SNAPP Compensatory Conservation working group

The first meeting of the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) working group on compensatory conservation was held in Santa Barbara, California, in the first week of August.

This group, led by Martine Maron and James Watson, and supported by Maron Lab members Jeremy Simmonds and Laura Sonter, aims to examine how compensatory approaches like offsets can be harnessed to deliver the best outcomes for biodiversity and people in different parts of the world.

Working group members: (Back row, left to right) Hugo Rainey, Joe Kiesecker, Ray Victurine, Jeremy Simmonds, Todd Stevens, (Front row, left to right) James Watson, Laura Sonter, Martine Maron, Steve Edwards, Philippe Puydarrieux, Fabien Quétier (photo credit: Ginger Gillquist, NCEAS)

In recognition of the differing in-country contexts in which compensatory policies are implemented, the group, comprising stakeholders from private industry, non-government organisations and academia, will examine which approaches—ranging along a spectrum from the funding of protected areas to net gain of biodiversity—are most suitable in particular circumstances.

Compensatory conservation is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ tool—different approaches will be more or less appropriate for different places. Over the next 12 months, this working group will develop the guidance on what is likely to work best, and where.


Is ‘no net loss of biodiversity’ a good idea?


Martine Maron recently contributed a chapter to a new book, “Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma” edited by Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Brian Silliman.

Martine’s chapter is one of many excellent contributions, including one by Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science colleagues James Watson and Richard Fuller on replacing under-performing nature reserves.

The book will be published by Oxford University Press in October 2017.

Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut

April Reside, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Lesley Silcock, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland

Land clearing is accelerating across eastern Australia, despite our new research providing a clear warning of its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, regional and global climate, and threatened native wildlife.

Policies in place to control land clearing have been wound back across all Australian states, with major consequences for our natural environment.

One of the recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales has been the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. These codes are meant to allow small amounts of “low-risk” clearing, so that landholders save time and money and government can focus on regulating activities that have bigger potential impacts on the environment.

However, substantial areas of native forest are set to be cleared in Queensland under the guise of vegetation “thinning”, which is allowed by these self-assessable codes. How did this happen?

Thin on the ground

Thinning involves the selective removal of native trees and shrubs, and is widely used in the grazing industry to improve pasture quality. It has been argued that thinning returns the environment back to its “natural state” and provides better habitat for native wildlife. However, the science supporting this practice is not as clear-cut as it seems.

Vegetation “thickening” is part of a natural, dynamic ecological cycle. Australia’s climate is highly variable, so vegetation tends to grow more in wetter years and then dies off during drought years. These natural cycles of thickening and thinning can span 50 years or more. In most areas of inland eastern Australia, there is little evidence for ongoing vegetation thickening since pastoral settlement.

Thinning of vegetation using tractors, blades and other machinery interrupts this natural cycle, which can make post-drought recovery of native vegetation more difficult. Loss of tree and shrub cover puts native wildlife at much greater risk from introduced predators like cats, and aggressive, “despotic” native birds. Thinning reduces the diversity of wildlife by favouring a few highly dominant species that prefer open vegetation, and reduces the availability of old trees with hollows.

Many native birds and animals can only survive in vegetation that hasn’t been cleared for at least 30 years. So although vegetation of course grows back after clearing, for native wildlife it’s a matter of quality, not just quantity.

Land clearing by stealth?

Thinning codes in Queensland and New South Wales allow landholders to clear vegetation that has thickened beyond its “natural state”. Yet there is little agreement on what the “natural state” is for many native vegetation communities.

Under the Queensland codes, up to 75% of vegetation in an area can be removed without a permit, and in New South Wales thinning can reduce tree density to a level that is too low to support natural ecosystems.

All of this thinning adds up. Since August 2016, the Queensland government has received self-assessable vegetation clearing code notifications totalling more than 260,000 hectares. These areas include habitat for threatened species, and ecosystems that have already been extensively cleared.

It may be that the actual amount of vegetation cleared under thinning codes is less than the notifications suggest. But we will only know for sure when the next report on land clearing is released, and by then it will be too late.

Getting the balance right

Vegetation policy needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current thinning codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.

Thinning codes should only allow vegetation to be cleared in areas that are not mapped as habitat for threatened species or ecosystems, and not to an extent where only scattered trees are left standing in a landscape. Stronger regulation is still needed to reduce the rate of land clearing, which in Queensland is now the highest in a decade.

Protecting native vegetation on private land reduces soil erosion and soil salinity, improves water quality, regulates climate, and allows Australia’s unique plants and animals to survive. Landholders who preserve native vegetation alongside farming provide essential services to the Australian community, and should be rewarded. We need long-term incentives to allow landholders to profit from protecting vegetation instead of clearing it.

Our research has shown that Australian governments spend billions of dollars trying to achieve the benefits already provided by native vegetation, through programs such as the Emissions Reduction Fund, the 20 Million Trees program and Reef Rescue. Yet far more damage is inflicted by under-regulated clearing than is “fixed” by these programs.

The ConversationImagine what could be achieved if we spent that money more effectively.

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Anita J Cosgrove, Research Assistant in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jennifer Lesley Silcock, Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland; Leonie Seabrook, Landscape Ecologist, The University of Queensland, and Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland

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

The plan to protect wildlife displaced by the Hume Highway has failed

David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, The University of Queensland, and Philip Gibbons, Australian National University

Researchers monitored hundreds of nest boxes used to offset habitat loss. Mason Crane, Author provided

It’s no secret that human development frequently comes at a cost to other creatures. As our urban footprint expands, native habitat contracts. To compensate for this, most Australian governments require developers to invest in biodiversity offsetting, where habitat is created or protected elsewhere to counterbalance the impact of construction. The Conversation

Although biodiversity offsetting is frequently used in Australia – and is becoming increasingly popular around the world – we rarely know whether offsets are actually effective.

That’s why we spent four years monitoring the program designed to offset the environmental losses caused by widening the Hume Highway between Holbrook and Coolac, New South Wales. Our research has found it was completely ineffective.

Map courtesy Google/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Trading trees for boxes

Wild honeybees occupied many nest boxes.
Mason Crane, Author provided

The roadworks required the removal of large, old, hollow-bearing trees, which are critical nesting sites for many animals, including several threatened species. To compensate for these losses, the developer was required to install one nest box for every hollow that was lost – roughly 600 nest boxes were installed.

Many of the boxes were specifically designed for three threatened species: the squirrel glider, the superb parrot and the brown treecreeper. We monitored the offset for four years to see whether local wildlife used the nest boxes.

We found that the nest boxes were rarely used, with just seven records of the squirrel glider, two of the brown treecreeper, and none of the superb parrot. We often saw all three species in large old tree hollows in the area around the boxes we monitored.

Even more worryingly, almost 10% of the boxes collapsed, were stolen or otherwise rendered ineffective just four years after being installed. Perversely, we found that invasive species such as feral bees and black rats frequently occupied the nest boxes.

The offset clearly failed to deliver the environmental outcomes that were promised. Indeed, researchers have been concerned for some time now that offsetting can be misused and abused.

What can be done?

It’s worth noting that research supports using nest boxes as a habitat replacement. However, they may never be effective for species such as the superb parrot. It’s not quite clear why some animals use nest boxes and others don’t, but earlier monitoring projects in the same area found superb parrots consistently avoid them.

An old hollow-bearing river red gum. Trees like this are vital habitat for many species. Peter Halasz/Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA

Still, concrete steps can – and should – be taken to improve similar offset programs.

First, the one-to-one ratio of nest boxes to tree hollows was inadequate; far more nest boxes needed to be installed to replace the natural hollows that were lost.

Second, nest boxes clearly cannot compensate for the many other key ecological values of large old trees (such as carbon storage, flowering pulses or foraging habitat). This suggests that more effort is needed at the beginning of a development proposal to avoid damaging environmental assets that are extremely difficult to replace – such as large old trees.There also was no requirement to regularly replace nest boxes as they degrade. It can take a hundred years or more for trees to develop natural hollows suitable for nesting wildlife. To truly offset their removal, thousands of boxes may be required over many decades.

Third, where it is simply impossible to protect key features of the environment during infrastructure development, more holistic strategies should be considered. For example, in the case of the woodlands around the Hume Highway, encouraging natural regeneration can help replace old trees.

Tree planting on farms can also make a significant contribution to biodiversity – and some of these may eventually become hollow-bearing trees. A combination of planting new trees and maintaining adequate artificial hollows while those trees mature might be a better approach.

Being accountable for failure

When an offset program fails, it’s unlikely anyone will be asked to rectify the situation. This is because developers are only required to initiate an offset, and are not responsible for their long-term outcomes.

In the case of the Hume Highway development, the conditions of approval specified that nest boxes were to be installed, but not that they be effective.

Despite the ecological failure of the offset (and over A$200,000 invested), the developer has met these legal obligations.

This distinction between offset compliance and offset effectiveness is a real problem. The Australian government has produced a draft policy of outcomes-based conditions, but using these conditions isn’t mandatory.

The poor results of the Hume Highway offset program are sobering. However, organisations like Roads and Maritime Services are to be commended for ensuring that monitoring was completed and for making the data available for public scrutiny – many agencies do not even do that.

Indeed, through monitoring and evaluation we can often learn more from failures than successes. There are salutary lessons here, critical to ensuring mistakes are not repeated.

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Megan C Evans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Environmental Policy, The University of Queensland, and Philip Gibbons, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

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

Australia needs a wake-up call

Nicki Shumway, Martine Maron and James Watson recently published a letter in Science on the health of the Great Barrier Reef:

The Great Barrier Reef was recently considered for a World Heritage ‘in danger’ listing, but was spared in 2015 by the development of the Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan. This plan includes targets to improve water quality and biodiversity in the Reef, which is considered in poor overall condition. A key criticism of the 2050 Plan by scientists was the lack of discussion and concrete action on the impacts of climate change to the Reef.  In addition, a key requirement by the World Heritage Committee was that the Plan be fully implemented and adequately funded, with a progress report submitted to the Committee by Dec. 1, 2016.

Unfortunately, the health and resilience of Great Barrier Reef has continued to deteriorate. Last year the largest bleaching event on record caused massive loss of coral cover, and again this year we are in the midst of another bleaching event – unprecedented for the Great Barrier Reef.

 The Reef is in poor condition, with current policy doing little to abate this decline. We wrote an article, published this month in Science about the inconsistent policies of the Queensland and Commonwealth governments, who on the one hand state their commitment to the integrity of the reef, and on the other, approve large coal mines in the same region. We suggest that an ‘in danger’ listing by UNESCO will be the wake-up call needed to prioritise this natural wonder over industrial development in the region.

 Read more here: Australia needs a wake-up call

Recovering the far eastern curlew

PhD candidate Micha Jackson’s work was recently featured on the NESP TSR website, as well as this ABC News story and radio interview.

Micha has also published a literature review on the value of artificial roosting habitat for migratory birds, that can be downloaded here

The far eastern curlew, one of the world’s largest migratory shorebirds, has declined dramatically in the last 20 years. According to Micha Jackson the bird is in trouble on multiple fronts and central to addressing these challenges is a better understanding of its habitat needs and international cooperation.

The migration route of the far eastern curlew falls within the ‘East Asian-Australasian Flyway’ (EAAF), which it shares with more than 50 other migratory shorebird species. Combined there are more than 8 million shorebirds that pass through more than 20 countries every year.

The northern end of the EAAF (where migratory shorebird species breed) includes parts of Russia, China, Mongolia and Alaska, and its southern end (non-breeding habitat) includes parts of south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand. In the middle lies much of east and south-east Asia, and some islands of the western Pacific.

As with all migratory species, if any one critical area in the life cycle is left unprotected, it could spell the collapse of the entire population despite the best efforts elsewhere. All countries along the migration route will need to enact conservation measures to achieve recovery of the far eastern curlew, and these actions will also benefit many other species.

Far Eastern Curlew. Image: Micha Jackson

Tracking studies over the last 30 years have taught us much about the far eastern curlew’s life-cycle. These studies include the resighting, recording and reporting of bands and flags attached to the legs of curlews as they move through the flyway, and the use of geo-locators and satellite transmitters.

It breeds in marshy areas of Russia and northern China, and, as far as we can tell the entire population passes through the Yellow Sea/Bohai Sea region, which includes coastal areas of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, during migration. This region is therefore a critical stopover area for curlews to rest and refuel while undertaking their gruelling long-distance migration flights.

During the non-breeding season, about three quarters of the birds wait out the northern winter in Australia, with others heading to the Philippines, Indonesia, PNG and likely elsewhere.

Under a dark cloud

The far eastern curlew has suffered rapid and dramatic population declines in recent decades. The IUCN Red List, which assesses the global status of species, listed it as Least Concern in 2004, but it was rapidly upgraded to Vulnerable in 2010 and to Endangered in 2015. Recent research confirmed an annual decline of almost 6% over the last two decades, and the species was listed as Critically Endangered in Australia in 2016.

A key driver of this decline is extensive loss of intertidal mudflat, particularly in the Yellow/Bohai Sea region – where more than half of this habitat has disappeared over the last 50 years. Causes of mudflat loss are multiple and include: coastal developments, which ‘reclaim’ soft, food-filled mudflats using seawalls and convert them into solid land; a reduction in sediment deposits from rivers that have been extensively dammed; and escalating sea-level rise.

The bill of this knee-height bird can be up to 20 cm in females, and is used to probe soft mud for food like crabs and marine worms. Image: Dean Ingwersen

Other impacts on the species include reduced food supply on remaining mudflats, loss of and changes to breeding habitat, hunting, accidental catch in fishing nets, and pollution.

Within Australia, recreational beach goers and dogs are also having a major impact on curlews, disturbing them on ‘roosting’ habitat – important areas where they rest during high tide periods when mudflat feeding grounds are covered with seawater. This shy bird will generally flee from people and dogs when they are more than a hundred metres away and does not readily resettle when disturbed. Coastal developments are also impacting roosting habitat.

Research for strategic planning

A new Darwin-based TSR project is addressing key knowledge gaps facing far eastern curlew conservation. In particular, how the birds use different feeding and roosting habitats and which areas are most critical to conserve, particularly in the face of increasing coastal development.

Shorebirds will use some artificial habitats, including some wharves, commercial salt works and aquaculture ponds. This project is working with the Darwin Port, where significant numbers of far eastern curlew use the East Arm Wharf as a roosting area.

Filling knowledge gaps about feeding and roosting requirements will enable the project to develop conservation guidelines for developers, planners and regulators. Our hope is that improved management of ‘accidental’ habitats like East Arm Wharf, alongside conservation of intertidal mudflat habitat, could help the far eastern curlew and other migratory shorebirds recover.

This project also complements a NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub project, which takes a whole-of-north approach to conserving migratory species groups reliant on the marine environment.

An international focus

The new TSR Hub project commenced just as key stakeholders from EAAF countries met in Singapore at the 9th EAAF Partnership ‘Meeting of Partners’. This biennial meeting is the decision-making forum of the Partnership, which commenced in 2006 and is a voluntary, non-legally-binding agreement allowing countries, local governments, NGOs, IGOs, and corporations from throughout the flyway to work together on shorebird conservation initiatives.

The 9th Meeting of Partners of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership met in Singapore in January 2017. Image: Eugene Cheah

In response to the dire situation facing the far eastern curlew, a special task force was established at the 2015 Meeting of Partners and at the 2017 meeting, a Single Species Action Plan was endorsed and launched, to guide priority conservation and research actions to help the species recover throughout the flyway.

Given the current status of far eastern curlew and its recent dramatic declines, the survival of all individuals remaining in the population is crucial. Australia’s role is to design and implement effective conservation measures at home to protect non-breeding habitat from disturbance and loss of roosting habitat, and to work cooperatively with other flyway countries.

Get the full version of this article in Science for Saving Species Magazine.

New research to help preserve the benefits people receive from nature

Humans rely on things that come from nature – including clean air, water, food, and timber.  But how can we tell if these natural services that people rely on, are at risk of being lost, potentially permanently?

That is the focus of a new paper by an international team, led by Dr Martine Maron from The University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“There are many things that happen in nature that provide benefits to people, and we call these ecosystem services,” Dr Maron said.

European honeybee and Australian native stingless bee. Credit: Dr Tobias Smith, UQ

“As well as natural goods, like seafood, crops, and timber, they can also include other things like the well-being benefits of spending time in a park or at the beach, protection from flooding and even regulation of the climate.

“Many of these things are essential to people, but until now, there hasn’t been a consistent way to look at whether different ecosystem services are under threat from growing human demand or unsustainable levels of use.

“We have developed a framework to identify services that at risk of being undersupplied or even of being lost entirely.  This allows time to either move towards more sustainable use, or to start planning for alternatives when we lose the ecosystem service.

“At its core, the framework is a method to analyse supply and demand, and the different things that affect them, like the condition of natural systems and whether demand by people is expected to change over time.

“For example, a fishery might have been able to supply demand until now, but as the local population grows, the whole ecosystem service can become under threat when demand exceeds supply.”

Dr Matthew Mitchell, a study co-author based at the University of British Columbia, said: “An example we often see in our cities is the loss of vegetation and its ability to intercept rainwater and reduce flooding.

Lac Hertel, Mont Saint Hilaire, Quebec. Credit: Matthew Mitchell, University of British Columbia

“People continue to develop flood-prone areas while also clearing vegetation and building on upstream slopes, so floods are becoming more common and damaging.”

Dr Maron said the new framework could provide a basis for global, national and regional assessments of threat to ecosystem services, and accompany existing assessments of threat to species and ecosystems.

“As the need to prioritise investment in safeguarding ecosystem services becomes more urgent, a framework for assessing when and where ecosystem services are imperilled is timely,” she said.

The study, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, is supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery project grant.

It involves researchers from UQ; University of British Columbia, Canada; University College, London; University of New South Wales; NSW Office of Environment and Heritage; and the Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S.A.