Australia’s key national conservation law gets poor interim report card

Feral Herald |

Several weeks ago we breathed a sigh of relief when the interim report of the 10-year review of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) was released.

The reviewer, Professor Graeme Samuel, has written a plain-speaking critique of the major failings of the EPBC Act (or its application) and recommended a strong focus on abating major threats to nature such as invasive species, inappropriate fire regimes and habitat destruction.


The work done by our Threats to Nature project is reflected in the report findings on the processes under the EPBC Act for managing threats – the listing of key threatening processes (KTPs) and the development and implementation of threat abatement plans. Professor Samuel found that they “are not achieving their intent and many threats in Australia are worsening”.

The Australian Government states that a threatening process is defined as a key threatening process if it threatens or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community.

Professor Samuel accepted the specific criticisms by the Invasive Species Council (and other organisations such as the Threatened Species Scientific Committee), which include:

  • The current list of 21 key threatening processes is not comprehensive, as the process largely relies on the receipt of nominations from the public.
  • The listing process is slow and subject to ministerial discretion.
  • No new key threatening processes have been listed since 2014, and several major threats — such as inappropriate fire regimes — are not listed.
  • Even once a key threatening process is listed, action to address the threat is not required.
  • There is a tendency to focus on immediate or existing threats where strong evidence is available, rather than emerging threats.

Proposed reforms to threat abatement

Formal recognition of failings is a necessary first step but the remedies proposed by the review are not yet very clear.

Professor Samuel recommends the use of strategic national plans to address major threats to nature – “to guide a national response, direct research (for example feral animal control methods), support prioritisation of investment (public and private) and enable shared goals and implementation across jurisdictions”.

This is sensible, but how will it differ from the current KTP system, which also relies on national plans as the path to abatement?

Another proposed reform is a focus on regional plans as the means to support the management of cumulative threats, build environmental resilience, set clear rules to manage competing land uses, set the priorities for restoration and adaptation and recover threatened species and ecological communities.

The headline reform in the Samuel review is the introduction of new, legally enforceable standards for sustainable development and environmental protection that will enable devolution to the states and territories of approvals for developments and other actions significantly impacting on threatened species and other matters of national environmental significance.

Whether this system can be effective depends very much on the content of the standards and how well they are enforced. The Samuel review provides prototype standards as a starting point and recommends a “strong, independent cop on the beat for monitoring, compliance and enforcement”.

Government response

We have also sighed at the federal government’s response to the interim report – but not with relief. In the name of generating jobs for COVID recovery, the government has decided to rush madly to devolve development approvals to the states and territories. They intend to introduce legislation to parliament in August, before the review of the EPBC Act has even finished, allowing almost no time for consultation.

This is contrary to the recommendations in the interim report, which say standards “should be developed in consultation with Indigenous, science, environmental and business stakeholders, and the community” as well as the states and territories. The government’s timetable does not allow for that.

The government has also ruled out Professor Samuel’s proposal for an “independent monitoring, compliance, enforcement and assurance regulator”. This is essential for transparent and effective implementation of the EPBC Act and to regain the trust of the Australian community in environmental regulation.

With its focus just on devolution, the government has so far ignored the other proposed reforms. We are very concerned the government will pick and choose its preferred reforms, ignoring those likely to need more funding and government leadership.


The Samuel report recognises that lack of funding is a major constraint. For example, the limited resources for implementing the Act have meant “the Commonwealth has retreated to transactions, rather than ‘leading’ strategically in the national interest”. But the interim report shies away from making explicit recommendations for the Australian Government to increase funding for biodiversity conservation.

Professor Samuel’s interim report seems like a sincere attempt to grapple with the failings of our national environmental system. However, as a businessman, the professor knows all too well that a plan without costings is one destined to fail. We’ll know the extent of his sincerity by what the final report recommends about funding.

Next steps

The final review report is due in October 2020. In the meantime, our Threats to Nature project will be developing a detailed response to the interim report and to the development of standards and strongly advocating our position.

What you can do

Make a submission to the interim report by completing the review team’s online survey. Submissions close at 9am on Mon 17 August 2020.

Here’s some tips for your survey response:

  • Strongly support national standards, ecologically sustainable development, regional and national plans (questions 7-10).
  • Strongly support the need for an independent regulator (question 41).
  • Strongly oppose devolution to the states (question 28).
  • On the review’s deficiencies, suggest (in question 48) greater emphasis be given to systematically addressing all key threats to biodiversity including invasive species through the standards and effective national and regional plans.
  • In the same question (question 48), call for the ability for the commonwealth to intervene where states don’t address key threats like feral horses in sensitive areas.

Image: Wombat foraging at Wilsons Promontory National Park. Photo: Judith Deland | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
[Your name]
[Your email address]
[Your suburb], [Your state]