”

Again, feral predators are only one part of a more complex picture. While the Bilby needs all the help it can get to survive in Queensland’s Channel Country, it seems to be comfortably outlasting cats in the even more inhospitable Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Different stressors on different species rarely work in isolation. “We’ve already lost a lot of things – [many of] the bandicoots [including the bilby] and that sort of range of animals have gone, but defining what the disturbance would have to be to make those things disappear is the tricky one,” says Alistair Stewart, a fauna scientist with the Northern Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Occasionally, it might be more straightforward. “There is potential for mining to be so selective that it could have a devastating effect – the footprint size of an open-cut mine could encompass one of these entire refuges,” Stewart says. Generally, though, that’s a bigger danger for our microfauna – hidden, less mobile invertebrates such as land snails – than it is for mammals and birds.

Refuges also might not function as well as before. They may be degraded by overstocking. In drought, the better-watered parts of the landscape support livestock as well as wildlife, putting pressure on smaller, less genetically diverse populations. And animals that disperse after rain are more easily wiped out by predators elsewhere. The result is that the booms aren’t as big and the busts are longer lasting.

The Letter-winged Kite is one species that has suffered, undergoing an almost imperceptible decline over the past 30 years. This graceful raptor breeds in colonies mostly in the Strzelecki and Diamantina River systems, dispersing across the continent during boom times. Now it is rarely seen outside its core range: cats have been observed in the bird’s nest trees, wiping out chicks and stifling population growth.

Not all of our fauna operates like this and not all refuges are climatic. Mountains and areas of rocky scree serve the same function. Fire doesn’t spread so quickly and it’s easier to make a quick escape from predators. In the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, the Black-footed Rock Wallaby is locally common, whereas a subspecies in the West Australian wheat belt is in dire trouble.

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based ecologist and guide, says animals such as the Long-tailed Dunnart – which truly is one of our loveliest marsupial mice, with a jauntily crested tail more than twice its body length, thought to be used as a balancing rod – might once have been far less strict in terms of its habitat requirements, but now survives in only the most rugged parts of the landscape.

Fisher backs this, saying there is evidence that there are few predators in rocky areas. “That’s a protective thing, perhaps, for things like rock wallabies and northern quolls. And also maybe it’s a better fire environment. But we’re not sure yet if it’s just the rugged habitat – there are fewer cats, and it’s easier for the animals to escape – or if there’s more vegetation, because the fire doesn’t get in there as much.”

The key point, Carter says, is that these safe havens are often not in the form we imagine and not where we might imagine them to be. “The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re extremely vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much to just completely wreck them for the animals that are so dependent on them.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 3 December 2016

Snail’s place

In 1996, Dr John Stanisic, then curator of invertebrates at the Queensland Museum, was doing a routine environmental impact assessment near Taroom in southern central Queensland, some 380 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. The purpose of Stanisic’s survey was to check for rare and threatened species around an impoundment for the proposed Nathan Dam, on the Dawson River.

The dam was a controversial project in the district, as it would have flooded large areas of arable farmland. The usual arguments were trotted out about jobs for the local community. The water, it was said, would supply the needs of the local towns. Others suspected that the real reason was to service a proposed mine at nearby Wondoan, now in mothballs due to the tanking price of coal.

Stanisic and his team were checking an unusual habitat called boggomoss, where natural springs emerge from the Great Artesian Basin and create small lagoons in the otherwise dry semi-arid woodlands of the Brigalow Belt. One of his team, who was searching for isopods (which the rest of us know as slaters), unearthed a snail from the leaf litter. “I knew right away what it was,” Stanisic says. “It was like, Eureka!”

Stanisic, who goes by the name of the Snail Whisperer on his own website – he has discovered and described some 900 species since 1980 – had been searching for this particular mollusc for 10 years. He recognised it instantly from one of two shells in the museum’s collection, historically collected from the nearby township of Theodore, but otherwise completely unknown in the wild.

Stanisic then went through the process of formally describing and naming the species: Adclarkia dawsonensis, the Boggomoss Snail. As its entire known habitat was about to disappear into a pit, he also went through the process of listing it for protection. “It takes about a 12-page pro-forma to get one of these things through, it’s like filling out a census form, and you’ve got to know a bit about the snail first,” he says.

The snail halted development of the dam, and its oddly triumphant story is an instructive one. Last week, the office of the Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews released an updated list of threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. It has been widely and erroneously reported that 49 species were added to the list.

This is not true: 21 species were added, including six mammals, seven birds, six plants, an insect and a fish. One species, the Swift Parrot, was upgraded from the endangered to critically endangered category, and a further 27 already listed species were updated to reflect changes in their currently accepted names and taxonomy, with no change to their status. Two species were deleted from the list altogether.

Nonetheless, it was the biggest update to the list since 2009, and took the number of threatened species listed – and thus protected – under the EPBC Act to 1,794. “That legislation is relatively strong,” says Chris Pavey, an arid zone ecologist with the CSIRO in Alice Springs. “If you want to go ahead with a development, you can’t ignore any EPBC-listed species on your land; there’s just no way around it.”

When the left professes a grudging admiration for former Prime Minister John Howard, it is usually for strengthening gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. But the EPBC Act, which passed with the aid of the Democrats’ Meg Lees as part of the deal for getting the GST through the Senate, is the other piece of legislation it should thank him for.

That deal ultimately destroyed the Democrats, but it left a profound environmental legacy. Its efficacy was demonstrated last August, when the Federal Court stayed development of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine on account of federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s failure to consider the mine’s impact on two threatened species: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The halting of the mine on account of two reptiles caused apoplexy within the Abbott government. The Senate had repeatedly frustrated its attempts to de-fang the EPBC Act via its “One Stop Shop” legislation, an attempt to streamline environmental approvals for large projects by handing the process to the states as part of its war on so-called green tape.

The decision also proved the act recognised, very simply, that all species have an inherent right to exist and are deserving of our protection: the obscure as well as the iconic.

The problem, as the snail shows, is that we aren’t even close to knowing the extent of our own biodiversity. According to A.D. Chapman’s 2009 edition of The Number of Living Species in Australia and the World, Australia has an estimated 566,398 types of plants, animals and fungi. Of these, only 147,579 have been formally described and named. Stanisic says 700 of Australia’s snails alone remained formally undescribed.

This illustrates two issues: the paucity of taxonomists in Australia, and that we are potentially at risk of losing thousands more species from under our noses. “There are many species about which we know almost nothing that probably merit listing and we simply don’t know anything about them,” says John Woinarski, deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub and a professor at Charles Darwin University.

Worldwide, about 18,000 new species are described each year, roughly 75 percent of which are invertebrates. And taxonomists themselves are a threatened species. Much of the work is left to museums, with small staffs and limited resources. “We actually need people to be out there finding and describing new species,” Pavey says. “Way before cuts started happening to research-based organisations like the CSIRO, museums have been copping it for a long time.”

A related problem is the tendency to prioritise cute and colourful megafauna. “People tend to forget that small animals and plants form 99 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity,” Stanisic says. “But they get less than .001 percent of a look-in when it comes to assessments and environmental surveys. Yet they have so much to tell us about what the fine-grain make-up of the landscape is.”

Woinarski says that while creatures like the Leadbeater’s Possum play an important public relations role in raising awareness of conservation issues, they create a bias at the expense of less charismatic species. And because so little is known about so much of our fauna and flora, the process of listing them as threatened is slow, finite, and ad-hoc. In some years, marine animals might be the theme; reptiles in others.

“There’s a substantial degree of evidence that’s required, and for many of the most poorly known and most restricted species, there’s simply not enough knowledge to satisfy the onus for listing,” Woinarski says. “Many other species in Australia are highly imperilled and deserve to be listed, but aren’t. So our conservation problems are likely to be far worse than what is currently apparent.”

Further, as the sad decline of the of the Swift Parrot shows, listing a species is no guarantee of saving it. “The act is far less good at dealing with more pervasive and subtle and insidious threats, such as predation by feral cats,” Woinarski says. “We need to understand the threats that are affecting threatened species and ensure we can combat those threats far more effectively than what we’re doing at the moment.”

Years before his move into politics, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen pioneered a way of clearing the Brigalow woodlands around his Kingaroy peanut farm by pulling a heavy chain between two bulldozers, a method still being used today in the mulga woodlands further west. These days, almost all of what remains of the Brigalow is on roadside verges, with next to none protected.

Stanisic points out that he has since found two more critically endangered snails in those remnants of Brigalow around Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles, now the heart of coal seam gas development. “Every type of bushland I look at, I find another one,” he says cheerily. “I’m just in the process of describing two large snails from Queensland; it’s really quite amazing that things that large can still be un-named in 2016.”

Invertebrate zoology, he says, remains a wide-open field of study. The Snail Whisperer signs off with a flourish: “Anything I can do to promote the snail world, the better!”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 14 May 2016