We call them “critical” habitats for a good reason. They are the habitats that are essential for species to survive in the wild. They could be critical for feeding, breeding or migration, and once critical habitats are lost, extinction becomes inevitable.
Some species are cosmopolitan in their tastes, adaptable and make do with a broad range of habitats. The species that are most vulnerable are those with very specific needs, particularly when those habitats are in short supply or dwindling. This is often the case for threatened species.
So, it follows that to be successful at conserving threatened species, we have no option but to protect their critical habitats. Yet, protecting critical habitats has become optional under our national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
The EPBC Act gives the federal environment minister of the day the discretion to be able to approve the destruction of critical habitats for threatened species if developers, loggers, miners or big political donors demand it. The minister has discretion not to develop a recovery plan for a threatened species and not to set up a recovery team to identify the species’ critical habitats and develop strategies for protecting them. The law also gives the minister discretion not to list a species’ critical habitats on the Register that was created to designate their protection. A critical habitat has not been added to the EPBC Act Critical Habitat Register for 15 years as explained in this excellent article from Lisa Cox in The Guardian.
The minister can even use an ‘offsets’ scheme to allow critical habitats to be traded away. Offsets are used to excuse developments that cause significant impact to threatened species. A minister can approve irrevocable damage to a threatened species’ habitat on the condition the damage is compensated for by a conservation benefit delivered through an ‘offset’ elsewhere. Early in the administration of the EPBC Act less than 10% of approvals included offsets. Today that has risen to over 75% of approvals.
HSI has no faith in offsets schemes for critical habitats. Nature is often far too complicated to be replicated and compensated, and critical habitats are too precious to be traded away in offsets schemes. We also know from a Freedom of Information request that the Commonwealth accredited the NSW offsets scheme for EPBC Act purposes despite judging it as not meeting their standards.
The recently released Australian National Audit (ANAO) report into approval processes under the EPBC Act dealt a heavy blow to the credibility of offsets. It criticised the federal Department for failing to keep records for the offsets they granted, let alone monitoring whether they turned out as intended, or even to make sure they aren’t double counted for future offsets. With such mismanagement is it any wonder so many Australian threatened species are on a downward trajectory?
The department will blame a lack of resources forcing them to prioritise efforts elsewhere. Indeed, the portfolio has been chronically underfunded for a very long time.
However, failure to protect critical habitats is also a function of poor decision making. Once a ministerial decision sets a precedent to destroy a critical habitat, it lowers the bar for future decisions and makes it harder for future ministers to raise it again. The ANAO report gave a damning example of this. It documented a case study where the Minister’s office negotiated with the Department to accept an inadequate offset for impacts on koala habitat in 2015. This then set a precedent which enabled the proponent to argue that an inadequate offset should also be accepted again for a further development in 2018. And so poor decision making snowballs.
Another notorious example is the approval for the Adani Carmichael coal mine which sacrifices remaining critical habitat of the endangered black throated finch. This approval may be the straw breaking the camel’s back after 775 of developments have been proposed to remove and damage the finch’s habitat since it was listed as endangered.
We need an urgent reset on the decision making that is meant to protect threatened species. This is one of the issues that makes the independent statutory review of the EPBC Act which is currently underway so very important.
At the time of writing we are anxiously awaiting the release of Professor Graeme Samuel’s interim report from this review. The Government has held up the release for reasons we can only speculate about.
HSI is hoping Professor Samuel will recognise that it is situation-critical for critical habitats and recommend much stricter protections. We hope he will put forward our recommendation for the government to invest in bioregional planning across the country to proactively identify critical habitats and ecosystems for protection. We also hope he will take up the Threatened Species Scientific Committee’s recommendation for the strict protections the Register gives critical habitats to be extended to include areas in all jurisdictions. To ward off the extinction crisis the legislation must be strengthened to ring fence critical habitats from ongoing destruction. To avert extinctions we have no choice. Protecting critical habitats can no longer be optional.
If you haven’t taken our action already, you can ask your local MP to support stronger protections for threatened species here.
Photo: Green and Golden Bell Frog by Lance Jurd
Nicola Beynon is the Head of Campaigns for the Australian office of Humane Society International. She has worked in the conservation and animal protection sector for over 25 years and was involved in the negotiations that led to the passage of the EPBC Act through the Senate in 1999. Nicola has overseen scientific nominations for many of the threatened species listed under the Act and been a member of several recovery teams. Humane Society International has worked with the Environmental Defenders Office to produce a detailed reform agenda for the EPBC Act Next Generation Biodiversity Laws: Best Practice Elements for a New Commonwealth Environment Act.
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