Legal and scientific bases for an Interim Conservation Order

Legal and scientific bases for an Interim Conservation Order under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 to protect Leadbeater’s Possum – Summary

Acting on behalf of Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc., on 24th April Environmental Justice Australia submitted a letter and supporting documents to the Victorian Environment Minister, the Hon. Lily D’Ambrosio requesting an Interim Conservation Order (ICO) to protect Critical Habitat of the Leadbeater’s Possum.

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Following is a summary of those documents.

Introduction

  1. The listing in 2015 of Leadbeater’s Possum as Critically Endangered under the EPBC Act 1999 is legal and scientific confirmation that the Possum faces a very high risk of extinction within the next 20 to 30 years if more is not done to ensure its survival.
  2. The Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 provides the Environment Minister with the powers necessary to issue an Interim Conservation Order to provide urgent immediate protection to the possum pending the development of adequate long term protection.
  3. In our request to the Minister we outlined why an Interim Conservation Order is necessary, how the legal criteria for making an order for Leadbeater’s Possum are satisfied and supported by the most recent scientific evidence and provided a detailed explanation of the opportunity for making an ICO.

Why urgent action is necessary: the inadequacy of current conservation efforts

The TSSC Conservation Advice (2015) states that habitat loss due to timber harvesting operations in Victoria is a key threat to the continued survival of the species and:

..the most effective way to prevent further decline and rebuild the population of Leadbeater’s possum is to cease timber harvesting within montane ash forests of the Central Highlands.

The EPBC Act offers no direct protection to the species where timber harvesting operations are carried out in accordance with the RFA. The third 5-yearly review of the Central Highlands RFA is now some 4 years late.

The 1997 Recovery Plan for the species is outdated. An updated National Recovery is yet to be finalised.

The Victorian Action Statement does not meet the recommendations in the Conservation Advice and has not been updated since the species’ up-listing. In the interim Leadbeater’s Possum requires additional, immediate protection in the form of an ICO.

The March 2017 VEAC Report, found that many areas currently allocated for logging contain very high conservation values; concurred with findings that “[h]abitat loss and fragmentation, through bushfires and timber harvesting, is the main threat to the persistence of the [Leadbeater’s Possum]”; and developed a map showing areas that are of the highest habitat value to the species.

We submitted that the ICO should remain in force until the review of the RFA is completed; timber harvest volumes are reviewed; the updated Commonwealth Recovery Plan and Victorian Action Statement are finalised; amendments are made to the Victorian forests regulatory framework to include protective measures contained in the new Recovery Plan and Action Statement; and the findings of the 2017 VEAC Report are subject of a long-term policy solution, including consideration of an expanded ecological reserve such as the Great Forest National Park proposal.

The previous Victorian Coalition Government removed the requirement that Timber Release Plans be approved by DELWP – they are now prepared solely by VicForests. An ICO would ameliorate this serious lack of oversight.

Interim Conservation Orders – the mechanism for urgent legal protection under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988

The FFG Act grants the Minister power to make an ICO to provide urgent interim protection for the habitat critical to the survival of a listed threatened species while long term arrangements to secure the species’ survival can be developed. An ICO provides an effective last line of protection for threatened species where existing legal protections are inadequate.

Identifying Critical Habitat for Leadbeater’s Possum

Occupancy modelling (ARI 2013) following the 2009 fires predicts current strongholds mainly in the south of the Central Highlands, including the Baw Baw Plateau and its southern slopes, the Toorongo Plateau south of the Upper Yarra Catchment and state forest in the vicinity of Powelltown, parts of Toolangi State Forest and southern parts of the Upper Yarra National Park.

The proposed area of critical habitat in the request for an ICO has been identified by collating: the prescriptions proposed by Professor David Lindenmayer, et al., the results of a 2016 study conducted by Dr Charles Todd, et al. ‘Assessing reserve effectiveness’; the results of a 2017 study conducted by Professor Lindenmayer and Melbourne University scientists, ‘Improving the Design of a Conservation Reserve for a Critically Endangered Species’; and the results in the 2017 VEAC Report, specifically the habitat distribution model for Leadbeater’s Possum.

The maps submitted were –

Example of Habitat Distribution Model: Leadbeater’s Possum (VEAC, February 2017, Fig. 2.1, p. 13), and

Log species weighting scheme modeling the expansion of the reserve system for Leadbeater’s Possum (Taylor et al., Improving the Design of a Conservation Reserve for a Critically Endangered Species, PLOS ONE, January 2017, Fig 3. (c), p. 8)

Conclusion – the current protection measures are failing and urgent action is required now to protect Leadbeater’s Possum

The current reserve area and regulatory response to the risk that Leadbeater’s Possum will become extinct are inadequate, out of date and failing.

The recent incident at a logging coupe (Blue Vein, coupe no 348-506-0003) adjacent to the Ada Tree, in which about one third of the area that should have been protected within the 200m buffer on the newly sighted colony was destroyed, demonstrates that current controls are failing to safeguard the species and its critical habitat.

Incidents like that at Blue Vein are unacceptable for a Critically Endangered species like Leadbeater’s Possum. The Minister has the powers available to protect critical habitat under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and, based on the scientific evidence outlined above, the Minister should issue this Interim Conservation Order.