PARK WATCH Article March 2024 |

Blake Nisbet, Nature Conservation Campaigner, with good and bad news for the MDBW Stonefly

Almost a year ago, VNPA launched a bid seeking the protection of critical habitat for the Mt Donna Buang Wingless (MDBW) Stonefly (Riekoperla darlingtoni).

Our aim was to protect the restricted ‘Goldilocks zones’ of cool mountain streams that the Stonefly calls home. We’re now at the sticky end of this process and it’s fair to say that there’s some good news, and there’s some bad news.

Let’s start with the good!

Firstly, it’s important to remember that under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (FFG Act), a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) advises the State Government on conservation matters. Our nomination for the legal protection of the Stonefly’s critical habitat was lodged through the SAC.

We have recently been informed that, in April 2023, the SAC recommended a Critical Habitat Determination for the MDBW Stonefly. Hearing the SAC support our call for the protection of critical habitats, an important but widely neglected tool in Victoria’s nature laws, was a fantastic result.

The SAC recommendation was then directed to the ultimate decision-maker, the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA).

Remarkably, the DEECA Secretary went against the advice of the SAC, opting not to protect the critical habitat of the MDBW Stonefly. It goes without saying, but this is where the bad news kicks in. This is an extremely disappointing outcome.

The Secretary provided a statement outlining his decision and published new guidelines around the eligibility of areas for Critical Habitat Determinations.

The new guidelines, put simply, are a three-step process that ‘tests’ whether an area would be eligible for critical habitat protection under Victoria’s nature laws. For the MDBW Stonefly, it would require that:

  1. The area of habitat is essential to the Stonefly.
  2. Threats to the Stonefly’s habitat cannot be adequately mitigated by existing arrangements.
  3. A Critical Habitat Determination would materially improve the habitat’s protection against these threats.

We are confident the MDBW Stonefly’s critical habitat meets these criteria. While the Secretary was satisfied the Stonefly met the first phase of the criteria, he disagreed that it met the second. He was satisfied that the existing arrangements in place adequately mitigated threats to the Stonefly’s habitat.

Our contention here is that the Secretary did not consider the entire suite of threats facing the Stonefly’s habitat and whether existing arrangements are adequate to mitigate these threats. Decreases in rainfall and snowfall, increases in air temperature, prolonged droughts, human trampling, vehicle trampling, and impacts from invasive plants and animals are some of the threats not addressed in the Secretary’s statement.

Instead, his decision was predicated on the assessment of only one threat in isolation – the proposed Warburton Mountain Bike Destination trails through Stonefly habitat (largely knocked back by the state planning minister).

We will continue to urge the Secretary to reconsider his decision and advocate for a Critical Habitat Determination for the MDBW Stonefly.

One last hopeful note – our nomination did trigger the release of guidelines which have been missing in action for about four years since the amendment of the FFG Act. Now the State Government must get the ball rolling by testing the eligibility of critical habitats for our long list of threatened species and communities. There are over 2000 of them to be assessed, and priority should be placed on those with the highest extinction risk (Critically Endangered) and progressed through towards those with a lower extinction risk (Vulnerable).