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?

Deadly isolation: Tree-clearing may doom flying mammals

Isolation is a silent killer.  That's the conclusion of a study that assessed the effects of woodland clearing on squirrel gliders--the Australian equivalent of the flying squirrel.

Save a few trees for me...

Save a few trees for me...

Writing in the journal PLoS One, Ross Goldingay and colleagues found evidence of intense inbreeding in squirrel gliders in forest patches in Queensland that had been isolated by roads and other clearings around 30 years ago.

Although the squirrel gliders persisted in some forest patches, their genetic signatures indicated they were completely inbred.  Inbred animals often suffer a loss of vigor, health and breeding success, rendering their populations much more prone to local extinction.

Movements of squirrel gliders are evidently impeded once clearings exceed 50 meters in width, the study suggests. 

The findings underscore the importance of maintaining habitat connectivity for wildlife.  A failure to heed such lessons will doom many species to eventual extinction, the study concludes.