Averting extinctions: The case for strengthening Australia’s threat abatement system

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Australia was once a country where you could walk out at night and it was alive with wildlife scurrying and scraping, digging and dashing. You couldn’t go far without tripping over a burrow, and the beam of your torchlight sparkled with reflected eye shine.

Australian nights are too quiet now.

This document has been compiled by the Invasive Species Council, Bush Heritage Australia, BirdLife Australia, the Australian Land Conservation Alliance and the Humane Society International to identify problems with Australia’s threat abatement system and recommend reforms.

Australia has a two-pronged approach to saving threatened native species and ecosystems. The first prong focuses on recovery, the second on threats.

A key part of this focus on threats includes preparing threat abatement plans. These plans respond to threats through research, management and other actions that reduce the impacts of key threatening processes. We appear to be the only country in the world which enshrines threat abatement into law in this way.

Our threat abatement system could be a powerful tool for saving threatened species, preventing the decline of more species and returning ecosystems to health and resilience. But the system is being applied very poorly and is hamstrung by limited threat response options.

Strengthening Australia’s threat abatement system therefore needs to be a top national priority. We present 13 proposals to help Australia avert extinctions, recover threatened species and ecological communities, restore ecological health and resilience, and benefit industries impacted by the same threats. These proposals fall under three overarching tasks for reform.

These proposals and tasks have been developed in collaboration with ecologists, policy experts and environmental NGOs. They incorporate planning recommendations made in the 2020 independent review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Executive Summary:

Imagine if… you walked out at night and it was alive with wildlife scurrying and scrapping, digging and dashing. If you couldn’t go far without tripping over a burrow, and the beam of your torchlight sparkled with reflected eye shine.

Australian nights are too quiet now. When the likes of bilbies, boodies, bandicoots and quolls were common, the nights were full of bustle. The only places we see this now are in fenced reserves and on some islands where wildlife is safe from cats and foxes. These introduced predators have completely eliminated 24 unique Australian mammals and left dozens of other species in grave peril or as refugees on islands.

We see now only a faint shadow of the richness and abundance of the Australian mammal fauna that existed at the time of European settlement.

– Action Plan for Australia’s Mammals 2012

A wildlife revival need not be an impossible dream. It is within Australia’s capacity to eliminate or greatly reduce major threats to nature and to restore habitats to allow rare and threatened to thrive once again.

From eliminating a prickly pear scourge over 20 million hectares in the 1930s to stopping the death of thousands of albatrosses on longline fishing hooks in the 2000s, Australians have shown that with national leadership, scientific expertise and a joint sense of mission, we can overcome major threats to nature.

The importance of focusing on threats

A few major threatening processes – particularly invasive species, habitat destruction and adverse fire regimes – have caused the majority of extinctions and declines in Australia. Unless we abate these mega-threats, many more unique species and ecological communities will be doomed to perpetual rarity or extinction. With almost 2,000 listed as nationally threatened, it is not feasible to save them all – species-by-species, community-
by-community – while the major threats remain potent.

It was for this reason that, some 30 years ago, Australia formally adopted a 2-pronged approach to threatened species conservation – one prong focused on species-specific recovery and the other on broad-scale threat abatement. Both approaches are essential – but both are failing. Since Australia started officially listing threatened species, only a handful are known to have recovered. Recovery has often been stymied by a lack of effective methods for abating threats and deficient implementation of threat abatement and recovery plans.

A concerted focus on threat abatement is needed to enable recovery not only of listed species, but also of the many unlisted species in decline – some on the edge of extinction. It is also essential for fostering resilience, to optimise species’ capacity to adapt under climate change – another rapidly emerging driver of extinctions. The development of enduring abatement solutions will also be far less expensive over the long term than ongoing recovery efforts in the face of unrelenting threats.

Australia’s threat abatement system

Australia appears to be the only country with a threat abatement system enshrined in national law. Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act), the Australian Government can list ‘key threatening processes’ (KTPs) and prepare ‘threat abatement plans’. A threat can be listed as a KTP if it ‘threatens or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community’.

It makes a lot of sense for the Australian Government to list major threats and coordinate national planning and threat abatement programs. Federal leadership and resources, collaboration across state and territory boundaries and a national research focus are essential for solving major problems – as is the case for health, education, biosecurity and other government functions. An effective threat abatement ‘system’ must be broader than
the planning elements stipulated under the EPBC Act.

As demonstrated by a few successes – for example, the reduction of seabird bycatch and the eradication of invasive rodents from many islands – the national threat abatement system can work well. It should be a core focus for conservation in Australia – operating in tandem with recovery programs for threatened species and ecological communities. A more-effective abatement system will also benefit industries impacted by the same threats, particularly agriculture and tourism, and generate other economic benefits through the creation of jobs and services, particularly in regional and rural areas.

Since the first threats were listed more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1994 under the forerunner to the EPBC Act, there have been several extinctions and the national threatened species list has grown by 70%. Currently (February 2022), 1,839 taxa (477 animals and 1,362 plants) and 95 ecological communities are listed as threatened. Australia already has one of the worst conservation records in modern times, and most threats are worsening. About 100 taxa have recently been assessed as facing a ‘high’ or greater-than-50% risk of extinction within the next 10 years (for plants) or 20 years (for animals) – 55 plants, 20 freshwater fishes, 9 birds, 8 frogs, 6 reptiles, 1 mammal and 1 butterfly.

Clearly, our national threat abatement system is failing to avert Australia’s extinction crisis. This is not because the system is fundamentally flawed. The elements are mostly sound. But they need to be applied systematically, strengthened with more flexible response options, underpinned by intergovernmental commitments and cross-sectoral collaborations, and adequately funded. Most of all, Australia needs to become much more ambitious about overcoming major threats.

Three major reform tasks

In this document, we identify the problems with Australia’s threat abatement system and recommend reforms. These need to be coupled with reforms to improve recovery planning and implementation, but they are not the focus in this report. Our proposed threat abatement reforms have been developed in collaboration with ecologists, policy experts and environmental NGOs, and incorporate planning recommendations from the independent review of the EPBC Act in 2020. We assume some knowledge in our readers of how Australia’s national environmental law, the EPBC Act, operates.

We present the proposed reforms as 3 major tasks:

Task 1: Strengthen the threat abatement system – focused on improving the statutory processes to list threats and apply effective threat abatement responses.

Task 2: Secure adequate funding for threat abatement – focused on defining the level of funding needed for effective threat abatement, the economic benefits of abatement and the potential sources of funding.

Task 3: Inspire a strong national commitment to threat abatement – focused on intergovernmental commitments, nationally coordinated and collaborative threat abatement,
community participation and independent oversight of progress.

Task 1: Strengthen the threat abatement system

  1. Comprehensively identify and list threats to nature through an independent scientific process and regularly review the list to ensure it remains up to date.
  2. List threats in a hierarchical scheme of key threatening processes and environmental threats of national significance.
  3. Establish an additional threat category – emerging threatening processes.
  4. Design fit-for-purpose national abatement responses for all listed threats, including national and regional plans, and policy and regulatory responses.
  5. List key threatening processes as matters of national environmental significance.
  6. Establish an implementation taskforce for each threat abatement plan.
  7. Systematically monitor and report on threat abatement progress.

Task 2: Secure adequate funding for threat abatement

  1. Investigate the economics of threat abatement – the annual costs of effective abatement and the economic consequences of abatement failures and successes.
  2. Substantially increase public spending on threat abatement and threatened species recovery, including through biodiversity levies, and allocate funds based on a transparent prioritisation process.

Task 3: Inspire a strong national commitment to threat abatement

  1. Develop an intergovernmental agreement that commits the Australian, state and territory governments to collaboratively abate major threats to nature.
  2. Facilitate national collaborations by governments, Traditional Owners and community and cross-sectoral stakeholders on abating threats to nature.
  3. Introduce independent oversight of the national threat abatement system.
  4. Set ambitious and inspiring goals for abating Australia’s major threats to nature.

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