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Environment and Communications References Committee
04/02/2019
Australia's faunal extinction crisis

STOJANOVIC, Dr Dejan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

WEBB, Dr Matthew, Researcher, Australian National University

CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Webb : I work for the Australian National University. I'm here to talk about threatened species.

CHAIR: Are you appearing on behalf of the Australian National University?

Dr Webb : I think so! We're appearing based on research that we've undertaken for many years. I've also worked for the state government for many years prior to working with the ANU.

CHAIR: But you're here from the ANU—okay.

Dr Stojanovic : I'm a postdoctoral fellow at the ANU, like Matt. We're here from the Difficult Bird Research Group to present our data.

CHAIR: Thank you. I invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then the committee will ask you some questions.

Dr Webb : I've worked in threatened species conservation on a whole range of species in Tasmania for 19 years, both within government and outside of government. This has included 15 years of research on the critically endangered swift parrot, which a lot of our submission focuses on as a case study. Swift parrots, in the sense of threatened species, are unique, really, because we have a wealth of information—peer-reviewed, scientific literature—and we know what to do for this species, which is reasonably rare. Despite this wealth of knowledge, we—I say 'we' because I've been part of several processes while in government and since leaving government—seem to be incapable of making clear decisions that are required to secure the species. This has been going on for an extremely long time. I've been part of all of these. There have been at least three attempts at endorsing and implementing conservation plans that had various names. Effectively, these mean designing an appropriate reserve system to protect remaining critical breeding habitat for the species. All of these attempts have failed for one reason or another. There are also endorsed prescriptions for the swift parrot through the forest practices system for logging operations. These may or may not be implemented. Quite often they're not, despite clear evidence that they should be. Effectively, this has just resulted in ongoing loss of habitat, which is critical to the species' survival, over the entire 15 years that I've worked on the species. I've watched this continually happen. It's waxed and waned, but it's just continued.

I'd like to make the point that not acting is still actually a decision. Really, if we can't achieve an effective conservation outcome for a species that we know so much about, and we have already had so many attempts at trying to sort out this issue—it is a difficult issue—what chance do the other 700-odd threatened species in Tasmania have that we know very little about? There is no monitoring occurring for them and the existing information on the vast majority of the species is completely outdated.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Webb.

Dr Stojanovic : I did my PhD on the swift parrot and the result of my PhD was the discovery of the effect of sugar gliders on the species. However, the more we look and the more data we collect, it's really pointing to the fact that sugar gliders are only a small part of the problem that swift parrots face. That's particularly because the effect of sugar gliders is worst when deforestation is locally severe where swift parrots nest. There's mounting evidence that, in fact, the impacts of sugar gliders on swift parrots are just a symptom of poor forest management and intensive deforestation. It's quite attractive in Tasmania to write off the effects of the population decline of swift parrots as an artefact of sugar gliders, but the evidence is not pointing towards that.

Also, under the RFA guidelines, there's no formal requirement for standardised surveys of swift parrot nests in logged coops. Monitoring and evaluation of management prescriptions on the ground are either not implemented or so generalised as to be meaningless for swift parrots. If ANU research were not taking place, many nests would have been lost to logging and other processes. A functional forest management system would not be reliant on tree-by-tree-level identification by two researchers of the nesting sites of swift parrots. If we weren't there, who would be looking? Even when swift parrot habitat is clearly identified and the GPS coordinates are provided by us to the management agencies, it may still be legally logged. A recent example of a coop at Tylers Hill in the southern forests involved the protection of some nest trees which I climbed in 2012, where I confirmed swift parrot nests. However, in the immediate surrounding area tens of hectares of old-growth nesting habitat was logged. But a review of that coop resulted in a conclusion that it was a successful application of the threatened species management guidelines, which is not the case when you look at it from loss of nesting habitat for the swift parrot.

For areas of habitat that are retained and protected from logging within state forests, the implementation of formal protection is inadequate. For example, currently forests on Bruny Island are temporarily protected under a moratorium on the island. But we've seen moratoria come and go on Bruny Island, and there's no clear road map to the permanent protection of critical habitats—like Bruny, but also elsewhere—for swift parrots at all. Failure of the RFA to account for cumulative habitat loss and the accumulation of new information about how to improve management on the ground reinforces the need to review environment laws and to give precedence to the EPBC Act over the RFA.

CHAIR: Thank you. I'll kick off with some of the questions I was asking BirdLife Tasmania just before lunch. We've just had the review of the Tasmanian RFA, and it's been rolled over. How did your research and the information that you've got through your research influence—or not influence, as the case may be—the RFA rollover?

D r Webb : Were you contacted?

Dr Stojanovic : Not at all. I certainly wasn't contacted for information, and nor was Matt.

CHAIR: But we were told that, in terms of the rollover of the RFA, they were going to review the performance of the RFA over the last 20 years and that, after taking what had been learned in the last 20 years into consideration, the RFA would then be reviewed.

D r Webb : To the best of my knowledge, very little changed in all aspects of threatened species management.

CHAIR: In terms of management to protect critically endangered species like the swift parrot, what would need to happen in a forest management system? What should our laws make sure occurs?

Dr Stojanovic : You first? It's really not that complicated.

D r Webb : First of all, we need to stop clearing and logging breeding habitat. We've demonstrated that it's a limiting factor for the species. There are placement times for what we're losing—you're talking hundreds of years; some of it's 500-plus year old forest. Within those time lines and the urgency for the species, there is no replacement, and anything that gets logged will never be allowed to reach an age where it provides habitat again. So stopping habitat loss is a fundamental, key thing that we've been trying to work towards for well over a decade. That's the first thing. But then, as Dejan was saying, there are things like effectiveness monitoring and monitoring cumulative loss. Currently there is not an electronic database of logging coops available in Tasmania. Sustainable Timber Tasmania might have their own one, but that's not publicly available. There should be one for all public and private forests. So it's not even possible to quantify loss of habitat for a species. We don't even know what's going on. Every day—

CHAIR: As key researchers on swift parrots, you are not kept informed as to what the potential threats to those birds are going to be from the operations of Sustainable Timber Australia?

Dr Webb : I'm often closely involved and asked specifically for advice on logging coupes on a regular basis. But often I find that advice ends up being ignored despite continued attempts to bring to the attention of various government agencies that this is patently swift parrot breeding habitat. They are here, they are breeding and feeding.

Dr Stojanovic : That includes the provision of data. We give it every year. We update GPS waypoints of every nest tree we find.

Dr Webb : We notify all the relevant agencies every year in a timely manner. For the swift parrot, obviously, another thing is actually having a serious program that addresses predation of nests by sugar gliders. There has been a small amount of money directed towards this, which is encouraging. It's a start, but really it's somewhat of a fig leaf at the moment.

CHAIR: They're not addressing the ongoing habitat loss.

Dr Webb : No. Orders of magnitude more resources need to be directed towards it. On that note, things like the direction of resources—this is in an overall sense. Things like going out and planting trees right now don't really make any sense because the issue is really seriously urgent. We're worried that we're going to see the extinction of this species within our careers—before the end of them. So going out and planting trees for them while we're removing hundreds-of-years-old forests doesn't make any sense.

Senator McKIM: Thanks to both of you for coming. Can I just express, at least on a personal level, my admiration for the work that you're doing and my thanks for the work that you're doing in bringing, hopefully, a little bit of hope for those beautiful little parrots. I wanted to actually pick up on the last point you made, Dr Webb, to the effect that you're worried you're going to see the extinction of this species in your careers. What does business as usual look like for the swifties and what are the time frames that we're looking at here?

Dr Stojanovic : In 2015 we published a paper modelling the population viability of swift parrots, and that was using the best available data as at 2015. There were a number of very important caveats to that result. That modelling only considered the impact of sugar gliders on the mortality of swift parrots; it ignored other factors that we know kill swift parrots, like disease or flying into windows or habitat loss, which is a very important point. We did not consider the effect of habitat loss. That modelling indicated that within 16 years we'd have, I think, a 94 ½ per cent population decline from the starting population size. The species would effectively be extinct within three generations. That research was the basis—

Senator McKIM: Within three generations of swift parrots?

Dr Stojanovic : Yes, that's right. That's from 2015, so it's several years ago now.

Dr Webb : Up-to-date data that we'll publish this year clearly demonstrates that that is occurring.

CHAIR: You're on track for that trajectory?

Dr Webb : We were hoping we were wrong, but it's quite clear that we're not.

Dr Stojanovic : Just to add to that, the importance of the things that we left out of that modelling shouldn't be underestimated. For instance, in November just gone, three weeks of rain caused the mortality of 50 per cent of the nesting attempts that were initiated on Bruny Island, which is a haven from sugar gliders. So these factors that we know drive the extinction of swift parrots are cumulative and continuing to act on this population every year. It indicates that even in places like Bruny, for example, which we considered to be a safe haven, they still don't get a reprieve from the other factors that could drive their population down.

Dr Webb : And this is all happening in the context of the fires that we're currently experiencing. We haven't had a chance to go down and assess it, obviously, because it's too dangerous, but the fire mapping clearly shows that a lot of critical swift parrot habitat has likely been destroyed. The same thing happened in the Dunalley fire. So, everything that we have some more control over is happening in the background of things that we have a lot less control over.

Dr Stojanovic : The other thing is that the fire that is taking place in the southern forests now is occurring in a landscape where as little as one-quarter of the original swift parrot nesting habitat is still standing. It's in an area where we have seen excessive deforestation, and this tiny little bit of suitable habitat that is left is now is being affected by wildfire in addition to that. So, these processes are cumulative and act together, even at the same locations, to further lower the suitability of available habitat for swift parrots.

Senator McKIM: When you're talking about the deforestation I take it you're speaking about the logging industry there?

Dr Stojanovic : Yes.

Senator McKIM: We heard some evidence this morning from other witnesses that was critical of the submission put to this committee by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment in Tasmania and in some cases critical of the department itself. I note for the record that they're not here, which I regard as a terrible shame—

CHAIR: I'll also note, as chair, that the state government departments were invited to submit and appear before the inquiry, but they haven't taken up the opportunity to appear before the inquiry.

Senator McKIM: They've cut and run, basically.

Dr Webb : I have read the submission and I found it rather confusing, partly because an awful lot of it is not about threatened species. It omits so many different things. It doesn't say anything about assessment processes for developments or logging operations, how that's all working, how decisions are made, or how different agencies are interacting. It does mention PAMAs—I don't know how well you've read the submission, but there are things called public authority management agreements—and holds them up as something really positive, whereas I know that while there currently is an attempt to produce a public authority management agreement for the swift parrot my interpretation of the intent of that is that it is to bypass the forest practices system. I haven't seen the end result of the plan. I just found DPIPWE's submission rather confusing.

Senator McKIM: I might ask a follow-up question about that. Dr Webb, I understand you used to work in the department. Is that right?

Dr Webb : Yes.

Senator McKIM: Would you care to talk a little bit more about why you found that submission confusing and inform the committee of any views you might have about how that department operates internally, culturally as well as administratively, to try to fulfil its role to protect threatened species in Tasmania?

Dr Webb : Yes, I'm happy to answer questions around that. It's probably worth noting that when I first started working there—I worked in the threatened species section, which doesn't really exist anymore—there were at least 15 of us, or something like that, at one point. It's equivalent to more or less one FTE now. It has an operating budget of less than $5,000 a year, and there are 700 threatened species in Tasmania. So, if you do a breakdown of that, it's not much to go around. And, in terms of approval processes, whether it be developments or logging operations or anything like that—and this, in my experience, got worse over time, and I've still remained involved in advice provision, particularly for swift parrots since leaving government—

CHAIR: When did you work for the state government?

Dr Webb : On swift parrots, from about 2004 until 2014. It's around about that time—maybe early 2015 actually. But, yes, from my experience, it's actually gotten worse over time. But there's a really clear culture of applications—for whatever it is, it's automatic approval. There's this very, very strong top-down political pressure on the people remaining within government to approve whatever these developments or logging operations are, and it's very difficult for anyone to give really honest, clear advice anymore, which is part of the reason why I feel like they seek advice from people, like me, who are out of government now, because, quite frankly, if you have kids and a mortgage, you need to keep your job. I could elaborate more on the way the system works, but—

Senator McKIM: No, that's very helpful, Dr Webb. Can I just be clear: you said right at the end there that if you've got kids and a mortgage you need to keep your job. Are you suggesting that people are compromising the advice they're putting up in the department because they're worried about losing their jobs?

Dr Webb : Most certainly.

Senator McKIM: That is just absolutely appalling and actually scandalous. And you also mentioned top-down pressure to approve logging operations. Do you mean from the minister or the minister's office, or are you talking about the top levels in the department?

Dr Webb : It's hard to know exactly where it starts.

Senator McKIM: But it comes down through the department.

Dr Webb : Yes.

Senator McKIM: So, whether or not it starts in the department or in the minister's head or the minister's office, the effect of it—

Dr Webb : Yes. I don't know where it starts, but—

Senator McKIM: But the effect of it flows through.

Dr Webb : Yes. The people actually working on it, they get that.

Senator McKIM: Yes. Thanks very much for revealing that to the committee. That's very interesting. We've had some evidence this morning around the Prosser Plains dam, which is being proposed for the east coast of Tasmania to prop up the Okehampton Bay fish farm. Are either of you aware of that?

Dr Webb : I'm aware of that.

Senator McKIM: And are you aware that there's about 40 hectares of swifty habitat that would be flooded by that?

Dr Webb : Yes.

Senator McKIM: Is that correct?

Dr Webb : I think it's about 30.

Senator McKIM: It's about 30?

Dr Webb : I think so, and there's about 20-odd hectares of old growth ovata, which is a threatened forest community. There's less than three per cent of pre-European extent of that forest type. I think there have been attempts to find offsets for the ovata forest, but they can't find suitable offsets, because there is almost no ovata forest left, particularly older growth ovata.

Senator McKIM: Can I ask you: generally—and feel free to refer to specific examples, including that one—what do you guys make of offsets, particularly in the context of swift parrot breeding habitat?

Dr Webb : It shouldn't be considered.

Senator McKIM: Dr Stojanovic?

Dr Stojanovic : They demonstrably don't work. As Matt said, where are you going to find a suitable offset for old growth ovata forests. You might find twigs—saplings—but you're not going to find like for like. And in the case of swift parrots, when it comes to nesting habitat, for instance, within that region, the Wielangta forest has been severely affected by deforestation in some places and the Buckland area, where we work, which is close by, has been severely affected by illegal firewood harvest. The whole area is impacted by clearing for agriculture and other effects. There is no available habitat for offset.

Dr Webb : It's probably important to make the point, to give some broader context as well, that what we're dealing with now—the remaining habitat—in many places is actually the scraps. The really good stuff went a long time ago, on the more fertile soils. A lot of what we're fighting over now, effectively, is probably not what was really high-quality habitat once upon a time.

Senator McKIM: I'd like to keep going but there are other members who want to ask questions, so thank you.

Senator MARTIN: Are there any challenges faced by Tasmanian species, from inadequate RFA, similar to those in other parts of Australia—are there any species in other parts of Australia, that you know of, that face the same level of—

Dr Stojanovic : [inaudible]

Dr Webb : Yes. That was a part of our submission. Even though their ecologies are quite different, they are facing really similar problems, in terms of management and enacting appropriate management, and delays and paralysis in action and decision-making.

Senator MARTIN: Is that from state and federal?

Dr Webb : Because of the RFAs, it's really the states that are making the decisions. It's not the federal government. As soon as you get into a logging operation in Tasmania, the EPBC Act is out of it. So it's down to state agencies making those decisions, whether that be on public or private land. I've seen multiple examples where that mechanism has been used to, effectively, bypass the EPBC Act—where someone has wanted to undertake some kind of operation that wasn't really a logging operation. If they had gone ahead with what they'd wanted to do it would have triggered the EPBC Act, but if you call it a logging operation it doesn't trigger the EPBC Act and you just go down that route.

Senator MARTIN: You mentioned the sugar glider is a predator. Are feral cats?

Dr Stojanovic : There's no evidence of equivalent impact. I'm sure feral cats eat parrots when they get the chance, but one or two swift parrots killed by a cat isn't as much of a big deal as the number that are killed annually by sugar gliders and is much less of a deal than wholesale forest loss across the breeding range.

Senator McKIM: How long do we have left for these two excellent witnesses?

CHAIR: Seven minutes, and I want to finish off with them.

Senator McKIM: All right. In that case, Dr Webb, I want to ask something in a final follow-up to comments you made in regard to DPIPWE. These, I guess, are personal questions and you're offering these comments in your personal capacity. Would that be right?

Dr Webb : Yes.

CHAIR: Yes, that's one of the things I wanted to clarify, that you're, basically, speaking in your personal capacity, with regard to that—

Dr Webb : Yes.

Senator McKIM: I'll offer you the opportunity, Dr Webb, and, please, if you don't want to answer it please say: why did you leave DPIPWE, and how did you find working in there, on a personal level, and what sort of impact did working in there have on you? If you don't want to answer it, just say so.

Dr Webb : It was bad, put it that way, because of the pressure. Effectively, I felt pressured to change my advice on coupes—logging coupes, in particular—and not follow the science that we were undertaking. As a scientist, you can't do that. That was extremely difficult. There was a whole range of factors, I guess. But it was also difficult after leaving, or while being on leave without pay, being threatened with a breach of the code of conduct—and it was simply over publishing scientific papers on our research, which seems like an odd thing to be threatened with then. I don't know if it is worth going into any more detail other than just saying it was extremely difficult to maintain your integrity and remain there.

Senator McKIM: Thanks very much. How would each of you describe the impact of RFAs on the future of the swifty?

Dr Stojanovic : We recently published a paper quantifying the impact of the last RFA, and used the southern forests as an example. If substantive changes aren't made throughout the system and the RFA is applied in the same way as it was, the swift parrot will be extinct next time there is an inquiry into these issues. The factors we have seen that already impact the species have already taken place over the last RFA. As Matt said, we are dealing with the scraps of what was there when the last RFA came into force—and now it has been rolled over—but in a very different context where we now know the importance of what was taken away and what is left. So something drastic needs to happen with the way the whole system is managed in order to prevent extinction because we now know better and we know what we need to do. We need to protect what is left today. Otherwise, the swift parrot will go extinct.

Senator McKIM: We heard very similar words from Mr McGlone earlier—that we know what we need to do. We have heard that from you guys. Can you give a really quick 101 synopsis for the committee. What do we need to do to save the swift parrot?

Dr Stojanovic : It is like when we were invited to provide advice to the forest industry. Really, when you break it down, it is: don't cut down old trees; protect blue gum; and protect black gum. That's it. It is really pretty basic.

Dr Webb : And one of the issues that makes this management difficult and also puts further stress on the species is that the breeding range for the swift parrot is mostly along the east coast but you can't consider that as one unit because flowering patterns vary each year. In some years, there are just tiny bits of habitat actually available for breeding. If we take those bits away, in some years there will be nothing. And we have experienced years where there is almost nothing. In pre-European times, there almost certainly would have been extensive areas of flowering. But all of that has gone, which means what remains is so much more important. We have also identified a whole lot of really key sites, through 10 consecutive years of monitoring, and we have published all of this work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. So we know a lot of areas that are super-important—and maybe there are some others—and clearing, logging or whatever is still being allowed to continue in many of these areas that clearly have been identified as critical to the species.

CHAIR: So they need to be protected. Senator Whish-Wilson.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We have heard from two witnesses about the impact of illegal firewood cutting in Tasmania. Do you have any quick comments on the threat that that poses?

Dr Stojanovic : There was some media about that a few years ago when I found one of my sites had been severely impacted. I can't recall the exact number off the top of my head, but in an area approximately a half-kilometre square I found 2,000 cut stumps with a mean diameter of about a metre. To put that in perspective—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: This is illegal—2,000?

Dr Stojanovic : That's within a half-by-half kilometre. I haven't published the data yet, but it's drastic local-scale impact. It's the equivalent of a logging coupe but illegally within the course of a parrot breeding site.

Dr Webb : Really, we have no idea. It's the same problem. We can't really even answer that question because—

CHAIR: No-one's finding the information.

Dr Stojanovic : That's right.

Dr Webb : And there's no legislation to regulate it and the illegal collection—there's no enforcement; there's no-one to do it.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I was saying to a witness earlier that I was talking to a friend at parks and wildlife in a private capacity about a task force on fairy penguins, and he said to me, 'Peter, if I had the resources, the No. 1 thing I'd focus on in the state at the moment for threatened species would be illegal firewood cutting.' They must know it's a big issue.

Dr Stojanovic : Firewood cutting, I think, for the swift parrot is a particular problem because it's completely unregulated, and those places where it happens tend to be remote and in places where your effort for yield is worth it, so it's big trees. Those sites are usually important parrot breeding sites. In the context of industrial deforestation, this illegal deforestation is significant because it's an additive but unregulated effect.

CHAIR: I just want to finish up, and we've talked about—quite rightly and understandably—the swift parrot, but that's not the only bird species that is affected by RFAs and the logging in Tasmania, are they? Do you want to quickly outline the other birds that are being impacted.

Dr Webb : We've just used the swift parrot as an example. Like I said earlier, this is a species that we actually have a lot of information on now and we still can't seem to get it together. There are a whole lot of other species out there that are being impacted, and we don't have the information. It certainly feels at times as though collecting the information that we need is a little bit inconvenient because it's better to just not know.

Dr Stojanovic : We've recently embarked on a new project on the masked owl, which relates to your earlier question: forest owls are another major species group affected by these issues. The masked owl in the southern forests—we've found some owls in those places, but they're incredibly hard to find. Species like that are difficult to study in the absence of information—this is why we're addressing this species: we're concerned that they'll just slip away before we even know what's happening or how to correct it.

Dr Webb : We have no idea what we're losing a lot of the time, because we don't know what's there. But, once it's gone, it's gone.

CHAIR: Again, that research is being funded through crowdfunding, which I'll declare I contributed to and I got my lovely masked owl T-shirt in the mail just last week—I should've been wearing it today. So, there's no external funding for that work.

Dr Stojanovic : No, and I should probably say how difficult it is to collect data on species like the swift parrot with most of the research that we do with the funding structures in science. With the reward structure for as many publications as possible for academia, a lot of fundamental conservation actually just can't happen in that context. We're just lucky that we work on a pretty species that people are willing to donate to. If we worked on an ugly species, then people would donate but we've been really lucky.

Dr Webb : We also work on the King Island scrubtit, for example, which is critically endangered—there are fewer than 50 birds remaining. It managed to get a bit of attention and, to people's credit, there are groups, and I think the state government as well, that have contributed to this, but it's $50,000 to do some work. For a species that is literally about to become extinct, $50,000 doesn't really go—

CHAIR: It's not going to go far?

Dr Webb : Yes.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Stojanovic and Dr Webb, for your very powerful evidence today. It's of terrific value to our committee's deliberations.

Dr Stojanovic : Thanks for the opportunity.

Dr Webb : Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you.