A senior adviser to the federal government on threatened species has backed calls for the creation of a national scientific monitoring system after the bushfire crisis to help fix Australia’s “very uneven” record in protecting endangered wildlife.
Helene Marsh, chair of the national threatened species scientific committee and an emeritus professor of environmental science at James Cook University, said the scale of the ecological tragedy had made Australians more aware of the risks facing the country’s unique animals and plants and provided an opportunity to improve conservation.
With fires still burning, scientists warn it is too early to have a clear picture of the devastation, but preliminary government data suggests more than 100 threatened animal and plant species have lost at least half their habitat and more than 300 have lost more than 10%. The impact on most species not currently listed as threatened is yet to be assessed.
Birdlife Australia estimates nearly 80 birds have lost at least a third of the area in which they live, and that the superb lyrebird may have plunged from being a common to a threatened species.
Marsh said the threatened species committee planned to review the decision-making process for officially listing species as vulnerable or worse within the constraints of existing national environment laws. She said the protection offered to species after they were listed should also be reconsidered as the existing model of recovery planning had not worked. Fewer than 40% of nationally threatened species have recovery plans in place.
She said she was encouraged by the level of goodwill between federal and state governments, scientists and conservationists following the fires, including the response by Sussan Ley, the federal environment minister, who has set up and met with an expert scientific panel to advise on what needed to be done.
The federal government has allocated $50m in wildlife recovery funding, with a promise of more to come, and officials from across fire affected areas are due to meet on Tuesday to continue work on a national response.
Marsh said the creation of a national scientific monitoring facility, proposed by fire scientists David Bowman and Ross Bradstock to fill critical gaps in bushfire knowledge, made some sense. She said it could include wildlife surveys.
“I’ve been quite concerned about the way we monitor our biodiversity in Australia, it’s a huge job, and I think if we are going to understand the impact of fires that is a very interesting idea that needs consideration,” she said.
Given not everything could be monitored, she said there would need to be clear priorities that would likely be defined by the 12m hectare bushfires. But she said it was important to consider “biodiversity arks”, key areas that had avoided the fires, as well as burned country.
Marsh said it should utilise technology, including remote sensing and drones, as well as on-ground field work by scientists, Indigenous rangers and possibly community groups and citizen scientists. “I do believe that the importance of monitoring the impact of the fires will be a catalyst for doing this work,” she said. “It is very important that it be well designed and scientifically robust.”
While she backed the development of a national system, Marsh said monitoring the impact of the fires could not wait for a new system and needed to begin as soon as it was safe.
An analysis by environment groups found the Coalition had cut funding for environmental programs, monitoring and staff by about 40% since being elected in 2013.
Marsh said changes would be needed to the national environment laws, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity and Protection Act, which is being reviewed by businessman Graeme Samuel.
Asked how successful the laws had been, she said the government’s state of the environment report, which among other things found climate change was altering the structure and function of Australia’s natural ecosystems and affecting heritage, economic activity and human wellbeing, “spoke for itself”.
Marsh said the review of the laws should consider whether it was appropriate to adopt more advanced criteria used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to assess whether an ecological community was threatened.
Government ministers including Ley last year stressed the review would focus on cutting “green tape”. Scientists have expressed hope it may now address the impact of the fires and what was needed to avoiding an extinction crisis that scientists said was worsening before the devastating fire season.
Scientists last year said three native Australian species had become extinct in the past decade and another 17 could follow in the next 20 years. More than 1,800 Australian plants and animals are listed as threatened with extinction. Scientists warned in a letter to the government before the fires that this was likely to be an underestimate.