As Australia’s iconic native animals face increasing threats from feral pests and climate change, federal environment minister Sussan Ley says the risk of some species completely disappearing is real.
Ms Ley told Yahoo News Australia seeing key Australian animals becoming extinct under her watch would be “personally distressing”, as she listed what she believes are the biggest factors threatening our species.
“All I can say is I really hope not,” Ms Ley said about the prospect of species becoming extinct.
“I’m not shying away from the challenges with our species becoming more endangered, more critically endangered, and even in some situations extinct.”
Noting the devastation she’s seen working on the land herself, the minister sees feral animals, like the cat, as being the biggest problem for native animals.
“I’m overwhelmingly confronted by invasive pests and the damage they do,” she said.
“I don’t want to pick on cats, but cats, foxes, deer, buffalo, donkeys, camels, some of these – we love them – but they’re not in the right numbers in the right places.
“You can talk to farmers, you can talk to conservationists, they’ll very much agree that invasive species are an enormous challenge and probably the biggest challenge to our threatened species.”
Ms Ley said she is open to hearing the science behind more radical ideas like a proposal to bring Tasmanian devils onto the mainland to rival introduced predators like feral cats.
“It sounds like something where we should be informed by the science,” she said.
“I mean these things can happen.”
The ‘challenge’ of climate change
While feral animals are clearly in the minister’s firing line, there is another key item she would like to include on her list of priorities.
“I would also add climate change,” she said.
“Having really strong science around species, particularly their adaptability to climate change is really important.
“We know, because the scientists tell us, that the rate of adaptation of species to current climate change is a challenge.
“The National Environmental Science Program, that the Department of Environment funds, focuses very much on how we can support threatened species, so obviously they don’t go onto a list of extinction.”
Logging old growth forests
Ms Ley indicated that deforestation in Australia wasn’t as high on her list of concerns, adding she believes there are “really strict requirements” around land clearing.
“If there weren’t, then I would put it on that list, but there are,” she said.
“No one likes to see old growth forests logged.
“I think when you drill down to the facts, forestry is not about that - it’s about harvesting regrowth and maintaining the level of old growth forests that everyone would like to see.
She added that the clearing of forests where the critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum lives was managed by Victoria, while she was focussed on the species’ recovery plan.
“So Victoria, effectively the ball is in their court at the moment,” she said.
Not singling out koalas, ‘all species matter’
The minister is preparing to make tough decisions ahead of the latest priority assessment listing for the Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
Going into the talks she doesn’t want to single out a “particular favourite” like the koala which is under threat across much of Australia, adding that the entire ecosystem - from insects to those at the top - “all count just as much”.
“I’m not seeking information on what’s about to go extinct, I’m working from the ground up to make sure we do as much as possible for those species that are listed,” she said.
“We’re not going to sit back and say we’re facing overwhelming challenges and there’s nothing we can do because there’s actually a lot we can do and I’m very committed to doing those things,” she added.
‘Conservation is everybody’s business’
Ms Ley said she believes some of the most critical environmental work is done by community based groups, who clean up beaches and take surveys of native animals.
“The practical work that I see communities doing when it comes to conservation is extraordinarily valuable,” she said.
“Conservation is everybody’s business, it’s not about government setting policy and parameters and everyone else deciding whether they like them or they don’t like them, it’s something everyone should be involved in.
“I thank conservation volunteers and groups that care passionately about the world around them, the natural world, doing all sorts of local things to protect habitat, and to understand more about those species and work hard to preserve them.”
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