Citizen scientists saving threatened species habitat
Ed Hill reports that some threatened species in East Gippsland are now better protected thanks to citizen science.
That's the number of Australian species listed on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation and Nature, placing us in the top 10 of nations for threatened species. This is all the more troubling when many of the processes driving extinction, such as logging of high-value habitat, are easily avoidable.
In Victoria, threatened species are legally protected under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. VicForests, the government's own logging company, must conduct surveys to determine the presence of protected species in forest earmarked for logging and whether legal logging restrictions should be applied.
After years of documenting the failure of this regulatory system, in which VicForests, a logging company, determines the need for reduced logging, environment groups have taken matters into their own hands.
Since March 2015, Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO), a small grassroots community group based in East Gippsland, has been training community members in wildlife survey techniques at quarterly ecology camps in East Gippsland's threatened forests.
These citizen surveys have been very effective in locating threatened species and forcing the government to implement legal protection, in some cases stopping logging in its tracks.
GECO recently discovered 11 Greater Gliders in old-growth forest on the Errinundra Plateau in May 2016. The result was a 100-hectare protected area being declared by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) in 'an area' that would have otherwise been logged.
This followed GECO's discovery of 15 Greater Gliders in January 2016, which also resulted in improved protection. In August 2016, GECO found 12 Greater Gliders in the Cottonwood Range and logging was halted.
Greater Gliders are Australia's largest gliding marsupials and are capable of travelling up to 100m through the air. Their tree-hollow nesting habits and taste for gum leaves means their survival depends on old growth forest; logging can completely wipe out local glider populations.
The law requires the reduction of logging in Greater Glider habitat when more than 10 individuals are found on a spotlighting survey one kilometre in length. Also required are prelogging surveys of areas likely to contain threatened species.
GECO has shown that VicForests either does not carry out these surveys or conducts them very poorly.
If GECO's citizen surveys had not been conducted, illegal logging would have destroyed hundreds of hectares of Greater Glider habitat (and likely the gliders themselves).
Greater Gliders are not the only species missing out on the legal protection they are due, but the GECO citizen scientists are on their side, having:
- Documented illegal logging within the Cobb Hill National Rainforest Site of Significance, which resulted in a Supreme Court injunction to halt logging and an agreement with VicForests not to log eight coupes within the site.
- Completed dozens of surveys detecting the endangered Long Footed Potoroo: new Special Protection Zones have now reduced the area available for logging.
- Discovered the Masked Owl in Kuark Forest: a 500-hectare Masked Owl Management Zone and the prevention of logging in three scheduled coupes were the result.
- Detected the Powerful Owl at Hensleigh Creek on the Errinundra Plateau: a Powerful Owl Management Zone and the prevention of logging in two scheduled coupes were the outcomes.
- Discovered the endangered Large Brown Tree Frog, a frog thought to be locally extinct for the past 20 years, inside a logging coupe: a 28-hectare buffer around the site was later created.
- Found the critically endangered East Gippsland Galaxias Fish, only known to occur in Kuark Forest, and gained protection for it.
All of these species are protected by law, but it was only the work of the citizen scientists and GECO's pressure on DELWP that stopped the bulldozers and enforced protection.
These discoveries show the immense value of citizen science. But they also reveal a dysfunctional regulatory system where the logging companies responsible for surveying protected species, and DELWP, do not enforce the legal requirement to conduct a survey before logging begins.
With less than eight per cent of oldgrowth forest left, the least we can do is ensure that the laws that exist to reduce logging are stringently enforced.
Come along to GECO 's next citizen science camp from 28 October to 1 November 2016. That's the Melbourne Cup weekend. Camping will be at the Goongerah campground, by the clear waters of the Brodrib River. Composting toilets, drinking water, communal kitchen and basic camp facilities are available.
For more information visit www.geco.org.au.
Ask Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio to ensure that DELWP conduct pre-logging surveys for threatened species.
This story first appeared in the September 2016 edition of our magazine Park Watch. You can read more stories in our online version, and if you become a member of the Victorian National Parks Association you will receive your own copy in the mail.