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Environment and Communications References Committee
20/08/2019
Australia's faunal extinction crisis

SPINDLER, Dr Rebecca, Executive Manager, Science and Conservation, Bush Heritage Australia

[14:30]

CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I invite you to make a short opening statement. After that, we will ask you some questions.

Dr Spindler : First I would like to say thank you very much for instigating this inquiry, Senator Rice. I'd also like to recognise the support you've received from the Australian Greens, Labor and the crossbenchers in order to get this up. It's disappointing yet not surprising that it was not bilateral.

Bush Heritage is a landscape-scale conservation agency. We currently have 11.3 million hectares under our care. That's across all state and territory jurisdictions. Bush Heritage feels environmental management can learn a great deal from the health system. Society now easily understands the benefits and knows all the tenets of a preventative healthcare system. We've not brought down the rates of terminal cancer by curing it once it's reached a critical level. We've made most progress by identifying the causes of cancer and innovating to drastically reduce or eliminate them from our society. We track early warning sides of degradation and ill health and we act on those early signs. We don't say, 'Just keep smoking and wait until your cancer is terminal, and then we'll see.' In contrast, our species have received little of this kind of attention. Little action is taken until a species is threatened with extinction. And yet we know only three species have ever come off the threatened species list in Australia. It is a one-way street.

Australia's faunal extinction crisis is the result of our collective inaction on the early warning signs and multiple threats to nature. We know what these threats are, and yet we allow and promote them at various levels of government, for short-term financial gain. Land clearing, climate change, irresponsible mining and unsustainable farming practices all entail actions that degrade and destroy habitats and threaten our native species. I place a caveat on mining and farming, because I believe there is a way to manage these industries at national, state and property level to manage the negative impacts. Little guidance is given, few frameworks exist and innovation is rarely employed at the national level. We continue in a state of denial, where unsustainable practices are promulgated as if they will never have to end. I understand that the regulations allowing and promoting unsustainable land clearing are at the state level in Australia. However, all Australians turn to the federal government to control market and electoral forces at work at all levels that act against the public good.

If we are serious about protecting our threatened species and our economy, we must address these threats by eliminating the influence of vested interests and making decisions for the public good based on evidence and reason, gathering and making available the data to detect declines in species and habitat health, making a commitment to act on those early warning signs, engaging the multiple sectors that are genuinely willing to participate and, finally, enacting cross-jurisdictional agreements and working hard to find a way to work together for all Australians. The EPBC Act is our national legislative tool to protect the environment. The forthcoming review of the act should aim to strengthen the protections our native species have, not weaken them.

I've obviously, with 11.3 million hectares, talked at a relatively high level across our entire organisation. I presented our submission to you several months ago, and we'd be happy to answer any question at any detail level across any jurisdiction.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Spindler. With Bush Heritage as a land manager, you've got properties all over the country. Are those properties managed entirely for conservation or are some of them a mix of conservation and other economic purposes?

Dr Spindler : At the moment we manage entirely for conservation, although we are shifting into a mixed model. We are working much more closely with farmers and trying to build their activity and ability to monitor the biodiversity impacts of regenerative farming across Australia, particularly the grassy woodlands.

CHAIR: You talk in your submission about implementing national vegetation clearing controls; legislating to require agricultural, extractive and other industries and businesses to account for environmental degradation; and supporting the development of a national framework for environmental and social economic accounts to help farmers, industry and the community understand the value of natural capital and the economic and social consequences of its decline. From that perspective, you obviously feel that those two things, agricultural operations and the protection of biodiversity, can go hand-in-hand?

Dr Spindler : Absolutely. I think we have an enormous opportunity before us. At the moment we have a large number of willing agriculturalists, both graziers and cropping farmers, that are willing to move because they understand that some of their practices are not sustainable. We see that from the handouts that are having to come from the government during a drought because they haven't been sustainable, whereas right next door regenerative agriculturalists have been able to turn a profit. Yes, there are dips and troughs as we go through drought conditions, but there are some farms that are undoubtedly more sustainable than others. We should learn from that and we should employ those practices, but we should also be gathering the evidence and making those decisions in an adaptive way so that we're driving the best possible practice to get outcomes in terms of productivity, profitability and biodiversity.

CHAIR: So you would see the setting of those national standards and then require those national standards to be met. Do you support stewardship payments supporting the farmers in order to meet those standards where that's necessary?

Dr Spindler : I think there are a couple of different things. Call them whatever you like, but I think there will have to be a transitional grant in the first instance, and certainly there's a great deal of money moving around at the moment to try to encourage farmers to move into more biodiversity friendly ways and to more regenerative agriculture. One of the important things that has not come with the $250 million and $34 million sitting with the Department of Agriculture—which is exactly where it should sit—is how we're measuring that. How are we measuring the outcomes? You probably would have heard from many of the people giving evidence here that we don't have the data. Sixty per cent of Australia is under farming. These are environmentalists. They work on the land. They understand. They see the changes that are coming. They can drive good and they can drive harm. What we can do is ask them to upload information that is in a standardised form to start understanding the impact of the work that they're doing. We work with farmers on a day-by-day basis. Even with the properties that we own and manage entirely for conservation we work with every single farmer around us. Once we start talking to them about the impacts and the benefits that they can drive by managing their farm slightly differently, they're often extraordinarily receptive and ready to change.

CHAIR: Do you manage grassland properties?

Dr Spindler : We own lots of grassland, yes.

CHAIR: Do you have reflections on the current controversy with Jam Land, the temperate grassland, the critically endangered ecological community of the Monaro tablelands and the poisoning of grasslands that has gone on there?

Dr Spindler : It's heartbreaking. It can't be described in any other way.

CHAIR: What are alternative ways of managing those sorts of properties and those grasslands as working agricultural properties?

Dr Spindler : We're working very closely with about 14 farmers at the moment where we are providing those transitional funds. We're working on an investment model where anybody in Australia would be able to invest in those farmers to make the transition, and then they glean a share of the increased profitability and productivity that comes as a result of changing those practices. This is something that we need to keep watching. It's not a finalised science. I think it's easy to assume things from a few good results, which is what we're getting now. We found that working with these farmers using crash grazing or intensive grazing—where they graze cattle in particular in a very small area, pick them up and move them along—increased productivity, carbon sequestration and profitability in the long run, but we do want to keep watching that.

I think the two arguments are to keep agriculture where it is, and to let people farm as intensively as they possibly can and leave some areas aside for conservation. We would be much more interested in continuing to trial, though, the third way, which is where we work collaboratively together and make sure that there are certainly farming practices being undertaken in the right place. So part of the conceptualisation of your conservation planning should be: where should things be done in the appropriate spot and how can they be best done to cause minimum harm?

CHAIR: Is there a lack of knowledge from farmers? Obviously you're saying you're still developing the models. Is it mostly a lack of knowledge that's holding farmers back, or are there some farmers that are more open to these ideas than others?

Dr Spindler : There are definitely a range of motivations in farmers. I think the access to information is there if you go looking for it, and I think, again, the farmers who are motivated to go and look for it will find it, and they will find the resources then to take up the new opportunities and partner with people to move in a biodiverse-friendly way. But there's very little motivation for some of the more traditional farmers to change, because they've always been picked up, they've always had the handouts and they've always been, as a sector, too big to fail. So it's the young, marginal farmers who are really finding the greatest benefit in changing their practices.

CHAIR: Is it also a factor that there hasn't been focus on compliance, so bad practices aren't being stopped?

Dr Spindler : Absolutely. In the worst possible case, there are bad actors in the agricultural sector, and that has not been stopped, but I don't think that's true of the vast majority of the agricultural sector. I think the vast majority of farmers are trying to do the right thing. They are trying to leave their kids a better farm than what they got from their parents, and I think the misadventure and the negative outcomes of agriculture are really just a matter of trying to get by as best they can without necessarily investing in a change in practice. It's also not an easy community to change that practice in. Some of our farmers that we're working with are vilified in the local communities for rocking the boat, for changing the traditional way of working.

CHAIR: So there needs to be political support?

Dr Spindler : There needs to be political support and a community of practice that really provides that support and maintains it. One of the things that we're finding on the side of our measures is that the welfare of the farmers who have gone through this transition and are more productive and more profitable is better. That's jeopardised by the community attitude, I guess.

CHAIR: We've got a special hearing, as you probably know, on Friday about the Monaro grasslands. In fact, we've met today with and are reinviting Richard Taylor and Jam Land to appear before us so we can talk about some of these issues.

Senator URQUHART: I was just looking on your website, and under the heading 'species', you've got:

We're protecting at least 6,359 native species - including 243 threatened species - on our reserve and partnership properties.

I'm interested in the reserve and partnership properties. Do you go out and look for them? Do people come to you? How does that come about? With regard to the 243 threatened species, do you have people monitoring those species and that sort of stuff?

Dr Spindler : Of the 11.3 million hectares, the vast majority of that is through partnership, and it's mostly partnership with Indigenous protected areas, so vast amounts of land up in the north that the Indigenous peoples are primarily taking care of. What we tend to do is map out the ecological values—so much larger than threatened species—that we would like to protect across a particular, what we call, priority landscape or a region. We find that Aboriginal people actually come to us. They would like to partner with us to help us both monitor and manage the conservation and cultural values on their land. We establish an agreement with them and move forward. Before we do that, though, they have to have a certain governance level, so they have to have, obviously, a land grant, very clear tenure over their land and the full imprimatur so we know that we are talking to the people who can make the decisions about that landscape. We now have 25, I think, partnerships off our land that are Indigenous protected areas and we have more requests than we can currently resource. We are the partner of choice for IPAs, but we cannot expand any further at the moment.

Senator URQUHART: Why can't you expand?

Dr Spindler : Resources. The other partnerships that we work with are obviously these agricultural partnerships, and this is a relatively new thing for us. We have been working down in Tasmania. We have the Midlands Conservation Fund where we provide stewardship payments on an ongoing basis for farmers to undertake biodiverse-friendly practices, and that's expanding. We're oversubscribed for those on a year-by-year basis, but, as I said, we're working up into the grassy woodlands and looking at agricultural partnerships. We've also just got a grant with the Queensland LRF to develop the monitoring system that would be most helpful for farmers—to provide environmental data based on their practices.

Senator URQUHART: How do you do that monitoring? Who does that and how often? What do you do with the data and how long has it been going on?

Dr Spindler : Bush Heritage is 28 years old and we've grown, obviously, over that period of time. We grew substantially 10 or 11 years ago when we did take up the new practice of partnering with Indigenous protected areas. We have at least one staff member embedded with each Indigenous group. On our own reserves we have a property manager and an ecologist that might cover several reserves, and then we have a healthy landscape manager who's all about building relationships with the local community, local farmers and neighbours so that we can manage the landscape in a contiguous way. On Indigenous protected areas, as I say, we have at least one staff member, who's usually an ecologist, embedded with that community. They live either with them or in a township close by. And then we tend to visit the agricultural partnerships three or four times a year.

So we get seasonal understanding of the overarching changes. On an annual basis we measure the key threats that are identified, and we've identified key targets. Those targets may be species, and if we have a threatened species like the night parrot on Pullen Pullen that will obviously be a target. We monitor that very, very closely. If we have a number of species—we actually have a number of species that are threatened—it's pretty impossible to monitor every single one of those on a regular basis. What we tend to do is monitor the drivers of ecosystem health and the threats for those species. We provide that level of information into our systems every five years on a rotational basis. What we do with that information is actually a really great question, because we're not great at feeding that information up to, for example, TERN or any of the other large-scale national databases.

Senator URQUHART: Why not? Is that, again, resources?

Dr Spindler : It's resources. It's getting the information in a consistent way. It's managing the 68 field staff that we have to provide that information. We are building a better IT system that supports our decision-making and monitoring framework. We'll be in a better position then, but that's just an excuse really. It is time and it is resources to be able to assimilate all that information and feed it up into the TERNs or the ALAs of Australia that could really benefit.

Senator URQUHART: If you do then identify a species that's in decline, what do you do about that?

Dr Spindler : We generally pull together a group. We have academics, obviously, in Bush Heritage; we have 12 ecologists. We would then pull together a group of academics that would go through the rigorous process of having that species listed.

Senator URQUHART: So it's listing, and then the rest is up to—

Dr Spindler : Yes. Certainly we take responsibility on our own properties and we try to understand what the threats are.

Senator URQUHART: So is it different on your own properties? What happens then?

Dr Spindler : We take action immediately.

Senator URQUHART: What do you do? Tell me. Just step me through.

Dr Spindler : It depends what the threats are. Obviously, there's not an awful lot we can do about climate change, but I can tell your story about that. A few years ago we did see an enormous amount of tree die-off in Nardoo Hills, one of our properties just outside of Bendigo down in Victoria. We detected it in 2016-17 from a heatwave in 2015 that resulted in a five degree increase in temperature over a period of 14 days. We've isolated it to that event. That caused incredible tree die-off, particularly of the grey box and yellow box eucalypts in that area. We've just gone through a process where we've sourced different genetic provenance of the grey box and yellow box eucalypts from areas which we think are currently seeing the climate that we think we're going to see down in the Kurri Kurri Wedderburn on the Nardoo Hills area. We've just planted that. Every single tree has a tag with a QRL code on it. We know the genetic provenance. We understand where that is all going to come from. So we will be looking over the next 25 years to see how well those trees survive. But we are hoping to be able to take a proactive, adaptive approach to mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Where it is something that is a lot more immediate—like increased fox and cat control—we take a really serious approach. In particular, we are looking at a couple of South Australian properties that we have. One is about 200,000 hectares. We have a goal of elimination of cats and foxes. We have an enormous camera grid. We have one camera every kilometre—not over the entire property but over a lot of the property. We are now working on making those cameras automated. At the moment, somebody has to go out and collect the cards from every single one of those cameras and take them through the computer and look at them. We are trying to make that automated so that all of those photos come into the homestead and are run through an algorithm that would automatically detect fox and cat, and then we just go out and control the fox and cat. It is much easier with foxes than it is with cats; cats get really wily.

Senator URQUHART: That sounds great. Thank you very much.

Senator FAWCETT: Thank you, Dr Spindler; how are you?

Dr Spindler : Very well, thank you. How are you?

Senator FAWCETT: Good. I want to clarify one thing if I can. You said in your opening statement that you regretted the fact that the coalition did not support the readoption of this inquiry. I'm just wondering on what basis you make that claim.

Dr Spindler : I don't think the coalition supported the initial establishment of the inquiry, did it?

Senator FAWCETT: I can't talk to that because I wasn't on the committee, but I thought you were referring to the readoption. I just want to clarify that the Chief Government Whip tabled the report and moved that it be adopted.

Dr Spindler : I stand corrected. Thank you for that.

Senator FAWCETT: Thank you. You have talked a lot about the work you do with the agricultural sector. I am just wondering whether you would like to comment on the report by Wendy Craik and the recommendations that she has made, particularly around her comment that rather than going project by project you should have a broader incentive based approach.

Dr Spindler : I think that is absolutely relevant. The Craik review has potential to be incredibly useful in the coming review. I do worry about the EPBC Act review and many of the inquiries that were leading to the impression that where farmers find it difficult to comply with the EPBC Act—and I understand that they do—the way to deal with that is by watering it down. Actually, what we have to do is just help farmers to understand and work with the EPBC Act, and I think this is a way of doing that—finding incentives and providing incentives and market alternatives, market frameworks, for people to open up their farm. To have increased benefits in terms of productivity and productivity, but also biodiversity, is an excellent opportunity. What we need, though, is the monitoring and measuring framework to make sure there is an opportunity for people to verify that, as they have to with carbon credits, and make sure there is rigour and value in that market so it doesn't disappear like a puff of smoke.

Senator FAWCETT: I will come back to data in a minute, but first I want to go to the incentives. There was some discussion earlier in the day about the flexibility that the current rules in New South Wales, for example, afford farmers to, for example, move an isolated tree in the middle of a paddock to improve the efficiency of their land but then have other offset provisions—and some people said they were effective but others said they weren't. Do you support that approach whereby there should be some negotiation around how we make farms effective and efficient but at the same time have due regard to environmental impacts?

Dr Spindler : I think it all depends on your definition of 'effective' and 'efficient'. Where the rules have been played by, I think that does work. Where the rules have been bent and buried, that's where we find some issues—certainly in the monitoring. This is where monitoring is really important—because you do have to understand what has happened before you can develop a mitigation mechanism for it. So, yes, some level of flexibility—but I think there is flexibility already in the EPBC Act, from many different actions to be undertaken, with that common understanding that we rely on the industries of farming and mining and many of these other extractive industries, and there must be a middle ground. At the moment, the middle ground has been pushed too far away from the benefits for the environment.

Senator FAWCETT: To the issue of data: the CSIRO have put forward a model that looks at processes and datasets and systems. Are you familiar with that?

Dr Spindler : I'm not, no.

Senator FAWCETT: It's actually referenced in Wendy's report. I'd be interested if you could give some feedback to the committee on what you think of their approach in terms of how to collect and synthesise data—

Dr Spindler : I'll take a very good look at that and I'll take that question on notice, if that's okay?

Senator FAWCETT: Yes.

CHAIR: I'm interested in a couple of things that you cover in your submission under the wider ecological impact of faunal extinction where you talk about the loss of dingoes, and we had some discussion earlier on today about what impact that has. Would you like to talk us through what impact the loss of dingoes is having on our fauna?

Dr Spindler : Yes, certainly. Dingoes, as with many top order predators, provide a very important ecosystem service across many different landscapes. When I was working at the Smithsonian, I used to work in Brazil, where I was working to protect jaguars, and we found that we were actually able to work very closely with farmers who understood the benefits of having jaguars in their areas. It took out competitive grazers, as dingoes do. There are a couple of papers that have demonstrated clearly that having dingoes on cattle farms actually provides an economic benefit to the cattle ranchers. There are risks with lambs and sheep farming in particular, but there is also really fantastic technology. The dog alert sort of technology, which I'm sure you've heard about, is an opportunity to tell the farmer not just to go and kill the dingo but to manage his flock more closely: 'Bring your flock in; take them into an area where they're going to be protected from a potentially predatory influence in that area.' So, with the advent of innovation, particularly in the agricultural area, there's an enormous opportunity to protect the dingo, recognised as a native species, through behavioural indices and to understand the difference between feral dogs and dingoes and the mix between the lot. But we certainly find on our properties, where we are able to maintain dingoes, that they are competitive with cats and foxes and therefore reduce those threats to our native species. There is some predatory influence, it must be said, but it's much lower. So dingoes will take native fauna, but a dingo's take is much, much lower than a cat's or a fox's—particularly foxes, which just kill for the fun of it; they don't kill to eat all the time; they will just kill; they'll come into an area and decimate—

CHAIR: And go for my chooks!

Dr Spindler : That's right. Exactly. They do that in the wild, too. So we definitely find that there's a significant impact of having dingoes in the area, and that's a positive for our native species that we've been monitoring.

CHAIR: I presume that, with that monitoring, you'd have quite a good database on your properties as to what's been going on?

Dr Spindler : Yes.

CHAIR: Have you published on that?

Dr Spindler : Yes, we have, in a sporadic way. Again, that's something we need to work on.

CHAIR: Is that a matter of resources—not having the opportunity to do that?

Dr Spindler : That's right. When you have 12 ecologists spread across 11 million hectares, it's tough.

CHAIR: Similarly, there is your case study of Tasmanian devils, where you talk about the need for better monitoring of where there were diseased devils—and I don't know whether it was your submission or another one that talked about the impact of the loss of devils as to the increase in cat numbers. Have you got some information about that?

Dr Spindler : That's very emblematic of a top order predator. A top order predator, and particularly a territorial one, will maintain its territory and will try and suppress the hunting activity of any other predator in the area.

The cautionary tale I take from Tasmanian devils is this. I came back to Australia in 2007 and actually held the first population viability assessment for devils, which led to the first national plan for their protection. We discovered that disease in 1996. We had it categorised, diagnosed and understood well by 1999, 2000. We did nothing until 2007. So it wasn't necessarily the monitoring. It was just the action. It was the policy framework. It was doing something, given the information that we had. That is profoundly where I think we, as Australians, need to take on the message that we know what we need to do. We just cannot seem to take the leap into making the change in action and change in policy that we need to.

CHAIR: So, in that case, that seven-year delay, was that just a lack of political will? Was it a lack of resources? What led to that?

Dr Spindler : Yes, it's interesting. Partly, it was because nobody was watching. The devil was classed as common when the disease was found. And it was a pest in many ways, and many were being killed with shovels through the head and by being deliberately run over—not that that has stopped entirely! It's a species that nobody had really paid very much attention to, for one reason or another—even though it's incredibly iconic in Tasmania and it's a huge tourist draw, so you would think it would be of great importance. So I think that's part of it—waiting until something is endangered or critically endangered to enact something serious. But I don't think that there really was the political will. In 2007 we brought up some ideas, and a lot of things would have been great if we'd done them seven years ago—including fencing off a peninsula, which of course they're now doing. So, with a lot of these things, it certainly was resources; it seemed like a lot of money for something that might just get better all by itself. We didn't realise there was going to be a 96 per cent decline.

CHAIR: It didn't just get better!

Dr Spindler : Yes.

CHAIR: I'm just reflecting on that and that delay, and we've had evidence today of seven years between a species being nominated and then finally being listed, and then you have the delays of four or five years or more before a recovery plan is implemented.

Dr Spindler : Yes. I think that's key as well, and making sure that each species on the list actually does have a recovery plan. Certainly, I understand that takes resources. But there are also ways of making sure. I think we're shy to keep recovery teams to task and provide them with outcomes and impact measures and then hold them to that, because we don't fund them well enough. If this is important, we should resource it. We should open up recovery plans, recovery teams, to tender, and we should allow people to present a plan for how they're going to operate to achieve the outcomes that the recovery plan says are required and hold them to task; they should be accountable. That will take resources though, because, in order to keep people accountable, you do have to give them better money to do what they've said they'd do.

CHAIR: Yes. And we're not talking about huge resources.

Dr Spindler : Exactly.

CHAIR: We talked earlier on today about the resources for monitoring. Do you have, off the top of your head—and don't worry if you don't—the costs of implementing our recovery plan?

Dr Spindler : It's totally different, depending on the species under threat, and what is clear is that the more critically endangered a species is, the more expensive those recovery plans are going to be. So acting to keep species off the list is something that Bush Heritage would advocate for very strongly, but then also working across multiple recovery plans—and I think a lot of the gaps here are down to communication and integration—to mitigate threats that might benefit multiple species, and working across those landscape—

CHAIR: If you're protecting habitat, it can be habitat for a lot of species?

Dr Spindler : Yes.

CHAIR: And if you are dealing with pest animal species, they're predating on a lot of species as well.

Dr Spindler : Exactly.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Spindler.

Senator URQUHART: You talked about a key opportunity in the reinstatement of the National Reserve System Program. Can you elaborate on your considerations around the value of that system?

Dr Spindler : Absolutely. Certainly I think Australia benefited enormously from the establishment of the NRS in the first instance, and it has built a community of private land protectors—Bush Heritage, Greening Australia, AWC and many different groups across Australia—upon which the protected area network, including National Parks and Wildlife, rely strongly. So it's a very strong collaborative network. We work cooperatively. We reduce the overall costs to the government of managing vast tracts of land that provide benefits to all Australians.

In terms of the NRS, I think what we've achieved is the extent of protected land. So we have actually managed to protect up to and exceeding our Aichi target of protected land—19 per cent. Where we've fallen down is the representativeness. We've protected an awful lot of desert and an awful lot of inaccessible bits that nobody else wants!

CHAIR: Steep, rocky slopes!

Dr Spindler : Yes, exactly! So what we should focus on, if the NRS were still a thing and to be reinstated, is really looking at that representativeness, particularly with respect to climate change. I think that we should understand the habitats that are underrepresented in the National Reserve System that are likely to have refugia into the future, given even the harshest levels and models of climate change—the 8.5 RCP, which we're currently exceeding on all of those projections. And that is the basis upon which we work—really looking at the key biodiversity areas, which are being increasingly called for by the IUCN as a measuring index of how well countries are doing in terms of protecting their biodiverse areas. So the key biodiversity areas will be a really important measure to start understanding how well they're going to be doing in 20, 50 or 100 years time and what we can be doing to maintain those refugia and the species that are in there.

CHAIR: Any further questions, anyone? No. Thank you very much, Dr Spindler, for your evidence and your submission to the committee. They've been very useful.

Dr Spindler : Thank you.

CHAIR: That concludes today's proceedings. I thank all the witnesses we've heard from today and wish them well.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 05