Australia relies on volunteers to monitor its endangered species



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Nik Borrow/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Matthew H Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Australian National University

The King Island Scrubtit and the King Island Brown Thornbill have the dubious distinction of being considered the first and third most likely birds to go extinct in the next 20 years.

Yet the only reason we know the status of the scrubtit and the thornbill is the diligent efforts of volunteers.




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For 15 years, the Threatened Species Committee has quietly summarised the plight of Australia’s most endangered birds, feeding the information to government, including the most recent report on those species most likely to go extinct in the coming two decades.

Experts in conservation management, specialist bird researchers, dedicated birders, and passionate local landholders all give their time freely to monitor endangered species. This is not outsourcing by the government: this is unpaid work by dedicated Australians stepping up.

King Island crisis

For these two King Island species, the most current information came from surveys conducted by specialist ornithologists, who funded the surveys themselves. In surveys completed this year, a handful of scrubtit were found in just three locations. The thornbill wasn’t found at all.

Follow-up surveys at these sites throughout King Island were carried out as part of the Wings on King initiative, with local landholders and visiting birders teaming up to tally records.

Like most of southern Australia, the native vegetation of King Island has been extensively cleared. This clearing is ongoing, and slated changes to Tasmanian planning laws would allow farmers to remove up to 40 hectares per year.

A key driver of this process is the influx of beef producers to the island, attracted by King Island’s rich soils and reliable rainfalls. Large operators are moving from Queensland and buying up prime grazing land, changing the way the land is used.

Many of these changes are bad news for local wildlife. Shelterbelts and remnant forests are making way for grass to feed ever more beef cattle.

This is alarming enough for the scrubtits, for which we at least have some baseline population data and knowledge of habitat requirements. It may be even worse for the thornbill – but we can’t be sure because we know so little about its habitat requirements or key locations.

Fire is another major threat. Uncontrolled bushfires razed almost a quarter of the island in 2007, decimating the Melaleuca Swamp forest at Nook Swamp, the last stronghold for the scrubtits. Only fragments of the swamp remain. This fire also exacerbated acid sulfate soils in unburned habitats, compromising regeneration in the wetland.

Shedding staff

Yet despite these mounting challenges, the federal Department of Environment is shedding vital staff. Just last month the loss of 60 positions from the biodiversity division was announced, representing a third of the people charged with overseeing monitoring of our threatened species.

Tasmania, despite being home to more than 600 threatened species, has a threatened species section of effectively two full-time positions (one of which is not currently filled). They have an annual budget of about A$5,000, or roughly A$7.14 per species).

This abrogation of biodiversity monitoring and basic conservation management is not new. State and federal departments have been losing capacity for decades.

The embedded research units within these agencies are all but gone, and any long-term monitoring is conducted either with external funds or through dedicated individuals nearing retirement. Entire national parks have been handed over to NGOs to manage, like Pilliga and Mallee Cliffs National Parks in New South Wales. NGOs now manage an estate many times larger than our national parks.

Federal funding has shrunk dramatically, with researchers increasingly reliant on philanthropic trusts, mining offsets, and crowdfunding campaigns to cover the costs of last-ditch interventions.

Another way

You don’t have to look very far to find alternatives. New Zealand has just announced a major increase in investment in endangered species funding, $181.6 million in additional funds for conservation initiatives over the next four years.

New Zealand has long been an international leader in conservation management, eradicating feral animals from entire islands to safeguard wildlife. It is ramping up efforts under the Predator Free New Zealand initiative, which aims to eradicate all introduced predators by 2050 in what has been described as “the most ambitious conservation project anywhere in the world”.

In contrast, the deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub recently pointed out that a third of Australia’s most threatened species aren’t monitored at all.




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The ConversationEleventh-hour funding will be too late for King Island’s thornbill. It hasn’t been seen since a keen-eyed photographer happened across a single bird in 2016. Despite the valiant efforts of volunteers, inspirational videos, and direct representations and grant applications, it has an estimated 6% chance of surviving the next 20 years.

Matthew H Webb, Dr Matt Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

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

Australia needs dozens more scientists to monitor climate properly, report says



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Predicting rainfall in the Murray-Darling Basin is a crucial job, the new report’s authors say.
Tim/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

Australia is falling short in its ability to monitor the climate, potentially leaving farmers and other groups unable to access crucial information about rainfall, droughts and floods, the Australian Academy of Science has warned.

A review of Australia’s climate science capability, released today, recommends that Australia needs to recruit an extra 77 full-time climate science staff over the next four years, on top of the current 420, to meet the demand for detailed weather and climate information.

Without these resources, Australia risks being unable to provide accurate information to those who need it, said UNSW oceanographer Trevor McDougall, who led the review.

That could include being unable to predict accurately the changes to rainfall patterns in farming regions such as the Murray-Darling Basin – with potentially serious consequences for farmers, Professor McDougall said.

Although the review says Australia is strong in some areas, such as studying extreme weather events, it identified several key shortcomings, particularly in climate modelling.

Australia is not keeping pace with efforts in the United States and Europe, which are developing fine-scale climate models covering their own regions.

“Other countries are not looking in detail at our country – we need to run those models ourselves,” Professor McDougall said.

“These requirements are brought into sharper focus when you consider that our country is potentially more exposed to the impacts of climate change than most developed nations.”

Julie Arblaster, an atmospheric scientist at Monash University and co-author of the review, said Australian climatologists do not have enough access to the supercomputing facilities needed to run advanced climate models. “We need to look at multiple models from all around the world, but at the moment there isn’t the funding available,” she said.

Former CSIRO climatologist Graeme Pearman said the lack of regional climate predictions could have real consequences for Australian communities.

“We are not in a position at this stage to be able to confidently anticipate the water resource issues within the [Murray-Darling] basin. This is an enormous economic issue for Australia; it’s the food basin of the country,” he said.

Coastal communities also need reliable, localised information to predict flooding risk, Dr Pearman said.

“It’s not something that you can use a global model to anticipate – you have to have detailed, high-resolution information about particular areas of the coastline,” he said.

Australia currently has 420 full-time equivalent positions in climate change science and monitoring, spread across CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Institute of Marine Science, Geoscience Australia, and universities.

Last year saw the launch of the CSIRO Climate Science Centre in Hobart, with a staff of 40. But the government has scaled back publicly funded climate research elsewhere, including cutting 75 jobs from CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division as part of a wide-ranging program of layoffs.

Federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg said the government “continues to make a significant financial investment” in climate research, citing the new CSIRO centre in Hobart, as well as a range of other initiatives.

Frydenberg said the government has invested A$37 million in long-term climate science monitoring capability, A$23.9 million in a climate change hub in the National Environmental Science Program, and committed A$255 million to climate research as part of the Australian Antarctic Strategy.

The review sets out a range of options for implementing the suggested staffing increases, including giving overall responsibility to CSIRO or the Bureau of Meteorology, or creating an entirely new agency.

Professor McDougall said that the proposed four-year phase-in period would allow many of the roles to be filled by Australian researchers, rather than recruiting from overseas.

The Conversation“My guess is that we would be able to recruit more than half from inside Australia – we have quite a good crop of people who are early in their career. There are also Australians working overseas, waiting for their opportunity to come back.”

Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

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