The assessment of bushfires as a “key threatening process” for biodiversity “throughout Australia” was originally extended from September 2010 to March 2011. It was further extended again until November 2013 – after the Coalition took office – with no further update reported.
David Lindenmayer, an ecologist at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, said delayed assessment updates mean some species or ecological communities don’t have their threat ratings increased. That could mean certain development projects get the nod in the meantime when they might not otherwise have been permitted to proceed.
Professor Lindenmayer cited the example of the Leadbeater’s possum – Victoria’s animal emblem – which is “in a really bad way”.
Bushfires and forestry have reduced the marsupial’s preferred habitat in the hollows of old trees, with their presence in long-term sites halving over the past two decades.
“Our field data for this year suggests that the drop is even more substantial in the last couple of years as the number of big trees decline dramatically,” he said.
Cuts to the federal environment department – calculated to be 40 per cent since 2013, by the Australian Conservation Foundation – appear to be one reason for the delayed assessments, Professor Lindenmayer said.
“The complexity of some of these issues has increased substantially yet the resources to meet these problems have been slashed,” he said.
“The Minister is acting within normal time frames under the [Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act which provides for up to 90 days to consider recommendations,” a spokesman for Minister Price said.
Tim Beshara, federal policy director for The Wilderness Society, contrasted the Morrison government’s approval of Adani’s groundwater plans for its Carmichael coal – with agencies called in within a day of political pressure mounting from Coalition colleagues – with the drawn-out species assessments.
“I wish I could expect that the same access to haste is routinely granted to our vulnerable species,” he said.
“Even if it’s not deliberate, the effect of gutting the environment department is still to ensure that species end up with a lower level of protection and attention than they deserve. In some cases, this could mean that developments are approved when otherwise they wouldn’t be – a loss for the species in question and a windfall for some lucky corporation.”
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.