Australia’s threatened species plan has failed on several counts. Without change, more extinctions are assured

Euan Ritchie, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, University of SydneyAustralia is globally renowned for its abysmal conservation record – in roughly 230 years we’ve overseen the extinction of more mammal species than any other nation. The federal government’s Threatened Species Strategy was meant to address this confronting situation.

The final report on the five-year strategy has just been published. In it, Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box acknowledges while the plan had some important wins, it fell short in several areas, writing:

…there is much more work to do to ensure our native plants and animals thrive into the future, and this will require an ongoing collective effort.

Clearly, Australia must urgently chart a course towards better environmental and biodiversity outcomes. That means reflecting honestly on our successes and failures so far.

How did the strategy perform?

The strategy, announced in 2015, set 13 targets linked to three focus areas:

  • feral cat management
  • improving the population trajectories of 20 mammal, 21 bird and 30 plant species
  • improving practices to recover threatened species populations.

Given the scale of the problem, five years was never enough time to turn things around. Indeed, as the chart below shows, the report card indicates five “red lights” (targets not met) and three “orange lights” (targets only partially met). It gave just five “green lights” for targets met.

Year Five - Final Report
Summary of the Threatened Species Strategy’s targets and outcomes.
Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment

Falling short on feral cats

Feral cats were arguably the most prominent focus of the strategy, despite other threats requiring as much or more attention, such as habitat destruction via land clearing.

However, the strategy did help start a national conversation about the damage cats wreak on wildlife and ecosystems, and how this can be better managed.

In the five years to the end of 2020, an estimated 1.5 million feral cats were killed under the strategy – 500,000 short of the 2 million goal. But this estimate is uncertain due to a lack of systematic data collection. In particular, the number of cats culled by farmers, amateur hunters and shooters is under-reported. And more broadly, information is scattered across local councils, non-government conservation agencies and other sources.

Read more:
One cat, one year, 110 native animals: lock up your pet, it’s a killing machine

Australia’s feral cat population fluctuates according to rainfall, which determines the availability of prey – numbering between 2.1 million and 6.3 million. Limited investment in monitoring makes it impossible to know whether the average of 300,000 cats killed each year over the past five years will be enough for native wildlife to recover.

The government also failed in its goal to eradicate cats from five islands, only achieving this on Dirk Hartog Island off Western Australia. Importantly, that effort began in 2014, before the strategy was launched. And it was primarily funded by the WA government and an industry offset scheme, so the federal government can’t really claim this success.

On a positive note, ten mainland areas excluding feral cats have been established or are nearly complete. Such areas are a vital lifeline for some wildlife species and can enable native species reintroductions in the future.

feral cat holds dead bird
Feral cats were eradicated from just one island under the strategy.
Mark Marathon/Threatened Species Recovery Hub

Priority species: how did we do?

The strategy met its target of ensuring recovery actions were underway for at least 50 threatened plant species and 60 ecological communities. It also made good headway into storing all Australia’s 1,400 threatened plant species in seed banks. This is good news.

The bad news is that, even with recovery actions, the population trajectories of most priority species failed to improve. For the 24 out of about 70 priority species where population numbers were deemed to have “improved” over five years, about 30% simply got worse at a slower rate than in the decade prior. This can hardly be deemed a success.

Mala with baby in pouch
Populations of the mala, or Rufous Hare-wallaby, were improving before the strategy.
Wayne Lawler/Australian Wildlife Conservancy

What’s more, the populations of at least eight priority species, including the eastern barred bandicoot, eastern bettong, Gilbert’s potoroo, mala, woylie, numbat and helmeted honeyeater, were increasing before the strategy began – and five of these deteriorated under the strategy.

The finding that more priority species recovery efforts failed than succeeded means either:

  • the wrong actions were implemented
  • the right actions were implemented but insufficient effort and funding were dedicated to recovery
  • the trajectories of the species selected for action simply couldn’t be improved in a 5-year window.

All these problems are alarming but can be rectified. For example, the government’s new Threatened Species Strategy, released in May, contains a more evidence-based process for determining priority species.

For some species, it’s unclear whether success can be attributed to the strategy. Some species with improved trajectories, such as the helmeted honeyeater, would likely have improved regardless, thanks to many years of community and other organisation’s conservation efforts before the strategy began.

Conservation worker releases woylie
The improved outlook for some species is due to conservation efforts before the federal strategy.
WA Department of Environment and Conservation

Read more:
Australia-first research reveals staggering loss of threatened plants over 20 years

What must change

According to the report, habitat loss is a key threat to more than half the 71 priority species in the strategy. But the strategy does not directly address habitat loss or climate change, saying other government policies are addressing those threats.

We believe habitat loss and climate change must be addressed immediately.

Of the priority bird species threatened by land clearing and fragmentation, the trajectory of most – including the swift parrot and malleefowl – did not improve under the five years of the strategy. For several, such as the Australasian bittern and regent honeyeater, the trajectory worsened.

Preventing and reversing habitat loss will take years of dedicated restoration, stronger legislation and enforcement. It also requires community engagement, because much threatened species habitat is on private properties.

Effective conservation also requires raising public awareness of the dire predicament of Australia’s 1,900-plus threatened species and ecological communities. But successive governments have sought to sugarcoat our failings over many decades.

Bushfires and other extreme events hampered the strategy’s recovery efforts. But climate change means such events are likely to worsen. The risks of failure should form part of conservation planning – and of course, Australia requires an effective plan for emissions reduction.

The strategy helped increase awareness of the plight our unique species face. Dedicated community groups had already spent years volunteering to monitor and recover populations, and the strategy helped fund some of these actions.

However, proper investment in conservation – such as actions to reduce threats, and establish and maintain protected areas – is urgently needed. The strategy is merely one step on the long and challenging road to conserving Australia’s precious species and ecosystems.

Read more:
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The Conversation

Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University and Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Meet the broad-toothed rat: a chubby-cheeked and inquisitive Australian rodent that needs our help

Christine Wacker, Author provided

Chris Wacker, University of New EnglandAm I not pretty enough? This is the first article in The Conversation’s series introducing you to the unloved Australian animals that need our help

When people think of rodents, they usually think of introduced species such as the black rat and house mouse. But Australia actually has around 54 native rodent species, which live in a vast range of habitats across the continent, from the ocean to spinifex-dotted deserts.

My research focuses on the broad-toothed rat, a vulnerable, chubby-cheeked rodent that lives in parts of Tasmania and pockets of southern Victoria. It even thrives beneath the snow in the Australian Alps and in Barrington Tops in New South Wales.

You may have already heard of the broad-toothed rat from articles about the damage feral horses do in Kosciuszko National Park, or as one of the species living near the highly photogenic mountain pygmy possum.

But I don’t want to turn this into a debate about feral horses or a popularity contest with the pygmy possum. As the broad-toothed rat rarely, if ever, gets its own story, I want to introduce you properly to this fascinating, unique, and beautiful species, focusing on those that live in Kosciuszko National Park.

A very special rodent

The broad-toothed rat (Mastacomys fuscus) is often referred to by wildlife scientists as Australia’s guinea pig. However, it belongs to a very different group of rodents.

Weighing approximately 150 grams — about the same size as the introduced black rat — the broad-toothed rat looks like any typical rodent at first glance.

The broad-toothed rat has a trusting and inquisitive nature.
Rhi Wilson, Author provided

But with its chocolate coloured coat, long, soft, almost luxurious fur, little to no musky smell, chubby face, and calm and inquisitive nature, it bears little resemblance to any introduced species.

The broad-toothed rat gets its name from its wider-than-usual molar teeth, which help it chew the stalks of sedges and grasses. It also nests in these grasses, and moves unseen through an elaborate network of tunnel-like runways. The broad-toothed rat shares these runways with other small mammal species, such as the bush rat and the dusky antechinus.

In winter, low shrubs hold the snow off the ground, creating a subnivean space (the area between snow and terrain). This creates a relatively cosy environment, keeping the temperature of the runways above zero, even when the air above this space is much colder.

When most of the snow has melted in October, the broad-toothed rat’s breeding season is triggered and generally lasts until March the next year. They have on average only two to three young, and these are unusual because they’re partially furry at birth.

Tunnels in tufts of grass
Broad-toothed rat runways, shared by other small mammals.
Chris Wacker, Author provided

Why native rodents matter

Native rodents are essential in many ecosystems. They disperse seeds by forming seed caches. This is when rats keep seeds in storage to eat, and when they vacate their burrow, the uneaten seeds can germinate.

They often have the role of ecosystem engineers, providing burrows and runways for small mammals that cannot dig their own. This is particularly common for desert rodent species that dig burrows, which are then used by small marsupials.

Native rodents may also be early indicators of local environmental change, like furry canaries in a coal mine. When their populations decline, populations of other native species, such as small marsupials, also decline soon after because whatever affects the rodents, will affect other small mammals.

But broad-toothed rats are in danger

Of the 54 species of native rodent, 16 are vulnerable or endangered. Their biggest threats include introduced rodents who compete for resources, predation by cats and foxes, and general human activity such as land clearing.

While the damage feral horses do to the vegetation in the Australian Alps is a well-known problem, the broad-toothed rat also has many other threats.

It’s currently classified as vulnerable or near threatened in much of its range. While the exact number of individuals is difficult to determine, it’s clear the rat’s range is getting smaller, in part due to climate change-induced reduction in snow cover.

The typical habitat of the broad-toothed rat habitat in the Australian Alps.
Chris Wacker, Author provided

Since their reproductive behaviours are triggered by the environment, changes in temperature and snow cover can be catastrophic. Reduced snow cover also means less protection during the colder months.

Another reason these rats are unusual among native Australian rodents is they’re entirely herbivorous. Any variation in temperature, rainfall, snow melt, or drainage alters the types of vegetation that grows. And changes in available grasses reduce the food and nesting material the rats have access to.

Read more:
Victoria’s new feral horse plan could actually protect the high country. NSW’s method remains cruel and ineffective

In the Australian Alps, broad-toothed rats have very few native predators. But a 2002 study found foxes, and perhaps feral cats, prefer eating broad-toothed rats over other small mammal species. Whether this is due to the rats being easier to catch or because they’re tastier is unclear.

Because the broad-toothed rat lives in Kosciuszko National Park, it also lives side-by-side with the ski industry, and will even inhabit the disturbed areas alongside ski runs. But ski resorts change drainage patterns, groundwater and surface water, changing the type of vegetation that grows.

The ski industry in the Australian Alps threatens the broad-toothed rat.

With the continued reduction in natural snow from climate change, and heavier reliance on artificial snow for tourism, the impact on the fragile alpine ecosystem will need to be closely monitored so we can protect the broad-toothed rat.

Three ways you can help

Unfortunately, just having “rat” in its name can turn people away from caring about this species, as rats are typically seen as destructive and diseased.

But does an animal have to be cute and endearing to gain public and political sympathy? Well, unfortunately, yes.

Research from 2016 shows native rodents are the least cared about and researched of all animals, and they gain the least amount of funding.

So, what can the average person do?

First and foremost, learn about what species live where you live, and make sure you can correctly identify a native rodent from an introduced species.

Second, when you hear people complain about all rodents, tell them about our natives, and even show them a photo. Most people have a change of heart once they see one.

Finally, appreciate that our native rodents are just as important as our marsupials, monotremes, bats, amphibians, reptiles and birds, and are just as affected by our activities as any other animal group.

Read more:
This adorable mouse was considered extinct for over 100 years — until we found it hiding in plain sight

The Conversation

Chris Wacker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow – School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.