BIODIVERSITY & THREATENED SPECIES (Part 2)

This article is based on Professor Hugh Possingham’s Oral Presentation “Biodiversity and Threatened Species”, 10-10.45am, Sunday, 29th October, 2023. See Issue 60, December, 2023 for Part 1. (Vaughan Kippers)

National Issues

The Threatened Species Action Plan: Towards Zero Extinctions 2022-2032 “identifies 110 priority species and 20 priority places to drive action where it is needed most,My country and where it will have the biggest impact.” However, in the Victorian Government Biodiversity Report, “more than 1,800 native Australian species and ecosystems are threatened with extinction; from land clearing, from predation and displacement by invasive species, from chemical pollutants and, increasingly, from the regional impacts of a changing global climate system. We are losing more biodiversity than any other developed country, with the extinction of over 100 native species since European colonisation now formally recognised under legislation.” Hugh told us that we are losing about 2% of our threatened species annually, and that the identified priority species are far less than the total number of threatened species. On the morning of Thursday, 30 November, 2023, Hugh was interviewed on ABC Radio National about the decline in Australian bird life.

Recently, the Queensland Government’s Threatened Species Grants provided total funding of more than $1.25 million. Actually, $2 billion is required annually in Australia but the Queensland Government spends $20-30 million, which was increased recently from a very low base as the result of advice from the former Queensland Chief Scientist! As stated by Graeme Samuel, philanthropy is very important, and Hugh congratulated the work of organisations such as. Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and Bush Heritage Australia, both of which were successful in their applications for Round 1 of the Queensland Threatened Species Research Grants. But they must raise much more funding from the public to be successful in their aims.

The Brisbane City Council in its web site “Biodiversity in Brisbane” tell us that “Brisbane is Australia's most biodiverse capital city with the highest diversity of native plants and wildlife of any other capital city. Despite more than 100 years of European settlement and being a part of one of the fastest growing regions in Australia, we still have 83 different vegetation communities with over 800 species of wildlife, and over 2500 species of native plants. Brisbane City Council is committed to protecting, managing and enhancing Brisbane's biodiversity values. The Brisbane Vision includes the aspiration to maintain a clean and green city that continues to support a high level of biodiversity.” Despite this positive information, Professor Possingham considers that Brisbane City Council has a poor biodiversity strategy, which is very vague and lacks any clear focus.

Queensland’s Protected Area Strategy 2020–2030 is a glossy 40-page PDF document that is full of important information. “In 2015, the Queensland Government adopted a long-term target of increasing protected areas to 17% of the state’s land mass. That goal remains, as we embark on a new strategy to guide the management and conservation of our protected areas. The recent global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services reiterated that the need to halt global biodiversity decline is more urgent than ever with human actions threatening more species with extinction than ever before. This Strategy recognises the essential role that protected areas play in protecting Queensland’s biodiversity and ecosystem services by building resilience to adapt and thrive in a changing climate.” (Page 13). In 2020, “Queensland’s protected area network covers more than 14.2 million hectares (8.26%) of Queensland—more than twice the size of Tasmania” (Page 6). On Page 50 of the Sustainable chapter in Measuring What Matters, one of the “key Australian Government initiatives to protect the environment” is the “Target to protect and conserve 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our oceans by 2030”! A mountain of work needs to be done by all levels of government to achieve these lofty aims by the end of this decade!

Despite these strategies, Professor Possingham estimates that recovery of biodiversity will take up to 1 million years (about 10,000 generations), which is much longer than anticipated climate recovery if global temperatures are lowered to goal levels this century.

In Australia, he said that “rain” is the main determinant of the environment and biodiversity, which was recognised by Dorothea Mackellar in 1908 when she published her famous poem, “My Country”.

After speaking about mainly global and national issues, Professor Possingham turned his attention to the local environment of the Centenary suburbs.

Local Applications

Hugh is an enthusiastic advocate for monitoring, so that changes can be quantified, however he warned against over-monitoring. He advised us to choose a simple measure to follow the effects of any intervention. Climate change is a good example; while average global temperature is affected by a myriad of factors, most members of the public are aware of this single measure and the aim to limit the increase to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

Local groups are advised to devise plans with a stated aim of achieving specific outcomes that can be quantified. Carry out required monitoring to achieve specific objectives. Bushland areas could become glorified botanic gardens, meaning they would contain multiple examples of each species rather than only one or two examples. They could act as seed sources for revegetation, particularly threatened species.

Citizen scientists collect more nature data than ever, showing us where common and threatened species live. Citizen science isn’t new anymore. For decades, keen amateur naturalists have been gathering data about nature and the environment around them – and sharing it. But what is new is the rate at which citizen scientists are collecting and sharing useful data. Last year, 10 million observations of species were collected. Our new research shows 9.6 million of those came from citizen scientists. It makes intuitive sense. There are only so many professional researchers. But nearly everyone now has a smartphone. But if anyone can contribute data, how do you know it’s reliable? Was it really an antechinus, or was it a black rat? Despite the growing success in collecting data, there has long been scepticism over how reliable the data are when used to, say, estimate how abundant a threatened species is. It turns out, citizen science is extremely useful – especially when paired with professionally collected data.” One of the best known apps for smart phones is iNaturalist Australia.

As Vice-President of Birdlife Australia, Hugh used bird monitoring as a good example. “Habitat destruction and degradation affects 93% of threatened species of birds. Ensuring the protection of our beloved birds means protecting and restoring the places they live, both on land and at sea.” (Birdlife Australia Our Impact). Birds would be an ideal group of species to monitor because they provide information about environment/conservation, and there is a large potential pool of citizen scientists, so that human effort can be deployed for greatest effect. Hugh noted that the Fort Road bushcare area used to have yellow robins – can they be restored? Professor Richard Fuller, who has guided bird walks for CDEA previously, and Professor Possingham agree that noisy miners are over-running Pooh Corner and can only be controlled by changing the habitat, as has been done in Oxley Common.

Hugh reminded us that all regional ecosystems in South-East Queensland have been classified. Ed Parker has informed us previously that under vegetation management legislation, Pooh Corner Bushland Reserve is classified as an endangered regional ecosystem RE 12.3.3d. The short description of this bushland is “Eucalyptus moluccana woodland on Quaternary alluvium”.

Another good example of local monitoring is PlatypusWatch, which celebrated its 20th Anniversary, hosted by Wolston and Centenary Catchments (WaCC), the previous weekend at Pooh Corner Environment Centre and Bushland Reserve. Sandy and Bullockhead Creeks are local habitats of interest.

Trees can be monitored by simply measuring trunk diameters at chest height. The Queensland Herbarium is a potential source of information and advice, especially with the identification of weeds, which would be useful for local bushcare groups.

Should our aim be to put things back as they were? Basically, the answer is No! Simply, as the result of climate change, species of animals and plants will need to move at least 200 km south or more than 250m to higher altitude! As an example, channel-billed cuckoos (which were seen on the previous bird walk in Pooh Corner Bushland Reserve) have been seen in ACT and now Victoria.

Much more than 10% of eastern Queensland is climatically suited to rainforest and, in the absence of human-created fire, a lot more would have been rainforest. Europeans significantly reduced rainforest further through clearing, so now only about 1% of south-east Queensland is rainforest, but it contains a very large fraction of the biodiversity. Locally, one aim for Pooh Corner, could be to increase the amount and health of riparian vegetation adjacent to Sandy Creek and in the general area.

Monitoring of Queensland regions has been carried out by the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Science, which has produced a Lower Brisbane (Healthy Land and Water) report card, which includes the Centenary suburbs.

REMINDER

On Saturday 9th September, 2023, the National Parks Association of Queensland hosted the 21st Annual Romeo Lahey Memorial Lecture, presented by Professor Hugh Possingham in City Hall. You can access a recording of his inspiring lecture. CDEA members who have viewed this lecture have provided very positive feedback.

The 2024 Romeo Lahey Lecture is being held at City Hall on Saturday morning, 20th April.

 ADDENDA

 Professor Possingham, chief councillor with the Biodiversity Council, has been in the ABC News recently. He was reported as saying that “climate change should be specifically mentioned for the first time in revamped threatened species legislation, due to be released by the Albanese government later this year.”

During the last few years, we have had a few guides for our annual bird walks preceding the celebration of World Environment Day, including Professor Mike Bennett, Professor Richard Fuller, Professor Hugh Possingham, Louis Backstrom & Braden McDonald. Louis, who is a PhD student in the School of Environment at The University of Queensland, recently led a study that identified Australia’s most elusive bird. To do this, the eBird and Birdata databases were analysed. These databases contained more than 3.8 million volunteer hours of birdwatching data! This shows the power of citizen science. The volunteers produced a massive amount of data, but a group of scientists, which also included Professor Richard Fuller, Professor James Watson and three others, were required to analyse the data, which not only identified the least known birds, but also provided results that inform conservation action.

During the movement restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, three University of Queensland academics performed an ecological study at their shared house. They expected to find about 200 species, but found 1150 species of animals, plants and fungi in their small Brisbane suburban allotment.

Questions & Answers

Ed Parker reminded us that various events have been held at Pooh Corner Bushland Reserve, hosted by both CDEA & WaCC, including:

  • Insects – with Helen Schwenke
  • Butterflies (Brisbane’s Big Butterfly Count)
  • Koalas (Dr Sean FitzGibbon presented on the re-introduction of koalas to Pooh Corner at the 2022 CDEA AGM)
  • Frogs (some night monitoring by CDEA and WaCC members after rain events which re-charged localised wetlands in Pooh Corner)

 

In response to a question about pest species, Hugh had quite a bit to say! His initial response was that the history of eradication of pest species in Australia is appalling!

Invasive species

From the web site of the Invasive Species Council.

Hugh’s advice for local bushcare groups was that weeding needs to be targeted, because severe weeding can adversely affect the numbers of insects, birds etc. in the short term.

Professor Possingham identified some feral species that are national problems:

  • Cats, both feral and domestic. A CSIRO review of evidence published in 2019 summarised the information: “The per capita kill rate of pet cats is 25% that of feral cats. However, pet cats live at much higher densities, so the predation rate of pets per square kilometre in residential areas is 28–52 times larger than predation rates by feral cats in natural environments, and 1.3–2.3 times greater than predation rates per km2 by feral cats living in urban areas. Pet cats kill introduced species more often than do feral cats living in natural environments, but, nonetheless, the toll of native animals killed per square kilometre by pet cats in residential areas is still much higher than the toll per square kilometre by feral cats.” According to the Threatened Species Recovery Hub National Environmental Science Programme, “In Australia, at least 34 mammal species have become extinct since European settlement – a rate of mammal extinctions far greater than anywhere else in the world. Cats have been primary contributors to over two-thirds of these extinctions.” Many people, including Professor Hugh Possingham, have a strong opinion that all domestic cats must be “indoor cats”. As one example of the positive effects of domestic cat control, “the impact of feral cats on Christmas Island wildlife has been significant, with four of the island’s mammals becoming extinct and many more species currently threatened. This loss of natural heritage was of such great concern to the island community and the land management agencies, that a bold plan has been announced to completely eradicate feral cats from Christmas Island. As part of this, pet owners are now required to register and desex all domestic cats on the island, with no new cats to be brought in. Across the whole island, 23,000 baits have been deployed and 700 feral cats removed as part of eradication efforts. This activity has occurred as part of a broader approach to control rats and yellow crazy ants. This improves whole of island health. These efforts have already contributed to a 90 per cent jump in breeding success for the red-tailed tropicbird, which nests on the island’s cliffs. This result was only made possible by the collaborative effort between a determined community and committed land management agencies.”

When Hugh finished, he received enthusiastic applause. – no notes, no PowerPoint! How does he do it?

To me, Hugh is the ideal academic – his hobbies are his job/career.

On behalf of all attendees, Brian Korner thanked the speaker! “Thank you, Hugh, for a thought-provoking lecture, one which has greatly broadened our horizons. All too often we concentrate on preserving as many of the species as possible within a given area without giving much thought to the plant and animal species which have disappeared, or are in imminent danger of disappearing, from the area. In your highly informative talk you have given us considerable food for thought and have really brought home to us the message that, when it comes to the environment, we can never truly relax.”