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Senate Estimates: Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 27 Feb 2018

Monday, 26 February 2018

Wombats

CHAIR: We now move to program 1.4, Conservation of Australia's heritage and the environment. As noted, we'll start with wombats.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that in 2016 the southern hairy-nosed wombat's IUCN listing was changed from 'least concern' to 'near-threatened'. I understand that it is legal to kill wombats by bulldozing their burrows. Considering the IUCN listing, are you monitoring the status of wombats, particularly in the South Australian area?

Mr Richardson: I might have missed the start of your question, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that the current IUCN listing for southern hairy-nosed wombats was changed in 2016 from 'least concern' to 'near-threatened'. That has partly prompted me to ask the question, because it would seem the IUCN sees a potential problem here. In South Australia I understand it is legal for their warrens or their burrows to be bulldozed as a method of controlling and killing the animals. I am interested in what work you're doing in this area and how you see the current status of the animal.

Mr Richardson: The current status of the animal hasn't been reassessed under the EPBC Act.

Senator RHIANNON: Since when?

Mr Richardson: I'm not aware that it has ever been, but I can correct that on notice if I need to. There are two species: a Bass Strait islands subspecies of the common wombat is listed as vulnerable, and the northern hairy-nosed wombat, where there's quite a focus, has been listed as critically endangered for some time. I'm not aware that any assessment of the southern hairy-nosed wombat has been conducted. I don't believe it's under assessment. I'm not aware of any activity by the federal government to monitor that species because its IUCN listing has been upgraded to 'near-threatened'.

Senator RHIANNON: Were you aware that its IUCN listing had been upgraded?

Mr Richardson: I may have been made aware of it at the time it happened, but if so I can't recall. It doesn't surprise me. The IUCN changes their listing statuses of literally hundreds of species every few years.

Senator RHIANNON: If the listing of an Australian species were changed, wouldn't some system within the department alert you as part of your job, so that the work within our own country with regard to that species could be adjusted accordingly?

Mr Richardson: Perhaps I should say at the outset that the role of my branch within the department is to call for public nominations for species to be assessed, to prioritise those nominations against a set of criteria, to assist the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to undertake those assessments and then to advise the minister on changes to the list of threatened species. You would be aware that more than 1,800 species are listed. Some hundred or so are currently under assessment for listing as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. 'Near-threatened' is not a category of threat under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, so we tend to focus our efforts on the species coming through the system that are listed as 'potentially threatened'.

Senator RHIANNON: What's the difference between 'potentially threatened' and 'near-threatened'?

Mr Richardson: When I say 'potentially threatened', I mean things that have been nominated for listing as endangered or critically endangered. Until the assessment is completed, they're not threatened species. Once the assessment is completed then TSSC, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, provides that recommendation to the minister, and the minister makes the decision to add those species to the list of threatened species. They're then 'threatened' rather than 'potentially threatened'. My understanding is that the IUCN criteria include a couple of listing categories we don't have under the EPBC Act. One of those is 'near-threatened', for species which the evidence shows are in decline or have declined over a period of time but which are not yet seen to be eligible under the IUCN criteria for the lowest threat listing of 'vulnerable'.

Senator RHIANNON: How does the IUCN listing intersect with your work? In that answer you've acknowledged that 'near-threatened', although not a category, alerts us to a shift in the status of this animal and would seem to have significance. How does an IUCN listing intersect with the work you're undertaking?

Mr Richardson: The EPBC Act, and increasingly the lists of threatened species the states and territories put together, essentially adopts the threat categories of the IUCN: vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered, as I mentioned, and also 'extinct in the wild' and extinct. The legislation doesn't replicate the 'near-threatened' category and doesn't include a 'data deficient' category, which the IUCN uses in some cases.

Senator RHIANNON: It doesn't trigger anything with regard to your work?

Mr Richardson: It can. The IUCN Red List includes species listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. That can trigger public nominations or assessments under the EPBC Act for listing those species in those categories, but it's not a routine, automatic thing.

Senator RHIANNON: Coming back to the southern hairy-nosed wombat: is there any research work, any monitoring—anything that's been done—with regard to this species?

Mr Richardson: Not that I'm aware of. I'd have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, if you could take it on notice. I saw a quote from Professor Lesley Hughes of the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University, who was asked to comment on the extinction crisis that's been with this country for a long time, considering that, of all the nations in the world—as I understand, and I read this often—we have the highest rate of extinction of land based mammal species. We were obviously referring to marsupials there. Professor Hughes said recently, 'I think the whole system is completely broken.' She was referring to our management of our native mammal species. When comments like that are made by leading experts in the field, are they something you consider in terms of the research that's going on and the implications for government work? To my mind—and it's been a long, long time since I've worked in this area—it seems to be an enormous comment that would, hopefully, trigger governments to think: 'What's going on? Do we need to reassess how we're managing our environment work?'

Mr Richardson: Obviously, governments work on threatened species and potentially threatened species— species that haven't yet been listed—and on their recovery through a variety of different programs and parts of the department. I won't answer for other parts of the department, but my responsibility is around ensuring that the list of threatened species is as up-to-date, current and comprehensive as possible. That's the role that I fulfil. I certainly work closely with other parts of the agency that conduct research and invest in research, and there are priorities set around that research under conservation advices and recovery plans that my area prepares. Similarly, the material that's prepared at the time of listing of a species feeds into investment programs—investing in recovery, habitat restoration, threat mitigation et cetera. There's an overall, if you like, approach. I'd just add one last point, which is that that's the federal government. There is a lot of effort, time and resources devoted by state governments, local governments and community groups, and that's all part of the response, if you like, to threatened species.

Senator RHIANNON: I was really not trying to put you on the spot, Mr Richardson, but it was a specific question about this comment from a leading expert. Is there anybody else within the department who can actually say, when you have experts making such enormous statements—

Mr Pratt: Apologies, Senator. If I understand your question it is: if we become aware of an assessment by an expert in some field, do we actually take it into account, and does it inform our thinking? Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Were you aware of what Professor Hughes, a leading expert in the status of Australian unique wildlife, said? Were you aware and have you taken it into account? If you did, what's happening?

Ms Jonasson: As the secretary and Mr Richardson have said: yes, we were aware of the comments that were made, and, yes, we are often approached by leading experts right across a range of areas that we deal with, and we always take into account, or at least consider, the information that is provided by those experts. As Mr Richardson has identified, we also have our Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which we go to for a range of advice around threatened species. When they do their consideration for threatened species and listings under the EPBC Act, and advice to the minister, they also consider expert advice from a range of scientists across various fields.

Senator RHIANNON: Thanks for the response. Could you take on notice—because you've said you were aware of Professor Hughes's comments—what response you've made or any work that those comments have initiated. Could you take that on notice please.

Ms Jonasson: We have not initiated any work directly in response to Mr Hughes's comments. I think what I said is: we are aware of his comments—

Senator RHIANNON: Okay.

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