PARK WATCH December 2020 |
2028 Victorian threatened species are in need of conservation action, writes Campaigner John Kotsiaris.
It has been 32 years since the introduction of the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (FFG Act), Victoria’s main threatened species protection laws. Its first and foremost objective is to “guarantee” that all of our state’s plants and animals can persist in the wild indefinitely.
But this year, a provisional update to Victoria’s Threatened List has indicated a formal increase of 1400 threatened species (a 215 per cent increase from 644), totalling 2028 recognised threatened species in Victoria.
Around 700 (35 per cent) have been recently assessed by the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) Conservation Status Assessment Project as ‘critically endangered’, and another 1000 (50 per cent) were assessed as ‘endangered’.
This means approximately 1700, or 85 per cent, of Victoria’s threatened species are teetering on the brink of extinction – even with legal protection under the FFG Act.
Despite the well-intended conservation objectives of the FFG Act, a lack of political will for implementation has meant that the legal conservation tools available under the Act have remained unimplemented for over three decades.
In 2014 there was an election commitment by the ALP to review the FFG Act, which was undertaken on a departmental level. Environment groups, including VNPA, argued that the reforms did not go far enough for the protection for threatened species. Nevertheless, amendments progressed. The Flora and Fauna Guarantee Amendment Bill 2019 passed through parliament with bipartisan support and the amended FFG Act came into force in June 2020. The first step for implementing the amended Act is to create a new Threatened List.
Victoria’s new Threatened List
Victoria and other states and territories have agreed with the federal government to adopt the Common Assessment Method (CAM) for listed threatened species. These methods are based on International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria, and Victoria’s threatened species will now be listed with an assessed extinction risk – ‘vulnerable’; ‘endangered’; ‘critically endangered’; ‘extinct’, or in the case of the Southern Blue Fin Tuna, ‘conservation dependent’. Victoria did not adopt the CAM for ecological communities; the assessment process for threatened ecological communities will remain as it is with generic ‘threatened’ listings.
DELWP recently used the new assessment method to assess the risk of extinction in Victoria of threatened species. A provisional new Threatened List has been developed, consolidating Victorian species listed under the national Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), species already listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, and species included in DELWP’s threatened species ‘advisory lists’.
DELWP’s provisional assessments indicate that 1400 species are to be added to Victoria’s Threatened List, with 628 species to be retained and 16 species to be de-listed. Of the de-listed species, 8 were deemed invalid, 5 were assessed as ‘least concern’, and 3 were de-listed for being deemed ‘data deficient’. Another 130 currently unlisted taxa will remain unlisted. Of these, 81 were invalid, 21 were deemed ‘data deficient’, 24 were assessed as ‘least concern’, and 4 were assessed as ‘near threatened’.
While the goal was to have an updated and consolidated threatened species list, a flaw in the legislation has resulted in a proposal for a new Threatened List that is to be divided into two sections, where species will be listed with either their Australian risk of extinction or with their Victorian risk of extinction.
Those Victorian threatened species that happen to also be listed as threatened under the national EPBC Act are proposed to be listed only with their Australian risk of extinction under the FFG Act. This effectively creates two FFG threatened species lists – which is a problem. Unless the Victorian risk of extinction is always provided, issues are likely to arise with nationally listed species that may be more particularly at threat in Victoria.
It’s time to implement the tools of the FFG Act
With over two thousand threatened species in Victoria, most of which are endangered or critically endangered, it is high time that the Victorian Government started implementing the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 and actually made use of the available legal conservation tools that are designed to help save our threatened plants and animals from an ultimate demise.
The amended FFG Act of 2020, in many cases, still leaves threatened species protection as optional. Therefore the laws are only as good as the money spent on implementation and the level of political will to take action. This means making a real effort to implement the tools of the Act by:
- maintaining a comprehensive Threatened List
- developing a prioritised action plan to create Action statements
- creating flora and fauna management plans to guide and implement conservation action
- making critical habitat determinations to identify areas of critical habitat of threatened species
- making habitat conservation orders to protect critical habitats under threat
- enforcing the new flora and fauna duty on public authorities.
What’s in the FFG tool box?
Action statements: Action statements are mandatory legal documents outlining the intended conservation action for listed threatened species, threatened communities and threatening processes.
For many years there has been a large backlog of action statements waiting to be created, and those that have been created are often old and out of date. In 2009 the Victorian Auditor-General’s Report into the administration of the FFG Act found that at the rate of listing at the time, it would take 22 years to develop action statements for the remaining listed items and recommended a “prioritised action plan” to address the backlog. It appears as though this recommendation was ignored.
The Victorian Biodiversity Plan, Protecting Victoria’s Environment – Biodiversity 2037, is the current Flora and Fauna Guarantee Strategy and main funding program for biodiversity in Victoria. It does not once mention action statements.
Flora and fauna management plans: The intention of flora and fauna management plans are to follow on from action statements and guide the actual implementation of management actions for conserving threatened species and reducing threatening processes. They are flexible tools that can deal with one or more listed items at a time, and their use would open up many possibilities for conservation implementation at the taxonomic, habitat and geographic scales. Our environment department has so far drawn up a grand total of zero management plans.
Fortunately, management plans have been strengthened slightly under the amended FFG Act. The environment minister is now able to make guidelines in relation to the circumstances in which our environment department must make a management plan under the Act. Guidelines are currently in development and will be open for public consultation.
Critical habitat determinations & habitat conservation orders: If an area contributes significantly to the conservation in Victoria of a listed (or recommended to be listed) threatened species or community, then DELWP is able to make what’s known as a ‘critical habitat determination’ to declare an area as critical habitat under the FFG Act. The determination of a critical habitat then allows the use of habitat conservation orders. Habitat conservation orders provide for a Ministerial power to order the conservation, protection or management of flora, fauna, land or water within a critical habitat (or proposed critical habitat), as well as to order the prohibition of any activity, land use or development within the critical habitat. The order can also provide for prohibitions outside the critical habitat if the activity is likely to adversely affect it.
If used effectively, habitat conservation orders could be a useful tool as a short-term measure (they can specify a period up to 10 years) to quickly put in place protections against critical threats to threatened species habitats, such as those arising from wildfire, in an orderly way with legal force.
To date, just one (and quickly withdrawn) critical habitat determination has been made under the FFG Act by our environment department in three decades. And the environment minister has never made a habitat conservation order to protect the critical habitat of a listed threatened species.
The amended Act now enables the Scientific Advisory Committee to make a recommendation to DELWP to make a critical habitat determination, and DELWP must then make a decision and publish the reasons for it. However, there are no provisions specifying conditions when critical habitat determinations must be made. Ultimately, both critical habitat determinations and habitat conservation orders are optional. This means that a political will to implement both tools is paramount.
A new flora and fauna duty on public authorities: At the moment, the biggest destroyer of habitat in Victoria is the state government and its agencies. However, the amended FFG Act now requires ministers and public authorities to give proper consideration to the objectives of the Act, which notably include a “Guarantee” on the persistence of Victoria’s flora and fauna in the wild and an objective “to protect, conserve, restore and enhance biodiversity”. There are also requirements for ministers and public authorities to give proper consideration to biodiversity impacts, and to any instrument made under the Act including the Biodiversity Strategy, action statements, critical habitat determinations and management plans. This flora and fauna duty on public authorities is a significant new compliance power and Victoria must ensure that it does not become yet another unused tool.
While the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act could still be strengthened further, the current legal conservation tools available do have potential. For effective nature conservation in Victoria, our many rare and increasingly threatened species need conservation action. It’s time to take the tools out of the shed, brush off the dust and actually use them for their intended purpose – to get our flora and fauna off the Threatened List and reduce the risk of losing species forever.
Learn more about the potential problems with Victoria’s new Threatened List in the next article ‘A split list?’
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