The Victorian State government is failing to use its considerable legal powers to protect threatened species from extinction, including its state faunal emblems, the Leadbeater’s possum and helmeted honeyeater.
Habitat destruction, invasive species and climate catastrophes that include last year’s bushfires are exacerbating Australia’s reputation as a country with one of the highest species extinction rates in the world.
Victoria’s principal biodiversity law, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (1988), was updated in June 2020, giving the state government more legal tools than ever to halt species decline, but many of these protections have never been used.
Under the FFG Act, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DEWLP) is required to list threatened species, and produce “action statements”, which are documents outlining recovery methods for a species.
Lack of action
Of the 648 threatened floral and faunal species listed as threatened in Victoria, only 43 per cent of them have an action statement published by the DEWLP, and many of them are out of date.
Following an action statement, the DEWLP can then produce a management plan, which implements an action statement’s recommendations. The DEWLP has never published a management plan for any threatened species.
Dr Bruce Lindsay, a senior lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia, says it is “enormously problematic” that action statements are out of date, and that management plans are not available.
“Once a species is listed, there is a requirement to prepare an action statement, in effect a type of recovery plan, within a reasonable time – that’s one obligation under the act and it’s actually one that’s not complied with or not enforced,” Lindsay says.
The state can also designate a critical habitat for threatened species, which identifies areas vital to a species’ current and future survival, and protects them from habitat destruction.
In the US, the designation of critical habitat for a threatened species is legally required, and typically doubles the survival rate of a threatened species.
Critical habitat decisions in the ‘too hard’ basket
The designation of critical habitat and other legal protections remain up to the government to decide in Australia, and are woefully underutilised as a result. In Victoria, critical habitat protection has only been used once, in 1996, and was revoked after a year.
“At the end of the day critical habitat determinations and the use of other mechanisms are largely on the discretionary side,” says Lindsay. “It’s largely a matter of will on the part of government, or lack of will to use laws that are on the books.”
“It’s seen as being in the too hard basket, or not wanting to ruffle feathers… especially where critical habitat protections may come up against other powerful interests like land development and resource extraction,” Lindsay says.
Logging remains a major driver of habitat destruction, particularly of old growth forests where species such as the Leadbeater’s possum and helmeted honeyeater make their homes in the hollows of ancient trees.
The main cause of extinctions
Ruth Barrett, a part-time veterinarian at Healesville Sanctuary, says habitat preservation is the best way to protect biodiversity, and the destruction of habitats is the “No. 1 cause of species extinctions in Victoria”.
One of Barrett’s roles at Healesville Sanctuary is treating endangered species in their captive breeding programs, like the Leadbeater’s possum and helmeted honeyeater, which will probably never be released back into the wild.
Barrett says captive breeding programs are “the Plan Z for saving species”.
“Captive breeding programs are actually an incredibly expensive way of trying to prevent a species from going extinct. And not always successful,” she says.
For Healesville Sanctuary, the cost of maintaining the captive breeding program for the Leadbeater’s possum over the next few years will be $850,000.
“[They] are a last resort when a species is already in trouble and are unable to survive in the wild in enough numbers … they haven’t addressed the reasons [why] they went extinct in the wild in the first place,” says Barrett.
“Conservation dollars would be much better spent earlier in the process of a species becoming extinct.
“We do need more investment into research. Without data on what animals are out there, where they are, and what the threats are, then we really can’t make informed decisions about how to improve the way that the land is managed in order to prevent extinctions and preserve biodiversity.”
However, it may be too late for some of these species on life support. Early diagnosis and prevention of habitat loss could stem the trend of Victoria’s unique fauna going extinct.
Some of these species may be functionally extinct. And there may not be any way that we can get them back.
“It would be a lot more effective to identify species and ecosystems at risk and take measures early before things are critical,” says Barrett.
DEWLP senior policy officer Sheri Burmeister says climate change and competing coming values were having an effect on the process.
“The development of action statements has been slowing, as the complexity of managing species increases,” she says.
Burmeister says the DEWELP is developing a more “streamlined approach to creating Action Statements” that will be semi-automated.