Australia has 1,800 threatened species but has not listed critical habitat in 10 years
Only five habitats put on critical habitat register since national environmental laws enacted
Australia has not listed any critical habitat for the protection of threatened species on the federal critical habitat register for more than a decade.
And only five places have been registered on the database since Australia’s national environmental laws – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – were enacted.
A new Guardian investigation shows that Australia is set to clear 3m hectares of native forest by 2030. Conservationists say the data shows that Australia’s environment laws are failing to protect the habitat necessary for the survival of the more than 1,800 plant and animal species and ecological communities listed as threatened nationally.
“We have provisions to protect critical habitat under the current laws but they’re not being used effectively and they’re not strong enough,” the Australian Conservation Foundation healthy ecosystems campaigner Jess Abrahams said.
The critical habitat for the Leadbeater’s possum has been identified but it is not listed on the critical habitat register. Photograph: Zoos Victoria
Habitat loss is a main driver of species extinction.
Under the EPBC Act, the federal government can identify land critical to the survival of a species and put it on the national critical habitat register.
The register makes it an offence to knowingly damage habitat on the list but, crucially, these penalty provisions only apply to habitat in or on commonwealth land.
State or private-owned land can still be listed on the register but penalties for knowingly damaging habitat found in these places do not apply, dramatically reducing the power of the register to protect habitat for the many species not found on commonwealth land.
And despite more than 1,800 species and ecological communities being identified as threatened in Australia, just five places are recorded on the critical habitat register and not a single piece of critical habitat has been listed since 2005.
New analysis by the Australian Conservation Foundation has found 105 recovery plans for critically endangered and endangered species identify critical habitat that is essential for their survival.
Recovery plans are documents that set out actions to help the survival of threatened wildlife.
Of the species surveyed, 25 had critical habitat that was wholly or partly on commonwealth land but only two had habitat that was listed on the critical habitat register.
A new Guardian investigation shows Australia is set to clear 3m million hectares of native forest by 2030.
“Given the immediacy of threats and the importance of conservation actions for protecting critically endangered and endangered wildlife, it is of significant concern that no critical habitat has been listed for any species since 2005,” the ACF report states.
“It is clear that there are species on both commonwealth and other land tenures that have sufficient scientific knowledge to warrant the listing of their critical habitat.”
The Department of the Environment and Energy said “actions to guide protection and recovery of habitat are identified in recovery plans and conservation advices.”
“Threatened species habitat does not need to be listed on the register in order to trigger the environmental assessment provisions of the EPBC Act.”
But conservationists say the EPBC approval process for developments does not adequately protect habitat for threatened wildlife because it allows environment ministers to approve the destruction of habitat at their discretion.
“We see it time and time again, the minister simply approves the destruction of endangered species habitat for the next mine, road, port or industrial development,” Abrahams said.
“Our wildlife need inalienable protection for their survival and that’s what the critical habitat register could provide if it was used more regularly and compulsorily.”
A freedom of information request to the Department of Environment and Energy by Guardian Australia, as part of an investigation of threatened species management, also exposes the weaknesses in the critical habitat register because its offence provisions do not apply to state or private land.
Guardian Australia sought correspondence and briefs relating to the designation of critical habitat for the Leadbeater’s possum, whose status as critically endangered is currently being reassessed by the government.
The federal conservation advice for the species identifies habitat loss and ongoing deterioration of habitat caused by fire and logging in Victoria’s montane ash forests as the primary threat to the species’ survival.
But the departmental documents obtained under FOI laws state there would be no conservation benefit in pursuing a critical habitat listing for the species on the critical habitat register, despite a recovery plan having identified areas of habitat that are central to the possums’ survival.
The numbat has now been uplisted from vulnerable to endangered. Photograph: Frans Lanting/Mint Images RM
One document lists department advice given to the government’s threatened species scientific committee, an independent committee of scientists who advise the environment and energy minister on matters relating to the listing, conservation and recovery of threatened species.
It states that a new draft recovery plan for the Leadbeater’s possum had enough information to identify critical habitat for the species but that there would be no “clear conservation benefit” in putting this habitat on the federal register.
A later document detailing the minutes of a meeting of the threatened species scientific committee in September 2016 shows the committee “agreed to advise the minister that in the committee’s view there would be no clear conservation benefit from pursuing a listing on the register of critical habitat for this species.”
A spokesperson for the department said the reason for this was because habitat for the Leadbeater’s possum was not found on commonwealth land.
Leadbeater’s possum habitat is largely found on state-owned land, and in a very small number of cases on private land. Under the current critical habitat laws, it is only an offence to deliberately damage habitat on commonwealth land, not on state or private land.
“The range of the Leadbeater’s possum does not include commonwealth land. The committee agreed that placing any of its habitat on the register would therefore have no conservation benefit,” the departmental spokesperson said.
Environment groups say the case highlights the need for the critical habitat register to be strengthened so that the penalty for harming critical habitat also applies to habitat on state and privately-owned land.
“In the case of the Leadbeater’s possum, we can see that the government is well aware of the habitat needs of our most endangered wildlife, but it seems there’s a lack of political will to do anything about it,” Abrahams said.
“Even our leading conservation scientists [on the threatened species scientific committee] admit there seems to be no benefit from listing non-commonwealth land on the register as the law currently stands.”
In a 2010 report, Humane Society International (HSI) said it had supplied the federal government with enough data to register critical habitat for more than 60 species without success. It said not much had changed since that time.
“Under the act, critical habitat is a really powerful provision. The problem is, they’re just not using it,” the HSI head of programs, Evan Quartermain, said.
The organisation wants broader reforms to environment laws that would prohibit environment ministers from approving developments that cause detrimental impacts on critical habitat identified in recovery plans, conservation advices, or on the critical habitat register.
“Critical habitat is so-called because it is just that, critical to the survival of threatened species that rely on it,” Quartermain said.
“Current laws give ministers discretion to trash and trade away critical habitat to the highest paying developer. If threatened species are to survive and recover on this continent, urgent law reform is needed to give their critical habitats strict protection.”
Comment was sought from the environment and energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, and the assistant environment minister, Melissa Price, but no response was supplied.