In Danger: How threatened species are decided

In Danger: How plants and animals are declared threatened species

Australia is a deteriorating commonwealth of natural riches, as described in the latest State of the Environment report release.

Right now, the Australian government is preparing a formal response to an independent review into the nation’s peak environmental legislation, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

It’s the primary care document for Australia’s natural places and the non-human organisms that live within it.

Built into these laws are provisions to protect native animals, plants and ecosystems from going extinct.

But 86 years after the death of the Thylacine, commemorated annually on September 7 as ‘National Threatened Species Day’, Australia’s endemic life is still in decline, and according to the latest government report, pushing some species closer to extinction.

One of the best-known instruments used by governments to firm-up both awareness and action of species on the decline is a threatened species list.

But how does a plant or animal get listed? And what benefits do these registers afford life in the real world?

To begin, we need to understand what a species actually is…

Depending on which ecologist, biologist, conservationist or taxonomist you ask, the definition of what makes a species, could be many and varied.

The EPBC Act says it’s “a group of biological entities that interbreed to produce fertile offspring, or, possess common characteristics derived from a common gene pool.”

Warm, but we can get warmer.

Professor Conrad Hoskin from James Cook University – a specialist in the study of lizards and frogs – explains that while much attention of the ‘speciation process’ focusses on the final product (the fertile offspring), it’s also important to consider what goes into making it.

“The most common definition among experts nowadays is that two things are species if there’s complete or near complete reproductive isolation,” Hoskin says.

Reproductive isolation describes the variables that, in real-world situations, would prevent successful mating. 

Obviously, incompatible reproductive organs and gametes (sperm and egg) are a major barrier: your bits need to marry up.

But there are other factors at play.

Two species of frog living on opposite mountain tops might be capable of interbreeding, but they’re unlikely to hop down one hillside and back up the other one to do so: range plays its part.

Two different tree species planted next to each other, but which flower months apart, aren’t likely to cross-pollinate: here, time is a factor.

Consideration of time and space limit ‘hybridisation’ taking place within the real world which, Hoskin says, is the critical point. 

“A lot of birds of paradise, which we know are obviously different species, will hybridise if you just put a male and a female in captivity and don’t give them a choice, lots of frogs will do the same,” Hoskin says.

“Even when they co-occur [in the wild], they might have an amazing trait like flamboyant plumage or frog song, that keeps them apart.

“So that’s why that biological definition is often based around showing complete or near complete reproductive isolation. It assumes a degree of reproductive isolation from other organisms in a genus, the taxonomic level above species.”

200910 tim jarvis human animal conflict thylacine public domain
Thylacine at Beaumaris Zoo in 1936. Public domain

Australia has one of the worst records when it comes to endangered species and extinctions

Australians love their team being on top.

Unfortunately, team Australia is a world-leader when it comes to species extinctions and endangerments. It has the eighth-highest number of total threatened species – animal, plants and fungi – in the world. 

It is third for threatened animals, behind Indonesia and the United States, and fourth globally for total extinctions. 

For thousands of years, Australia’s unique animals lived without major predation, but the post-colonial introduction of killer cats and foxes has changed that. Human-animal conflict has also increased since the rise of large cities, agricultural land use and resource extraction.

And although animals often get the lion’s share of public attention, Australia’s oft-forgotten and increasingly vulnerable plants are also on the way down: there are three times as many plants than animals on Australia’s threatened species registers, and they face many similar threats.

A pink and purple orchid which is a threatened species in australia
Orchids like Caladenia actensis account for 16% of Australia’s threatened flora / Credit Australian Network for Plant Conservation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dr Tien Huynh, a plant scientist from RMIT, says the first step to improving Australia’s poor conservation record comes back to public awareness, at least in the first instance.

“I really believe in communication,” Huynh says.

“If you show a person an orchid, they say ‘Oh, that’s pretty,’ but if you tell a person it’s endangered, it changes their mindset.

“It also encourages them to go and see [the species] in their native habitat … to get the public involved in protecting their own local habitats.”

But how does a member of the public know what’s threatened in their area, or what plants in their community need protection?

Fortunately, there’s a list for that.

A triple threat: Three levels of lists for Australia’s plants and animals

There are more endangered species lists than you think.

Operating at international, national and sub-national scales, these catalogues exist for the common purpose of monitoring the outlook for thousands of plant and animal populations.

At the top of the pile is the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) ‘Red List’. The IUCN is a non-governmental organisation that acts as a threatened species’ watchdog. Much of the methodology Australian jurisdictions use to evaluate threatened species are based on the IUCN model.

Australia’s threatened species are listed by the federal environment minister under the EPBC Act.  Their state and territory counterparts similarly legislate threatened species under their own local laws.

Although these lists share commonalities, evaluation methods – and gradings – aren’t always consistent.

Take the koala. It has three different threat assessment levels, across five separate lists.

The IUCN updated the koala’s status to ‘Vulnerable’ in 2014.

But this year, then-federal environment minister Sussan Ley updated the furry marsupial’s status to ‘endangered’ — which is a more urgent grading than vulnerable — but only for those populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT.

There are inconsistencies there too. While NSW and Queensland also consider koalas ‘endangered’ in their state laws, the ACT still regards them as ‘vulnerable.’

A black riflebird
Victoria’s riflebird (Lophorina victoriae) is an endemic Australian species that is considered vulnerable by the IUCN, but isn’t yet registered as threatened under Australian law / Credit: Terry Munyard CC-BY-NC

That, however, could be about to change, with the states and territories agreeing to a common assessment method that will bring efficiencies into the system.

“Basically if say a species is Queensland endemic, it’ll get assessed within Queensland and whatever their assessment is becomes the national listing,” Hoskin explains.

“But if it’s a species shared across borders, then it gets assessed at the federal level. I think it’s a good move to shift to a common assessment and one list… the objective is to have one process.”

How to get threatened status

In Australia, the process is straightforward – a process of submission, evaluation and recommendation – but with a number of steps. 

Each year, the federal environment minister invites nominations for species to be added the EPBC Act. These can be made by any member of the public during a 40-day period. In 2022, the nomination window closed on March 31.

After nominations have been scrutinised by the environment department for legislative compliance,  they are sent to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee – a panel of 12 experts which combines knowledge across plant and animal phyla with deep understanding of the federal law.

The TSSC reviews submissions and arranges them into a ‘proposed priority assessment list’, effectively their recommendation to the minister for what species they should investigate.

Once the minister reviews the list, it’s then finalised, handed back to the committee, published publicly and the assessment period gets underway.

This is where things get scientific.

“The listing process is really important because it is the way that we recognise which species are most threatened.”

Professor Conrad Hoskin

For a single species, the committee will consider a range of criteria spelt out in EPBC regulations, from whether a reduction in its population numbers has occurred, to the extent of the species’ range, and how many individuals currently exist.

This process can take up to two years for species, and longer for entire ecosystems or ‘ecological communities’.

During this time, the committee will consult the public and draw in expert scientific knowledge to evaluate the status of a species, eventually elevating recommendations in the form of ‘Conservation Advice’ to the minister to be approved and signed into law.

The successful listing of an animal becomes a subject of national environmental significance. This grants a certain level of protection to species requiring government approval for any action that has, will or is likely to impact a species.

This includes actions that will lead to long-term decrease in the size of a population, reduce the species’ range, fragment the species’ population, disrupt its breeding cycle or adversely affect the habitat critical to a species’ survival.

In 2022 alone, 16 species have either been added to Australia’s threatened species list or had their status updated via this process, including iconic animals like the koala, greater glider and some populations of black cockatoo.

The threats to species and what can be done about it

You’re on the list. That’s good news, right?

Largely, yes. In Australia, being listed, having a conservation plan and, potentially, a range of ensuing actions and strategies is a good thing for a species.

“The listing process is really important because it is the way that we recognise which species are most threatened,” explains Hoskin.

Being on a list does not stop the threats against a species, however, and Australia is an increasingly perilous place for plants and animals with declining populations.

The 2021 State of the Environment Report noted Australia’s biodiversity is declining and the number of threatened species is increasing, expecting an increase in extinctions over the coming decades unless management efforts and investment are “substantially increased”.

It cited the effects of climate change, habitat loss and degradation and invasive species are the primary challenges to preserving biodiversity.

Right now, threatened species listing at least provides a way for governments and non-governmental organisations to prioritise conservation efforts and funding.

“It does form the simplest way of prioritising when you do have resources,” Hoskin says.

“You can either prioritise based on working down the list from critically endangered … and just putting resources towards those that are highest on the list.

“Or you could actually map out, for example, where all the most threatened species are and prioritise funding towards regions rather than individual species… [places] that score consistently high for threatened species.”

Hoskin highlights the option of funding regional conservation, and this is something Professor Helene Marsh – a dugong specialist who chairs the Threatened Species Science Committee – hopes the environment minister will focus on, rather than strategy building.

“The difficulty about a recovery plan is it’s really onerous to change and in this time of rapid environmental change, we need nimbler instruments,” Marsh explains.

The extinct bramble cay melomys
The Bramble Cay melomys is one of Australia’s most recent extinctions, and the first to be attributed solely to climate change / Credit: State of Queensland.

“We’re very pleased the new minister is having an emphasis on regional planning, which we think is a potentially good way of handling threat abatement, because listed species in the same region [as others] are often subject to the same threats.”

Under the current system, there’s no guaranteed funding to a listed species nor, as is the case in other jurisdictions such as the US and Canada, is a line drawn around critical habitat to protect it.

Some protection is afforded by threatened species being automatically considered matters of national environmental significance: this means entities wanting to carry out an action – from researchers collecting seeds to mining companies seeking to dig – need to assess whether their activity will significantly impact a species. If it will, the action is referred to the environment minister for a decision.

But activities that exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions are still green-lit, prompting ex-climate commissioner Professor Tim Flannery writing in Nine papers this week to call for called for a greater focus on climate effects when considering projects under this provision.

Experts are hopeful of reforms to strengthen threatened species protections, particularly after a recent review by Graeme Samuel, which among some 38 recommendations called for a set of national environmental standards and an independent regulatory office with the federal environment department.

Labor committed to establish an Environmental Protection Agency and reform of the EPBC Act in the election platform it used to win government in May. A full response to the Samuel Review is expected by the end of this year.

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