01 October, 2013

Endangered animals languish in Victorian government limbo

Graham Readfearn
ABC Environment, 1 Oct 2013

The Victorian Government is being taken to court by a tiny environment group on behalf of four endangered species. The aim is simply to make the government obey its own laws.

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN ABOUT three weeks ago when Tony Brindley last heard that distinctive crackly cockatoo call — a cue to shoot his gaze skywards.

"You've got to be alert and know the call they make," says the 72-year-old, before mimicking the throaty staccato screech of the glossy black cockatoo. "When he flies his tail fans out. As he moves through the trees you see this flash of red."

For more than 40 years Brindley has been visiting the Wallagaraugh area of East Gippsland, but as time has moved on the birds' numbers have dropped. In 1995, it was listed threatened in Victoria.

Now, he'll only spot the "glossy blacks" three or four times a year — sometimes gliding between the trees and sometimes quietly perched, pecking at a seed pod of their favoured black she-oak trees.

But since May, this characteristically shy bird has been perched beside three other threatened species in a legal case brought against the Victorian State Government by small volunteer-run conservation group Environment East Gippsland (EEG).

Lined up with the glossy black are the eastern she-oak skink, listed as threatened in 2000, long-nosed potoroo, listed in 2002 and the large brown tree frog listed the following year.

"It was an act of desperation," says Jill Redwood, coordinator at EEG. "These species have been evolving for millions of years but are being snuffed out because of reckless government. We had to do something because nobody else was."

When species are listed as threatened under the state's Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, the legislation calls for "action statements" to be drawn up "as soon as possible" to help protect them.

The case aimed to force the government to follow its own rules and draw up action statements.

In 2009, a Victorian Auditor-General's report found that of the 653 species then listed as threatened, "less than one-half have had an action statement prepared, and only a handful of these action statements have been reviewed and updated."

A follow-up report in 2012 by lawyers at Environmental Defenders Office Victoria (EDO) found there had been little improvement in the intervening years.

Felicity Millner, principal solicitor at EDO Victoria which is administering the case for EEG, says: "We chose these four species in particular because of their importance for East Gippsland — a lot of the remaining habitat for them is in East Gippsland — and they're all affected by native logging.

"Action statements are supposed to set a plan to ensure a species is conserved. It looks at their status and what needs to be done in the future.

"It's as a result of the government failing to comply with its own laws that this case came about."

ABC Environment understands both the government and EDO Victoria have been working towards a possible settlement, avoiding a scheduled Supreme Court hearing in late October.

Rena Gaborov, 39, is a conservation manager from East Gippsland who has studied the small marsupial the long-nosed potoroo — a distant relative of the kangaroo. She admits to being a fan.

"They are so fast and cryptic. Their main defence is to hide in dense understory vegetation. You could live around these animals and never see them," she says.

"An amazing thing about potoroos is that they specialise in eating truffles. They're somewhere between 30 and 60 per cent of their diet."

She says the trees have an important symbiotic relationship with the underground fungi and the potoroos help to spread the fungi spores. She says burning, logging and development has fragmented and damaged the potoroo habitats.

"They just slowly disappear and there are all these local extinctions of populations going on and we don't know how that affects other more isolated groups. We need a lot more monitoring and research," she says.

The charming long-nosed potoroo mostly eats truffles. (Photo: Hans and Judy Beste)
The legal action is the third taken by EEG in recent years. In 2009, the group successfully took Victoria's state-owned forestry company VicForests to court over attempts to log in areas of habitat for threatened species. The court also awarded EEG more than $500,000 in legal costs.

In 2012 EEG again launched legal proceedings against VicForests over plans to log in and around supposedly protected rainforest areas. VicForests denied that any areas were ever under threat. The case was settled out of court.

"The government just seems to be shameless in the lack of respect for their own laws. Going to court is the only thing we can do," says Redwood. "It shouldn't be left up to the public to force the government to abide by it's own laws. It's just an absurd situation.

"I suppose the Government needs to change — but then this has been going on for decades. Unless we take up arms we will have to keep relying on groups like ours and the rest of the community to hold the government to account."

A statement from the Department of Environment and Primary Industries confirmed there were 689 species, communities or processes (such as pollution of waterways or removal of species) that did require action statements. Of these, the department said 60 per cent had either been "drafted, published or were due for review".

The statement said: "DEPI is working hard to increase the number of action statements and is working closely with scientists, species recovery teams, government agencies and community organisations. High priority statements have been identified."

The statement added the department was "committed to producing priority action statements" for the four species in the legal case and these would be released progressively between 31 December 2013 and 30 June 2014.

"Most importantly, DEPI is also focussed on taking action and putting in place practical, local solutions to protect these valuable species by supporting the recovery of threatened species and investing in research for effective management solutions."

The statement also said a program to control foxes had "led to an increase in sightings of the long-nosed potoroo in far East Gippsland, and progressive efforts have been made to protect the stands of the glossy black cockatoo habitat."

VicForests operating procedures for East Gippsland, the statement added, also meant trees could not be harvested within 100 metres of "any identified nesting tree" of the glossy black-cockatoo.

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