Extinction warning as 420,000 hectares of habitat destroyed: 'Truly shocking'

More than 420,000 hectares of Queensland habitat sheltering species facing extinction was destroyed in 12 months, according to a new report released on Tuesday.

Losing 75,547 hectares of habitat, endangered koalas were one of the worst affected. In total, 226 plant and animal species and 11 threatened ecological communities were impacted, despite being federally protected.

Images documenting the clearing reveal once healthy forests dismantled, to make way for cattle grazing, much of it in the Brigalow Belt of central and southern Queensland.

Koala habitat was destroyed in Springfield, Queensland, a report by ACF found. Source: Dr Martin Taylor
Koala habitat was destroyed in Springfield, Queensland, a report by ACF found. Source: Dr Martin Taylor

The federal department of environment (DCCEEW) responded to the analysis in the report in a statement. It said land clearing is “largely controlled and monitored under state and territory legislation”. However, the report’s author Dr Martin Taylor said by focussing on the state government, it was attempting a “deliberate deflection”.

He argues the federal government must hold those responsible for the clearing to account and federal species protections are not being enforced.

Why endangered species habitat continues to be bulldozed

Responsibility for the preservation of endangered species habitat is complex. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act was designed to protect threatened species, but in reality the Commonwealth only assesses actions when they could impact areas of national environmental significance.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), which commissioned Dr Taylor’s Double Standard report, believes DCCEEW is falling short of doing that.

In total, 421,246 hectares of mature or advanced regrowth forest was cleared during 2018/2019, with cattle graziers responsible for 96 per cent of the destruction, according to ACF.

The Commonwealth argues land clearing is largely under the jurisdiction of the states. Source: Dr Martin Taylor
The Commonwealth argues land clearing is largely under the jurisdiction of the states. Source: Dr Martin Taylor

It believes around half of this, or 253,164 hectares of land across 5544 properties should have been referred to the Commonwealth. That’s because the clearing likely exceeded significance thresholds. Therefore it argues DCCEEW should have investigated thousands of breaches.

Commonwealth responds to land clearing criticisms

DCCEEW did not respond directly to questions from Yahoo News Australia about how much threatened species habitat it had identified as being destroyed in Queensland, or whether these potential breaches had led to prosecutions, and instead issued a statement.

“The department monitors compliance with, and detects potential contraventions, of the EPBC Act by analysing information from sources such as the general public, industry, non-government organisations, other government agencies and our compliance monitoring activity,” a spokesperson said.

“We have clearly communicated to our colleagues in state agencies the need to consider national and state environment law in parallel when planning agricultural development.”

Two colour images of Tasmaninan tigers.
Australia has the worst mammalian extinction record in the world. Source: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA)

ACF’s national nature campaigner Jess Abrahams said there was a “double standard” when it comes to enforcement of Australia’s national environment laws, allowing habitat “to be bulldozed without penalty or consequence”

“While mining companies and property developers sought and received approval to clear 25,000 hectares of habitat in the last decade, this research shows in a single year pastoralists destroyed three times that amount in Queensland alone without even seeking approval,” he said.

His concerns were echoed by Dr Taylor when he spoke with Yahoo News Australia. "They’re derelict of their duty on a vast, horrendous scale. It’s hundreds of thousands of hectares and it’s truly shocking," he said.

Warning extinctions will continue if land clearing not reduced

Dr Taylor reported on land clearing in general during 2018/2019 last year, but has chosen in his latest analysis to focus specifically on endangered species habitat.

"In this report, we're not talking about land clearing, because whenever you say land clearing the federal bureaucrats will clam up and say: That's not our business, that's the state's business," he said. "So we're talking about the destruction of habitat where their maps indicate threatened species likely live."

Despite habitat loss being identified as one of the biggest drivers in species extinction, state logging agencies and agriculturalists remain largely exempt from complying with federal environmental protections. Australia has the worst mammalian extinction rate in the world.

It’s not just Queensland where state laws are failing to protect endangered species. In Victoria, local conservation groups have successfully taken the state-owned logging operator VicForests to court on several occasions to limit their destruction of endangered greater glider habitat.

Conservationists argue that without widespread reform of land clearing laws, environment minister Tanya Plibersek will not achieve her promise to stop any new species extinctions.

“If we are to achieve zero extinctions, we must bring an end to the wanton destruction of threatened species habitat," Mr Abrahams warned.

The 2021 State of Environment report found remnant vegetation was reduced in Australia by 1.36 million hectares between 2012 and 2020.

The EPBC Act was described as “ineffective”, “weak” and “tokenistic” by independent reviewer Dr Graeme Samuel in 2020, but it is yet to be reformed. The Albanese government has promised a full response to his recommendations by the end of the year.

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