Death by 775 cuts: how conservation law is failing the black-throated finch


April Reside, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

Nearly 20 years ago, Australia adopted national environmental legislation that was celebrated widely as a balanced response to Australia’s threatened species crisis. In the same year, Queensland introduced its Vegetation Management Act. Together, these laws were meant to help prevent further extinctions.

But have they worked?

A famous finch

We investigated whether these laws had successfully protected the habitat of the endangered southern black-throated finch.

Our study found that, despite being nominally protected under federal environmental law, habitat for the species has continued to be cleared. Just three out of 775 development applications that potentially impacted the endangered southern black-throated finch were knocked back, according to our new research.




Read more:
Queensland coal mines will push threatened finch closer to extinction


Defining exactly what is habitat for the black-throated finch is tricky – we don’t have oodles of data on their habitat use over time, and the extent of their sightings has declined substantially. But Queensland has excellent vegetation mapping, and we recorded all of the vegetation types in which the southern black-throated finch has been seen.

We then mapped the extent of this habitat in three different time periods: historically; at the advent of the environmental laws (2000); and current day.

Clear danger

We found that most of the black-throated finch’s habitat had been cleared before 2000, mainly for agriculture before the mid-1970s. The black-throated finch hasn’t been reliably seen in New South Wales since 1994 and is listed there as “presumed extinct”.

We looked at all the development proposals since 2000 that were referred to the federal government due to their potential impact on threatened species. 775 of these development proposals overlapped areas of potential habitat for the black-throated finch.

Only one of these projects – a housing development near Townsville – was refused approval because it was deemed to have a “clearly unacceptable” impact to the black-throated finch.

In addition to these projects, over half a million hectares of the cleared habitat were not even assessed under federal environmental laws.

We estimate that the species remains in just 12% of its original range. Yet despite this, our study shows that the habitat clearing is still being approved within the little that is left.

So in theory, Australia’s and Queensland’s laws protect endangered species habitat. But in practice, a lot has been lost.

Critical habitat

The highest-profile development proposal to impinge on black-throated finch habitat loss is Adani’s Carmichael coalmine and rail project. Adani has been given approval to clear or otherwise impact more than 16,000 hectares of black-throated finch habitat, a third of which Adani deemed “critical habitat” But there are four other mines in the Galilee Basin that have approved the clearing of more than 29,000 ha in total of black-throated finch habitat.

But it’s not just the mines. In 2018 the federal government approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat for a housing estate and a sugar cane farm, both near Townsville. Several solar farms have also been proposed that would clear black-throated finch habitat around Townsville.

To further complicate matters, the black-throated finch’s habitat is also threatened with degradation by cattle grazing. The finch needs year-round access to certain grass seeds, so where grazing has removed the seeding part of the grasses, made the ground too hard, or caused the proliferation of introduced grasses such as buffel, the habitat suitability can decrease until it is no longer able to support black-throated finches.

So while they are losing their high-quality habitat to development, a lot of their habitat is being degraded elsewhere.

Heavy cattle grazing degrades habitat for the southern black-throated finch by removing edible grass seeds.
April Reside

The federal government has placed conditions on approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat, often including “offsetting” of any habitat loss. But securing one part of the black-throated finch’s habitat in exchange for losing another still means there is less habitat. This is particularly problematic when the lost habitat is of very high quality, as is the case for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine lease.

Little by little

Our research suggests there is a real danger of the black-throated finch suffering extinction by a thousand cuts – or perhaps 775 cuts, in this case. Each new development approval may have a relatively modest impact in isolation, but the cumulative effect can be devastating. This may explain why a stronger environmental response has not occurred so far.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


So how can we prevent the black-throated finch from going extinct? The finch is endangered because its habitat continues to be lost. So its recovery relies upon halting the ongoing loss of habitat – and ultimately, increasing it. Achieving this would require a political willingness to prioritise endangered species protection.

Australia has already lost hundreds of its unique plants and animals forever. In just the last few years, we have seen more mammals and reptiles disappear to extinction. If we continue on our current path, the southern black-throated finch could be among the next to go.The Conversation

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

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

Advertisements

Queensland coal mines will push threatened finch closer to extinction


Eric Vanderduys, CSIRO and April Reside, James Cook University

Australia has a bad record for losing species, and more are likely to follow: more than 1,700 species of animals and plants are listed by the Australian government as being seriously threatened.

The extinction of a species usually comes about from several interacting threats, and the extinction process usually starts with losing a few populations, or a particular subspecies, until eventually there are only a few individuals remaining.

The southern black-throated finch, Poephila cincta cincta, is a bird that has become endangered mostly through land modified by agriculture, resulting in the loss of around 80% of its former range.

Our research, published in PLoS ONE, shows that more than half of the remaining finch habitat is potentially subject to mining development.

Pushed out of home

Map showing distribution of recent records of southern black-throated finches and records pre-2000.
Vanderduys et al PLoS ONE

The other subspecies, the northern black-throated finch Poephila cincta atropygialis, is believed to be secure, as it occupies habitat on the less-developed Cape York Peninsula.

The southern black-throated finch is almost entirely restricted to an area from Rockhampton north to Townsville, and has been declared extinct in New South Wales. The northernmost part of its range is threatened by urban and peri-urban development around the northern Queensland city of Townsville.

The largest remaining stronghold for black-throated finches is within the Galilee Basin, a 500 km-long coal measure running from around Alpha to Hughenden.

Within this area are the proposed Adani (Carmichael), Alpha, Kevin’s Corner, China First, China Stone and South Galilee coal mines. Collectively, these cover nearly 1,700 square km. Much of this area is proposed to be open cut. The Carmichael mine in particular covers the best “hotspot” known for black-throated finches. Were these mines to go ahead, the finches are likely to suffer steep declines.

In our paper we modelled likely black-throated finch distribution, based on what we know about their habitat and climate preferences. Given their historic decline throughout much of their range, we know they are quite sensitive to land modification, so it is unlikely that areas where mining and associated activities occur will be finch-friendly.

Around 60% of the finch’s remaining habitat is potentially threatened by mining activities. Our research also shows that of the very high-quality habitat known in the Galilee Basin, 50% is under threat from mines that have undergone advanced planning.

Map showing area modelled as prime southern black-throated finch habitat and overlaid with all exploratory and extractive (mining) tenures. The approximate boundary of the Galilee Basin is also shown.
Vanderduys et al PLOS One

Offset the damage?

So what does the government do when faced with a threatened species or subspecies in the face of large development proposals? The answer is to offset.

Offsets mainly involve conserving a species’ preferred habitat to account for what has been lost to development, but they could be also be in the form of research funding.

Offsets have been proposed to help reduce the impact on the black-throated finch, but these measures do not stand up to scrutiny.

First, offsets are supposed to result in “no net loss” of that species. In the case of black-throated finches, this means offsets should maintain the population at roughly the same trajectory as they would be on without the mining.

Second, areas proposed as offsets for one mine are potentially subject to development approval for other mines.

However, for a species that has lost 80% of its range (and is therefore demonstrably sensitive), losing any more of its key habitat guarantees an increased loss of finches.

The existing, mine-free finch populations in the Galilee Basin are currently doing well. To truly offset losing this habitat to mining, new high-quality habitat for black-throated finches would have to be created.

This has never been done. Not to mention the difficulty in achieving accurate population estimates in areas of “lost” or “gained” habitat.

Black-throated finches eat grass and herb seeds after they’ve fallen to the ground, so they need particular seeds to be available throughout the year, with just enough bare ground so they can find them. We are still in the process of trying to understand all the factors that make high-quality habitat for black-throated finches, and we’re a long way from having the expertise to recreate it.

Offsets are widely regarded in the scientific literature as failing. They are locking in species declines; far from guaranteeing survival of threatened species, they are guaranteeing their loss.

For the southern black-throated finch, which has already lost 80% of its range, losing 50% of what is known to be prime habitat within the Galilee Basin is likely to lock in its continuing decline.

The most reliable way of avoiding this decline would be to protect and enhance the little suitable habitat that still remains.

The Conversation

Eric Vanderduys, Research Projects Officer, CSIRO and April Reside, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Spatial Ecology, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.