The use of Senate inquiries for threatened species conservation
Shumway, N & Seabrook, L 2015, Ecological Management and Restoration, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 196-198.
A Senate inquiry was used to list the koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, as a threatened species, setting a precedent for using Senate inquiries to assess threatened species. The authors of the paper conclude that Senate inquiries have a political basis, do not rely on expert opinion to the appropriate extent, and do not force legislation as a result of their conclusions. Better species conservation should use a logical decision framework based on ecological knowledge.
Rather than using the IUCN red-list to inform species conservation, Australia uses the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) criteria to decide on species listings. The requirements are outdated, show a bias towards charismatic species and do not fit many species well. Species are listed as varying by location, so migratory and widely distributed species may have declining populations in certain areas, however, are not considered threatened while other regions are maintaining population levels. The koala was deemed ineligible for EPBC listing, but because of its charismatic nature and high awareness, a referral made to the Senate inquiry validated an assessment. Resulting from the inquiry’s recommendations, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) reassessed their classification and changed it to ‘threatened’ in areas of its range with rapid population declines. While the Senate inquiry was successful in changing the koala’s classification, it may not be the best method for generally assessing species conservation. As a Senate inquiry relies on a referral from a legislative body, it is likely only hears politically topical issues, meaning that due to lack of political interest, some species’ conservation needs may be ignored. In particular, iconic species such as the koala are likely to receive disproportional attention compared to less charismatic, but potentially more threatened species. Also, stakeholder accounts are the main source of information in Senate inquiries, rather than independent scientific research. With low scientific literacy levels among those making recommendations, the decisions made are likely not ecologically sound and impartial. Furthermore, the government has no obligation to legislate or act on any of the recommendations of a Senate inquiry. This could be problematic for species conservation, which may have time pressures, as evidenced by the Senate inquiry into the koala’s conservation status ending in 2011 but not being adequately responded to by the government until November of 2014, with only the commitment of creating national guidelines for koala population estimation added to current programs as a result.
Understanding and acknowledging the shortfalls of Senate inquiries for species conservation helps to inform choices about better methods, such as perhaps a more effective TSSC listing process, or improvements on Senate inquiries, for example, mechanisms to ensure incorporation of inquiry recommendations.
Summarised by Laura Wait
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