Koala extinction: Death by a million cuts

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(Image via gecko.org.au)

The Turnbull Government is overseeing a thoughtless extinction plan, dressed up as conservation, in which the koala will not survive. Sue Arnold reports.

A RECENT DECISION by the NSW Scientific Committee to reject the upgrading of an important koala population to "endangered" status has revealed what can only be described as a plot by all governments to eradicate Australia’s wildlife heritage.

At Port Stephens, a declining colony of koalas is struggling to survive as development chips away at habitat on a daily basis. 

President of Port Stephens Koalas Carmel Northwood describes the situation as “death by a million cuts”.

On l8 March 2015, David Paull, an ecologist and former bureaucrat with the Office of Environment and Heritage (NSW) provided the NSW Scientific Committee with an extensive submission in support of upgrading koalas in the Port Stephens Local Government Area (LGA) from "threatened" status to an "endangered" population under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.

Data collected in 2014 demonstrated a significant decline in the koala population since the early 2000s when it was estimated to be 300-500 animals. The submission estimates a 75% reduction in koala habitat in the Port Stephens area since European settlement.

Any determination by the NSW Scientific Committee is a very slow process as demonstrated by the record.

The Committee made a "Preliminary Determination" in support of the proposal to list the koalas as endangered: 

“ ... in the opinion of the NSW Scientific Committee, the population is facing a very high risk of extinction in NSW in the near future.”

The determination was put on exhibition from 18 August to 13 October 2017. 

One week later, on 25 August, the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 was repealed and replaced by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. The rejection letter indicated the Scientific Committee was required to consider the assessment criteria and procedures under a common assessment method agreed to between the Commonwealth, States and Territories, which provided grounds for the refusal.

Further advice indicated that a population is not eligible to be listed as threatened if the species is separately listed as a threatened species under the Federal Environment Protection & Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

As the koala is listed under the EPBC Act — end of story. No upgrading for the Port Stephens koalas or any other subpopulation in NSW or other States can occur. Any sub-populations of listed species will no longer be considered for upgrading if the species is nationally listed.

Inquiries revealed a Pandora’s box of conservation nightmares. Former Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt signed off on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on a "common assessment method" (CAM) for listing threatened species and ecological communities in October 2015. Apparently without any announcement, public comment, mainstream media notification or awareness in the scientific community specialising in wildlife species.

Further investigation indicates that a 2013 Senate Standing Committee report entitled, 'Effectiveness of threatened species and ecological communities’ protection in Australia', recommended the Australian, State and Territory governments prioritise work to reduce duplication and inconsistency between their lists of threatened species.

Behind the scenes, the MOU was put together.

'Using the common assessment method, participating jurisdictions will work together to ensure that species are assessed and, where warranted, listed in only one "nationally threatened" category. The outcome is a "Single Operational List" of nationally threatened species.'

Although the agreement suggests that each State and Territory will predominantly be responsible for assessing and listing species, the Commonwealth can also undertake the assessment. The CAM will predominantly be responsible for assessing and listing cross-jurisdictional species and ecological communities.

 The IUCN Global Species Programme, working with the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC), has been assessing the conservation status of species, subspecies, varieties and even selected subpopulations on a global scale for the past 50 years, in order to highlight taxa threatened with extinction, and thereby promote their conservation.

In a further effort to ensure minimal scrutiny, the MOU agreement states that the Commonwealth will apply the criteria, categories, thresholds and definitions in the IUCN "Red List of Threatened Species Categories and Criteria".

According to their website, the IUCN Red Lists are the bearers of genetic diversity and the building blocks of ecosystems and information on their conservation status and distribution provides the foundation for making informed decisions about conserving biodiversity from local to global levels — noting the use of the word “local”.

The Federal Government’s actions are entirely contradicted by its own EPBC legislation.

According to the Department of the Environment’s Species Profile and Threats Data Base:

'The definition of a species under the EPBC Act includes sub-species and distinct populations that the Minister has determined to be species for the purposes of the Act.'

Not only does the inter-government agreement contradict the provisions of the EPBC Act but Australia’s obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Migratory Species of WIldlife have been ignored.

The Commonwealth has been selective in choosing which IUCN recommendations will be included in CAM. For example, the IUCN Species Survival Commission identified the koala as one of the ten species most impacted by climate change. However, there’s no mention of climate change in the CAM document. 

To oversee this diabolic extinction plan dressed up as conservation, the Federal Government has also developed a "Species Expert Assessment Plan (SEAP)":

The SEAP has been developed to encourage and support expert groups to undertake status review assessments of a particular taxon or group of species and submit a status report to the Committee for consideration that may result in recommendations to amend the (EPBC Act) list of threatened species.

And who might these experts be?  

Groups of scientific experts can form to undertake a status review and produce a status report. Groups undertaking IUCN Red List assessments could undertake some additional work that would result in the development of a status report suitable for the SEAP requirements, which could easily be submitted to allow consideration of changes to the EPBC Act list of threatened species.

There are no provisions in the SEAP for any parameters of status reviews or time frames.

Emergency measures for species facing local or regional extinction are non-existent.

Yet the record of Australian extinctions is appalling. Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world: 

  • 87% of our mammal species, 93% of reptiles, 94% of frogs and 45% of our bird species are found only in Australia.
  • One out of three mammal extinctions in the last 400 years have occurred in Australia. 
  • More than 1,700 species of animals and plants are listed by the Australian Government as being at risk of extinction.
  • Australia has lost about 40% of its total forest cover over the last 200 years.

Can the Turnbull Government point to any other Western government which has adopted a similar system of environmental insanity?

In the USA, a species must be listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) if it is threatened or endangered due to any of the following five factors:

  1. the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range;
  2. overutilisation for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
  3. disease or predation;
  4. the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or
  5. other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

The ESA requires that listing determinations be based solely on the best scientific and commercial information available; economic impacts are not considered in making species listing determinations and are prohibited under the ESA.

Australia is solidifying its reputation as a global environmental pariah. The Turnbull Government's latest watering down of environmental safeguards (CAM, MOU and SEAP) – dressed up as conservation – will only serve to emphasise the vulnerable state of this continent’s unique wildlife heritage and the lack of any responsible management by governments.

Extinction is forever.  

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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