EPBC Act review: more of the same or something new?

Feral Herald |

Since the 2009 review of our national environmental law, the EPBC Act, one mammal and three lizard species unique to Australia have been rendered extinct by invasive species, another mammal by sea-level rise, and bulldozers have destroyed millions more hectares of woodlands.

Will the current review of the EPBC Act recommend changes to stop this extinction trajectory?

Stopping extinctions should be the priority

The reviewer of the EPBC Act, Professor Graeme Samuel, is blunt about its many failings – ‘Australia is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate’, and the EPBC Act is ‘ineffective’ and ‘not fit to address current or future environmental challenges’, he says in an interim report released on 20 July.

For abating major threats and recovering threatened species and ecological communities, Professor Samuel proposes a new regime involving strategic national plans, bioregional plans and regional recovery plans. However, there is little detail in the interim report about how this new system should operate.

Given the weariness of the community with environmental plans that fail to achieve their purpose – the national biodiversity strategies being exemplars of dud plans – it is important for the review to specify how the proposed plans will lead to more effective suppression of Australia’s major threats to nature. The review team should critically review past failures and successes, and specify an optimal planning and implementation process.

However, at this late stage of the review, due for completion in two months, the Invasive Species Council is concerned there will be too little focus on designing an effective system. Instead, Professor Samuel is focused mainly on developing standards, a measure we support, given extra urgency by the Australian Government’s proposal to devolve powers to state and territory governments for approving major projects, a measure we generally do not support.

We say stopping extinctions should be a far higher priority.

The Blue-tailed Skink is endemic to Christmas Island. Photo: Parks Australia
The blue-tailed skink is endemic to Christmas Island but extinct in the wild. Photo: Parks Australia

Why we need to focus on threats

The system that abates threats to Australia’s natural environment must be a centrepiece of reform.

Consisting of powers to list Australia’s key threats and prepare threat abatement plans, this system has languished for years, with no new threats to nature listed since 2014, and starved of funding for preparing and implementing threat abatement plans.

We have argued that strengthening this system should be one of the highest reform priorities – much more effective than trying to save threatened species one by one. Developing better ways to reduce feral cat numbers, for example, will do much more for threatened mammals and biodiversity in general than trying to save susceptible species only on islands and in fenced reserves.

In an analogy with human health, the operation of the EPBC Act thus far has been the equivalent of providing suboptimal medical care for individual patients combined with a minimal focus on addressing the causes of disease.

One of the weaknesses of the current system is that the only response to a listed threat is a threat abatement plan, or nothing. The reformed EPBC Act should facilitate effective solutions, including policy changes, rather than limit it to a single mechanism.

Tackling fundamental barriers

To make the proposed reforms in the interim report work will require a great deal more thinking, consultation and negotiation. Although the interim report refers to some of the systemic problems bedevilling national conservation efforts in Australia, the reviewer needs to grapple with fundamental barriers such as the dysfunctional arrangements between different levels of government, funding scarcity and conflicting interests.

A study published late last year by Brendan Wintle and others estimates that current funding by Australian governments is about 15% of the level needed to avoid extinctions and recover threatened species.

Another fundamental barrier has been public apathy. One of the most encouraging aspects of this review has been that about 30,000 submissions were made – more than 100 times the 220 submissions made in response to the first review of the EPBC Act in 2009 – suggesting a growing public concern about the diminishment of nature in Australia.

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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]