Bushland destruction escalates in Queensland, Australia

Martin Taylor is a conservation scientist with WWF-Australia who has published ground-breaking analyses of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, threats to whale habitats, and the effectiveness of conservation actions in Australia.  Here he tells us about an alarming rebound in destruction of native forests and woodlands in Queensland.

Many ecologists may be surprised to learn that Australia is among the global list of top deforestation offenders

In the vast state of Queensland, nearly 500,000 hectares of native woodland was being cleared each year before a 2006 ban on broad-scale clearing.  In relative terms, this was on par with the worst levels of Amazon deforestation.

Forests falling fast in Queensland  (photo by Kerry Trapnell)

Forests falling fast in Queensland (photo by Kerry Trapnell)

Queensland’s 2006 ban is considered to be the primary means by which Australia was able to meet it’s emissions target under the Kyoto Protocol.  Land clearing rates fell dramatically after the ban.

Rates of Queensland bushland clearing fell after 2006 but are now on the rebound  (adapted from WWF’s  Bushland Destruction  report).

Rates of Queensland bushland clearing fell after 2006 but are now on the rebound (adapted from WWF’s Bushland Destruction report).

But the respite from rampant clearing changed when a conservative, pro-development government took power in Queensland in early 2012 -- although that new government had promised to retain the existing vegetation protections.

In 2013, they broke that promise.  Among other things, they:

- Reversed the 2006 ban on broad-scale clearing of primary forests, for a new class of “high-value agriculture” -- which turned out to be anything but high value.  They allowed massive clearing of primary forest in Cape York, which was only recently suspended when it was pointed out that nationally endangered species were being harmed.

- Removed protection from 700,000 hectares of high-conservation-value secondary forests.

- Allowed massive broad-scale clearing under unscientific, self-assessed codes that proceeded under the guise of forest “thinning”.

- Made it harder for the government to prosecute illegal clearing, by raising the burden of proof.

As a result of these attacks on land clearing laws in Queensland and elsewhere, eastern Australia earned a dubious place among 11 global deforestation fronts identified by WWF International.

And remarkably, despite the fact that a much more progressive government was elected in Queensland in February 2015, nothing has yet been done to restore land-clearing controls.

Sadly, this means that landholders are rapidly clearing as much land as they can out of fear that the laws will tighten again -- engaging in so-called “panic” clearing.

Lots of wildlife being harmed -- a Pied Monarch from Queensland.

Lots of wildlife being harmed -- a Pied Monarch from Queensland.

A recent WWF analysis and “map of shame” shows just how bad things have become, with Queensland land-clearing rates very much on the rebound.

Leading Queensland ecologists have expressed great alarm at the rebound and called for urgent restoration of the land-clearing laws. 

Will Queensland's new government do the right thing?  Or are we looking at a return to the 'bad old days' -- in which Queensland was among the most egregious forest and woodland destroyers on the planet?

Savanna birds show surprising vulnerability to climate change

Dr April Reside of James Cook University has just spent several years studying birds that live in Australia's tropical savannas, with an eye to assessing their potential vulnerability to climate change.  You don't have to be a bird-lover to find some of her conclusions alarming.

Cry for help... the Papuan Frogmouth is vulnerable to climate change.

Cry for help... the Papuan Frogmouth is vulnerable to climate change.

When it comes to species being vulnerable to climate change, many people think of polar bears -- or other species that are highly specialized to local conditions.

A lot of research has focused, for example, on mountain-top endemics -- species reliant on cool, misty mountains whose habitat could shrink and collapse with rising temperatures.

Fewer people are thinking about widespread, generalist, common species -- why would they be of concern?

Many birds in the Australian tropical savannas are widespread generalists.  This is probably because they are adapted to highly variable conditions, and need to continually travel about to find the next source of food –- usually flowering trees or pulses of insects after recent rains.

Vast expanses of northern Australia are dominated by tropical savannas.

Vast expanses of northern Australia are dominated by tropical savannas.

Such ephemeral food sources might become increasingly rare or thin on the ground if conditions get tougher with climate change.  So, these widespread generalist species might be more vulnerable to climate change than many have expected.

I investigated the vulnerability of 243 bird species found in Australian tropical savannas to climate change.  To do this I incorporating a range of different factors: their sensitivity to fire, their dietary breadth, their range size, and their abundance.

I also incorporated the amount of suitable climate space each species was likely to have by the year 2085, under a severe climate-change scenario.

The critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot is another big worry  (image from Karl Seddon, http://webgram.co/karlseddon).

The critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot is another big worry (image from Karl Seddon, http://webgram.co/karlseddon).

I found that many savanna species that are restricted to the Cape York Peninsula are particularly vulnerable to climate change.  Alarmingly, this includes endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot and the endangered Buff-breasted Buttonquail.

However, some species that occur across the northern savannas might actually benefit from climate change -- at least if rainfall changes as some projections indicate.

We will have to keep monitoring the species, particularly those that are already declining and likely to be severely impacted by climate change. 

A key strategy is to devise plans of how to intervene if necessary.  To do that, we might have to make tough choices in the future.  For instance, might some species have a better chance of persisting in zoos than in the wild?  Might major changes in burning, grazing, or land-clearing practices -- possibly putting us as odds with powerful agricultural interests -- become necessary?

My in-depth work on savanna birds shows me that we can't worry just about polar bears or specialized moutaintop species.  We also need to fret about lots of other wildlife in which climate change could make their battered and dwindling populations even more vulnerable to severe stresses in the future.