A meeting on Friday between state and federal environment ministers to discuss Australia’s recycling and waste crisis has been disappointingly inconclusive.
Some targets were set for banning the export of various used materials: glass exports will be banned by July 2020 and mixed plastics by July 2021. New focus was put on managing other waste, such as batteries and tyres.
an 80% recovery rate of material across all waste streams,
significant increases to government procurement of recycled materials, and
halving the amount of organic waste sent to landfill.
So, not all doom and gloom.
But it was reasonable to expect this meeting to deliver more concrete strategies. We have known since 2013 China would stop accepting low-quality rubbish imports; the time has well and truly come for real action.
Following another COAG meeting in August 2019 Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the export of recyclables would be banned as “soon as possible”. In Tuvalu for the Pacific Islands Forum later that month, Morrison made a commitment to “attack waste in the South Pacific”.
And in October this year the commonwealth government announced an inquiry into Australia’s waste management and recycling industries.
The states and councils are acting
So are we really any closer to solving the waste and recycling problem?
There has been some commendable efforts by state and local governments. Victoria currently has a number of inquiries, reviews and reports underway into improving recycling and waste management.
South Australia had a task force to advise the government on legislation to phase out single-use plastics. Queensland has similarly released a plastic pollution reduction plan.
In addition, councils are looking at a variety of schemes to better manage waste. Yarra Council is providing an extra bin for glass, for example, and Ballarat has banned it from the household recycling stream.
While each plan has been well thought out by the councils, the main issue is the lack of consistency. When someone is visiting or moves across council lines, they may inadvertently contaminate recycling streams by simply doing what they would when at their own home.
Better options do exist
A recent draft report from Infrastructure Victoria provided a range of options for improving waste and recycling management. These options were provided to (among other reasons) promote discussion as to what could be the preferred options.
This draft report covered the many areas that could be improved – such as the processing sector, use of recycled materials, waste to energy, organics management and so on. Yet the one proposal that received media attention was the suggestion that households have six bins for sorting waste and recyclables.
After all these inquiries, meetings and recommended actions by the various levels of government, where are we at? Recyclables are still going to landfill, many in the community are still confused as to how to correctly sort waste and recyclables, and the issue of contamination has not been resolved.
It was hoped this November meeting would finally result in specific actions and detailed solutions.
Where are the commitments to waste avoidance and reduction initiatives? What about community education to reduce contamination? Or a way to ensure consistency within and across the states and territories?
Education is vital for reducing the inappropriate mixing of recycled materials. Yet very little has been done, excluding some sterling efforts by local councils. This is an easy and relatively cheap action. It is very difficult to understand why we don’t, for example, see national TV ads indicating correct recycling.
So now we await the next environment ministers meeting, scheduled for early 2020, for more detail on schedules and implementation.
Perhaps we should just settle back, take a deep breath, and keep doing what we’re doing. More band-aid solutions may only create greater confusion, and ultimately fail to reduce waste or increase proper recycling.
Australians love our iconic coastal lifestyle. So many of our settlements are spread along our huge coastline. Real estate prices soar where we can catch a view of the water.
But where there are crowded communities, there is sewage. And along the coast it brings a suite of problems associated with managing waste, keeping the marine environment healthy, and keeping recreational swimmers safe.
Sewage is not a sexy topic. People often have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. But where does sewage go, and is it treated and disposed of in the waters that we Australians love?
The bigger the coastal community, the bigger the volume of sewage. Disposal of human waste into the ocean might solve one problem, but we now realise that the “waste” is as precious as the ocean it pollutes.
Understanding the problem from a national perspective
Such problems play out continuously along our coastline. Each isolated community and catchment issue arises and is resolved, often in ignorance of and isolation from similar issues somewhere else.
It’s hard to believe this location has raw and untreated sewage from 3,500 people discharged directly into the Tasman Sea. Sydney Water pledged in 2018 to fix this unsightly pollution by transferring the flow to the nearby Bondi sewage treatment plant.
Community group Clean Ocean Foundation has worked with the Marine Biodiversity Hub to start the process of viewing outfall pollution – where a drain or sewer empties into the sea – as part of a bigger picture. It’s a first step towards understanding from a national perspective.
Previously the information available to the public was sketchy and often not easily accessed. The database shows how differently Australia manages coastal sewage with information on the outfalls.
Clean Ocean Foundation CEO John Gemmill said:
Water authorities in the main do a great job with severe funding constraints. But they can be reticent to divulge information publicly.
One authority, suspicious of the research project, initially refused to give the location of the outfall, claiming it would be vandalised by enraged “surfies and fishermen”.
Sydney has Australia’s biggest outfall. It provides primary treatment at Malabar, New South Wales, and serves about 1.7 million people. The outfall releases about 499 megalitres (ML) per day of treated sewage, called “effluent”.
That’s about eight Olympic-sized swimming pools of effluent an hour. It is discharged to the Pacific Ocean 3.6 kilometres from the shoreline at a depth of 82 metres.
The cleanest outfall (after sustained advocacy over decades from the Clean Ocean Foundation) is Boags Rock, in southern Melbourne. It releases tertiary-treated sewage with Class A+ water. This means the quality is very suitable for reuse and has no faecal bacteria detected (Enterococci or E.coli).
Treated sewage is 99% water. The last 1% is what determines if the water will harm human and environmental health. Are we wasting a precious resource by disposing of it in the ocean?
As desalination plants are cranking up in Sydney and Melbourne to extract pure water from salty ocean, why shouldn’t we also recycle sewage?
Clean Ocean Foundation has released a report showing it would pay to treat sewage more thoroughly and reuse it. This report finds upgrading coastal sewage outfalls to a higher level of treatment will provide tens of billions of dollars in benefits.
Industry analysis suggests that, for a cost outlay of between A$7.3 billion and A$10 billion, sewage treatment upgrades can deliver between A$12 billion and A$28 billion in net benefits – that is, the financial benefits above and beyond what it cost to put new infrastructure in place.
Then there are non-economic benefits such as improved ecological and human health, and improved recreational and tourism opportunities by use of suitable recycling processes.
What the rest of Australia can learn from WA
Clean Ocean Foundation president Peter Smith said Australia’s key decision-makers now, more than before, have a “golden opportunity” to adopt a sea change in water reform around coastal Australia based on good science and sound economic analysis.
In the context of the drought of southeast Australia, recycling water from ocean outfalls is an option that demands further debate.
As expensive desalination plants are switched on, Sydney proposes to double the size of its desalination plant – just a few kilometres from massive ocean outfalls that could provide so much recycled water. And to our shame, NSW ocean outfalls are among the lowest in standards of treatment.
Western Australia, on the other hand, leads the push to recycle wastewater as it continues to struggle with diminishing surface water from climate change.
In fact, in 2017 the Water Corporation announced massive investment in highly treated sewage being used to replenish groundwater supplies. Perth now sources 20% of its drinking water from groundwater, reducing its reliance on two desalination plants. A key factor was successful engagement with affected communities.
The discharge of poorly treated sewage to rivers, estuaries and oceans is a matter of national environmental significance and the Commonwealth should take a coordinating role.
Our oceans do not respect state boundaries. The time is ripe for a deliberate national approach to recycling sewage and improved systems to manage outfalls.
A recent survey on the world’s plants found a shocking number have gone extinct – 571 since 1750. And this is likely to be a stark underestimate. Not all plants have been discovered, so it’s likely other plants have gone extinct before researchers know they’re at risk, or even know they exist.
In Australia, the situation is just as dire. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub recently conducted two evaluations that aren’t yet published of extinct plants in Australia. They found 38 have been lost over the last 170 years, such as the Daintree River banana (Musa fitzalanii) and the fringed spider-orchid (Caladenia thysanochila).
But uncertainty about the number of plant extinctions, in addition to the 38 confirmed, is an ongoing concern.
Both studies pointed out the actual number of extinctions is likely to be far more than those recognised in formal lists produced by the Commonwealth and state and territory agencies.
For example, there is still a high rate of discovery of new plant species in Australia. More than 1,600 plants were discovered between 2009 and 2015, and an estimated 10% are still yet to be discovered.
The extinction of Australian plants is considered most likely to have occurred in areas where there has been major loss and degradation of native bushland. This includes significant areas in southern Australia that have been cleared for agriculture and intensive urbanisation around major cities.
Many of these extinct plants would have had very restricted geographic ranges. And botanical collections were limited across many parts of Australia before broad scale land clearing and habitat change.
Why extinction goes undocumented
There is already one well recognised Australian plant extinction, a shrub in Phillip Island (Streblorrhiza speciosa), which was never formally recognised on any Australian threatened species list.
Researchers also note there are Australian plants that are not listed as extinct, but have not been collected for 50 years or more.
While undocumented extinction is an increasing concern, the recent re-assessment of current lists of extinct plants has provided a more positive outcome.
The re-assessment found a number of plants previously considered to be extinct are not actually extinct. This includes plants that have been re-discovered since 1980, and where there has been confusion over plant names. Diel’s wattle (Acacia prismifolia), for instance, was recently rediscovered in Western Australia.
A significant challenge for accurately assessing plant extinction relates to the difficulties in surveying and detecting them in the Australian landscapes.
Many have histories associated with fire or some other disturbance. For example, a number of plants spend a significant part of their time as long-lived seeds – sometimes for decades – in the soil with nothing visible above ground, and with plants only appearing for a few years after a fire.
But by far, the greatest reason for the lack of information is the shortage of field surveys of the rare plants, and the availability of botanists and qualified biologists to survey suitable habitat and accurately identify the plants.
What we’ve learnt
The continuing decline of Australia’s threatened plants suggests more extinctions are likely. But there have been important achievements and lessons learnt in dealing with the main causes of loss of native vegetation.
Our understanding of plant extinction processes – such as habitat loss, habitat degradation, invasive weeds, urbanisation, disease and climate change – is improving. But there is still a significant way to go.
One challenge in dealing with the causes of Australian plant extinction is how to manage introduced diseases.
Two plant diseases in particular are of major concern: Phytophthora dieback, a soil-borne water mould pathogen, and Myrtle rust, which is spread naturally by wind and water.
Both diseases are increasingly recognised as threats, not only because of the impact they are already having on diverse native plant communities and many rare species, but also because of the difficulties in effective control.
Two Australian rainforest tree species Rhodomyrtus psidioides and Rhodamnia rubescens were recently listed as threatened under the NSW legislation because of myrtle rust.
While extinction associated with disease is often rapid, some individual plants may survive for decades in highly degraded landscapes, such as long-lived woody shrubs and trees. These plants will ultimately go extinct, and this is often difficult to communicate to the public.
While individual species will continue to persist for many years in highly disturbed and fragmented landscapes, there is little or no reproduction. And with their populations restricted to extremely small patches of bush, they’re vulnerable to ongoing degradation.
Journalist Stan Grant once compared our Indigenous cultural heritage to the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Ironically, though Grant pointed to the Lake Mungo site in the Willandra Lakes as an example, Aboriginal people are poorly represented by Australia’s World Heritage sites. Torres Strait Islanders are not represented at all.
Of 19 World Heritage sites across the country, including such wonders as the Great Barrier Reef and the Sydney Opera House, only two, Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta, recognise the values of “living” Aboriginal culture, alongside the breathtaking natural features in those areas. These are what UNESCO calls “mixed” sites, bringing nature and culture together.
Australia’s two other such sites – the Tasmanian Wilderness, and the Willandra lakes – recognise archaeological records of Aboriginal people, along with natural values, but not contemporary Indigenous rights and associations.
None of Australia’s three sites inscribed purely for cultural values recognises Aboriginal people. They are the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, and a multi-component listing of convict sites across the country including Port Arthur in Tasmania.
Aboriginal people rightly remain concerned, and often angry, that they were excluded from the original nominations of all of Australia’s World Heritage sites, natural, cultural and mixed. Yet they also remain deeply sceptical about the benefits of such listing.
There has been some progress. Australia received enormous international credit for modifying, in 1994, the original Uluru-Kata Tjuta nomination to recognise living Aboriginal culture. But the real turnaround has been when Aboriginal people have directed these processes themselves.
After years of work, Gunditjmara people succeeded in having the site of Budj Bim on Aboriginal land in southwest Victoria, placed on Australia’s Tentative World Heritage List. The site includes a remarkable system of eel traps around Lake Condah. Elements of these traps date back over 6,500 years. This is the first step in the long process of gaining World Heritage recognition.
Recently the World Heritage Committee established a forum for Indigenous peoples – in the making since the early 2000s. With the issue now so firmly on the international agenda, Australia will come under intense scrutiny to lift its game regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander World Heritage. How might that be done?
Indigenous heritage now
World Heritage sites are assessed against ten criteria across natural and cultural values. Originally highly Eurocentric, these criteria have gradually widened to become more inclusive, especially of Indigenous people.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta has long been held up as the paragon of this shift. It was originally listed as World Heritage in 1987, solely for its environmental characteristics. It was relisted in 1994 to include Aboriginal values, recognising the importance of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the Traditional Owners, the Anangu people. Today, the area is recognised for being one of the most ancient human landscapes in the world, including its spiritual dimensions.
Unlike Uluru-Kata Tjuta, and, later, Kakadu, the Tasmanian Wilderness and Willandra are recognised for their archaeological and rock-art sites, rather than for their living heritage. Willandra, for instance, celebrates archaeological evidence that demonstrates an Aboriginal presence more than 40,000 years ago, in what was then a lush environment quite unlike the present semi-arid conditions.
Such archaeological and rock-art sites are unquestionably important for the extraordinary history they contain, and Aboriginal people have a particular attachment to them as evidence of their ancient and continuing connection with their land. They are actively involved in management of these places for that very reason.
Yet the cultural value of these sites remains defined by non-Aboriginal archaeologists, rather than Aboriginal belief systems or political aspirations.
The Tasmanian Wilderness is recognised for being one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. It also includes evidence in limestone caves of Aboriginal occupation up to 35,000 years ago. Yet the listing fails to identify or formally recognise the relationship between that area – particularly the hand-stencil, rock-art sites – and Tasmanian Aboriginal people today.
We are investigating what World Heritage might better deliver to Indigenous people. One of our major cases is the popular tourist destination of K’Gari (Fraser Island), given a World Heritage listing for its natural heritage in 1992. Some members of the local Butchulla community want Aboriginal heritage included in the listing.
Many archaeological and Butchulla story sites at K’gari are unquestionably unique to the Butchulla people and have great significance for the community today. Takky Wooroo (Indian Head), the rocky headland that anchors the vast sand island in place, is one well-known example.
However the Butchulla face hurdles in having this heritage recognised. The first is proving that their heritage is “better” than examples of Aboriginal heritage elsewhere. The second is demonstrating a continuous connection to it.
Both of these criteria are central to the World Heritage process, but are legacies of an outdated approach to Aboriginal culture. The process lumps diverse Aboriginal people into one group, when we know that Australia was home to hundreds of different peoples.
While the connection of the Butchulla to their heritage has already been recognised under Native Title, we would never assume that European cultures must remain unchanged since 1700 to be recognised as heritage.
How to do better
Our research is consistently finding that Aboriginal people are deeply sceptical about the benefits of World Heritage listing, despite efforts by State and Commonwealth governments to ensure Aboriginal input.
One concern is that World Heritage is seen as universal, something for all people. But some Aboriginal people see this as diminishing their very particular attachment to places, such as the remains of Mungo Man at the Willandra Lakes, an ancestor of deep personal and community significance.
What can we do better? It is simple. All future heritage sites should canvass Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement early in the nomination process, even those where there is no obvious Aboriginal link to the site. This process is already retrospectively underway for Australia’s natural sites
and in 2012, it meant the Indigenous heritage values of Queensland’s Wet Tropics were recognised at a national level, which is vital to having them recognised internationally.
We should also support Indigenous people to make their own nominations. This is what’s happening at Budj Bim. While non-Indigenous archaeologists are helping with the nomination, it is being driven by local Aboriginal people. They have linked the archaeological value to both ancestral stories, and to the Gunditjmara’s continuing efforts to maintain and protect their heritage today.
There are a great range of other amazing sites that we know are “out there”. Take the famed “Dreaming tracks” and “songlines” that criss-cross the continent, for instance. Tracing the travels of ancestral beings, they encode the locations of living places and sacred spaces, mapping the disposition of resources across the landscape and through seasonal cycles.
They encompass some of the nation’s most dramatic natural features as well as camping places, sources of water, food and other resources, art sites and Indigenous sacred places, thus combining natural and cultural, tangible and intangible, and ancestral as well as living heritage.
With suitable protection of secret-sacred information, as well as the routes themselves and the specific sites they incorporate, Aboriginal songlines and the routes of ancestor-heroes in Torres Strait could be a future World Heritage nomination. A number are already on various state government heritage lists.
Similar nominations are appearing in other parts of the world, such as the recently-listed mixed site of Pimachiowin Aki, co-developed by the Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) peoples “in the heart of Canada’s boreal forest” – not least because of precedents set by Australia over the years.
Last week Peter Costello accused Malcolm Turnbull of failing to develop an economic narrative to unite the Coalition. Turnbull promised this when he challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal Party, but, said Costello, it never came, and the result is a government struggling to manage deep differences over social issues. There was “jobs and growth”, but this is really just a goal without much of a story about how to get there, except for the company tax cuts.
The big question, though, is why the government does not have a coherent economic narrative.
One possible answer is that it has been too preoccupied with social issues such as religious freedom and before that, same-sex marriage, to give the economy sufficient attention. There is something in that.
But this does not get to the heart of the problem, which is the inability of the Coalition to face the reality of climate change and its stubborn determination to live in a parallel universe of business as usual. It is climate change denial that is preventing the government from developing a coherent economic narrative.
To be sure, those who doubt the seriousness of climate change are now more likely to describe themselves as sceptics rather than outright deniers, but the effects are the same. Doubting the risks of climate change, opposing serious counter measures and believing in coal’s long-term future is an identity issue for many Coalition politicians.
As an identity issue, it is largely impervious to evidence, as we saw in government ministers’ hasty dismissal of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report – before they had even read it, one suspects. Identity issues are also resistant to the normal processes of bargaining and compromise with which many political conflicts are resolved. The National Energy Guarantee was the last of the government’s energy policies to founder on the suspicion that a market mechanism might damage coal. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target met the same fate.
So now, some members of the party of private enterprise and the free market, which argued for and oversaw the privatisation of most of Australia’s power utilities, are seriously advocating that the government develop a coal-fired power station. Barnaby Joyce has been at it again in recent weeks.
When AGL announced the planned closure of its ageing Liddell coal-fired power station last year, the government strenuously tried to dissuade it, keep it running for longer or to sell it to rival power company Alinta. The pressure was very public on AGL to “do the right thing”, but also private, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ringing AGL Chairman Graeme Hunt. It was to no avail, and AGL persisted with its commercially based decision to close the plant and invest instead in the generation of renewable energy, as it had every right to do.
To state the obvious, the stubborn commitment to coal is pulling the government’s economic policy towards the sort of state socialism it is supposed to abhor. No wonder it is having difficulty developing a coherent economic narrative.
Further, it is alienating the government, and the Liberal Party in particular, from its natural supporters in the business community. With the collapse of the NEG, the government has no energy policy to provide certainty to business and investors. The focus of the new minister for energy, Angus Taylor, has contracted to reducing power prices for consumers. Climate policy has been shifted back into the portfolio of the Minister for the Environment, separating energy from emissions and further demonstrating the identity denialism that distorts the government’s economic narrative. Faced with doubts about Australia’s capacity to meet its agreed to Paris targets, the government blithely says we are “on track”.
But most big business outside the fossil fuel industries is not in denial about the real risks of climate change, nor the imperatives of international action. Since Turnbull walked away from the NEG in a vain attempt to appease his critics and save his leadership, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia have both been discussing ways to “go it alone” on emissions reduction.
Australian Financial Review journalist Phil Coorey last week quoted a member of the Business Council of Australia’s Energy and Climate Change Committee:
Someone has got to do something. This has to be industry-led unless government wants to take over the markets.
Industry needs certainty to invest, and to maintain and create the jobs that are central to the government’s focus on “jobs and growth”. That certainty needs to last beyond the tenure of one government or even two, and have bipartisan support.
From global epidemics to global economic markets to the global climate, understanding complex systems calls for solid data and sophisticated maths. My advice to young scientists contemplating a career in research is: “If you’re good at maths, keep it up!”
I’m no mathematician – my research career has focused largely on the complexities of infection and immunity. But as recently retired Board Chair of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, I’ve been greatly informed by close contact with mathematically trained meteorologists, oceanographers and other researchers, who analyse the massive and growing avalanche of climate data arriving from weather stations, satellites, and remote submersibles such as Argo floats.
My perception, based on a long experience of science and scientists, is that these are outstanding researchers of impeccable integrity.
Among both the climate research community and the medically oriented environmental groups such as the Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment Australia with which I have been involved, there is increasing concern, and even fear, about the consequences of ever-climbing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.
The growing climate problem
Following the thinking of the late Tony McMichael, a Canberra-based medical epidemiologist who began studying lead poisoning and then went on to become a primary author on the health section of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s five-yearly Assessment Reports, I have come to regard human-induced global warming as similar in nature to the problem of toxic lead poisoning.
Just like heavy metal toxicity, the problems caused by atmospheric greenhouse gases are cumulative, progressive, and ultimately irreversible, at least on a meaningful human timescale.
Regrettably, this consciousness has not yet seeped through to enough members of
the Australian political class. The same lack of engagement characterises current
national politics in Russia and the United States – although some US states, particularly California are moving aggressively to develop alternative energy sources.
The latter is true for much of Western Europe, while China and South Korea are committed both to phasing out coal and to leading the world in wind and solar power technology. In collaboration with the US giant General Electric, South Korean and Japanese companies are working to develop prefabricated (and hopefully foolproof) small nuclear reactors called SMRs.
Politically, with a substantial economic position in fossil fuel extraction and
export, Australia’s federal government seems paralysed when it comes to taking meaningful climate action. We signed on to the Paris Agreement but, even if we meet the agreed reductions in emissions, precious little consideration is given to the fossil fuels that we export for others to burn. And while much of the financial sector now accepts that any new investments in coalmines will ultimately become “stranded assets”, some politicians nevertheless continue to pledge tax dollars to fund such projects.
What can be done? Clearly, because meaningful action is likely to impact both
on jobs and export income, this is an impossible equation for Australia’s elected
representatives. Might it help to give them a “backbone” in the form of a fully
independent, scientifically and economically informed statutory authority, endowed with real powers? Would such an initiative even be possible under Australian law?
Realising that reasoned scientific and moral arguments for meaningful action
on climate change are going nowhere fast, some 41 Australian environmental organisations sought the help of the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law (APEEL) to develop the case for a powerful, independent Commonwealth Environmental Commission (CEC) linked to a National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA).
This week in Canberra, at the culmination of a two-year process, the environmental groups will present their conclusions, preceded by a more mechanistic analysis from the lawyers.
In very broad terms, the new agencies would do for environmental policy what the Reserve Bank currently does for economic decisions. That is, they would have the power to make calls on crucial issues (whether they be interest rates or air pollution limits) that cannot be vetoed by the government.
Of course, that would require a government that is willing to imbue them with such power in the first place.
While it’s a good bet that developing such a major national initiative will, at best, be a long, slow and arduous process, it is true that (to quote Laozi): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
What is also clear is that “business as usual” is not a viable option for the future economy, defence and health of Australia.
Deer were introduced into Australia in the 19th century for hunting. There are now six species roaming wild, and their numbers are increasing dramatically as their population expands and through human action. As they spread, they raise uncomfortable issues for conservation.
Fallow deer (Dama dama) were introduced to Tasmania for hunting by the newly arrived colonists in the 1830s. Now after 180 years, there is growing concern amongst land holders and conservationists that this species is on the move.
From a current population estimated at 25,000, modelling suggests deer could increase by 40% in the next decade. That would mean up to a million animals by mid century without additional management.
This has all the elements of a wicked problem, a stand-off with no right answer due to the uncertainty about the current population size, its rate of growth and the impact deer are having on farms and wilderness areas.
The result is a confusing and unproductive public debate between landholders, conservationist, hunters and government officials tasked with managing the deer population.
At the heart of this dilemma is the fact that fallow deer are protected under Tasmania’s Nature Conservation Act (2002), and can only be taken during a limited season through permits issued to landholders.
The wicked problem
Since the 1970s, Tasmania’s population of fallow deer has more than tripled to at least 20,000 and the area they occupy has increased five-fold to some 2 million hectares.
Fallow deer are a recognised invasive pest and a biosecurity risk, but in Tasmania the species is protected for recreational hunting.
Modelling using a conservative estimate of growth rate suggests that the population could increase by 40% in 10 years (2014–2023) and exceed one million by mid-century.
Livestock production is likely to suffer from competition for grazing and exposure to diseases such as Johnes which deer are known to carry on the mainland.
As deer spread, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is likely to experience more damage from overgrazing, browsing, trampling, ring-barking, antler-rubbing, weed dispersal, creation of trails and damage to wetlands and streams.
Meanwhile landholders are reporting larger and larger herds congregating on their properties, damaging crops and fences, and increased levels of unregulated hunting. The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association is calling for commercialisation of deer harvesting in the face of increased numbers. Tasmania imports a tonne of wild shot venison from the mainland for the restaurant trade every week.
Bushwalkers are returning from the South West Wilderness World Heritage Area on the Central Plateau with photos of browse lines showing up in remote areas of high conservation value, well outside the deer’s tradition range in the agricultural areas of the east and north.
Why not allow more hunting?
Two reasons suggest this is not the solution. Hunters are concerned that uncontrolled harvesting will destroy the population and take away their hunting resource. And officials in the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment responsible for administering the game management regulations report that they are not getting full uptake of the 13,500 permits they are already issuing each year for hunting and crop protection.
One of the major limiting factors is the current management regime. Hunting and crop protection permits are allocated to landholders, requiring hunters to establish a relationship with a landholder to gain access to the deer.
The current permitting system does not allow landholders to respond efficiently to the problems posed by deer. An alternative would be a permit-free management regime in at least some land tenures or some parts of the State.
Two possible options are that landholders manage wild deer as they see fit on their own land (reducing them as much as possible, maintaining them as a resource, or tolerating them), or they could adhere to management targets agreed with government regulators. Targets might have goals such as not eradicating deer but holding populations at levels that do not cause significant conflict with other objectives of land management.
We just don’t know how many deer there are
The major factor limiting clarity in this debate at present is lack of information. There has never been a systematic survey of Tasmania’s fallow deer population.
Published estimates of the current population range from 20,000 to 30,000, but are probably too low. The population growth rate in Tasmania is unknown.
Elsewhere, populations of fallow deer are capable of growing at rates of around 55% per year. Without precise knowledge of the potential growth rate of the Tasmanian population we can’t be sure how long it could be before we have a million or so deer to contend with.
However, our modelling suggested that even if we assume a population growth rate at the low end of the range of estimates made elsewhere, the current rate of removal of deer by hunters will not prevent further growth. The annual increase in the population is likely to accelerate unless management keeps pace, something that is made difficult by the current system.
Growth of the deer population could be especially fast if more good deer habitat became available through processes such as increased wild fires opening up forests, without any change in the current permit system.
Agriculture and tourism are two of the biggest export earners on the island. An exploding deer population has the potential to damage both industries.
Investing in better knowledge would represent a small expense given these risks. Better data will not change everyone’s attitudes to deer or their place in Tasmania, but it would go a long way to shedding light on what is currently an unresolvable debate.