Image for Is the King Island Scrubtit Tasmania’s canary in the coal mine?

*Pic: Dave Curtis, Flickr: Scrubtit_15-11-01_Acanthornis magnus. One of a small party that appeared and then disappeared in a very short space of time. This small bird is endemic to Tasmania. The scrubtit is a species of bird in the thornbill family Acanthizidae. It is monotypic within the genus Acanthornis, and is endemic to Tasmania and King Island in Australia. Wikipedia Download a CSIRO Paper warning of an extinction: Webb_et_al_2015_Immediate_action_required_to_prevent_another_Australian_avian_extinction_the_King_Island_Scrubtit.pdf

You might not know or even care about the King Island Scrubtit. I didn’t know it even existed until I came across a news article a few months ago about it being perilously close to extinction. (See news article at end*).

But even if you don’t care, we nonetheless should all care about what has caused and contributed to its decline and take heed. Because if our systems of government land-use planning and environmental management could not prevent this critical situation from developing, then what other species are at risk and what’s the future of Tasmania’s biodiversity that coexists amongst the inevitably-growing peri-urban and rural settlements?

I don’t know exactly how this poor little bird has been effectively neglected to the point of near extinction – there are presently only about 50 individuals left and even those are split between three isolated remnants. But in temporal and physical terms, these things happen incrementally over time with a combination of habitat clearance and the edge effects of agricultural activities (including drainage most notably in the scrubtit’s case), along with pest invasions, isolation, droughts and wildfires that degrade and threaten the remaining habitat and population.

We have no control over stochastic events such as wildfires, drought, and now climate change. But we can control and turn around the threatening processes of incremental habitat clearance and fragmentation via best practice whole-of-landscape strategic land-use planning (via the planning scheme and guided by other strategic documents), as well as collaboration amongst those responsible coupled with assistance and information for the relevant landowners. Onground works such as revegetation to provide ‘stepping stones’ or corridors between isolated habitats is essential. Longer-term protection must be afforded by appropriate mapping and treatment within the local planning scheme. All of this is routine and ho-hum I know. We’ve all heard and read these same tired words a hundred times before and where has it got us with species and their habitats still in decline? Nevertheless, we must act decisively and intercede in the scrubtit’s case post-haste. As for the rest of biodiversity out there…

Governments and environment ministers come and go, yet nothing seems to change for the better.

Native species are still being driven to extinction, and we know full well that ongoing reduction of habitat, fragmentation and isolation are the creeping enemies of a viable population. Australia is amongst many governments world-wide that have signed up to international agreements for the maintenance of ecological processes and biodiversity. We also have federal and state environmental legislation to ‘protect’ species, their habitats and ecological processes. There are even entire government departments dedicated to threatened species and natural resources management. So why do we effectively undermine this by entrenching mechanisms within our systems that enable further threats to our biodiversity? Why is it when decisions are made - using the planning scheme and referral authorities, relevant environmental legislation and strategic documents - the most common outcome is at the cost of the environment even when significant species and habitat is involved?

The entire subject of biodiversity management and land-use planning is an extremely complex and wicked problem, no doubt. As such, it is very difficult to know where to start for any review or resolution to conflicting land-use purposes. But I can think of one particular primary policy for decision-making that has been embedded in legislation and strategic planning for many years: the Triple Bottom Line. Yes, the old ‘economic, social and environmental’ threesome test that is applied to decisions for development.

To the fair-minded person in the street, the consideration on-balance of these three components seems reasonable, and we trust that decision-makers will apply this test with diligence and rigour. However, ‘the proof is in the pudding’ as they say. Over the many, many years with this decision-support credo in place, the environmental component of the threesome is demonstrably last cab off the rank, if at all even there. It seems that the economic bedazzlement of dollars and jobs (and growth) triumphs more often than not and gazumps the ‘environmental’ the most often. I think it’s high time that we call this policy for what it is and does in practice. The Triple Bottom Line is a flawed, unjust and failed decision-making policy for government land-use planning for reasons such as:

• the three elements are practically impossible to be compared to each other ( evaluate/quantify aspects of nature for a $ value and determine an importance weighting for comparison between the three)
• due to extreme difficulties to evaluate the three fairly in equal terms (i.e. as apples with apples), large amounts of subjectivity are incorporated in the decision process
• the environment is voiceless and is not advocated at the same degree of influence and representation as advocates for the economic and social
• due to the inexact qualities of measurement for the environment, the process is also open to undue and undetectable influence and pre-existing agendas by those involved in the process, and subsequent decision results are therefore hard to call into question from outside scrutiny.

On this basis, it’s no wonder the environment is going down the gurgler.

This trend has to be brought to a halt. The ever-growing human population and need for housing, food and other resources increasingly dominates the landscape, causing a commensurate dwindling of things natural and unaltered. It is completely unrealistic and irrational to think that this can continue endlessly.

The scrubtit is undoubtedly not alone. Its parlous state is not something singular, inert and insignificant, but an indicator of a landscape-scale process of extinction in operation. This should not be open to negotiation or the whims of discretion in any planning decisions. Nor should we persist with policies and legislation which, although purporting to protect and maintain native species and communities, still eventuate in a poorer natural estate, and bode even further decline.

Allow me to reiterate with a few questions and comments for you to ponder: If we can’t do something to reverse this process of extinction in play for the King Island Scrubtit, then what does that mean for the future of other species and ecological communities in the landscape? And what does that say about us, the species of (supposed) superior intelligence and awareness – dare I say also known for being capable, innovative and ingenious? In this new Turnbullesque era of innovation and science, surely we can recognise the vital signs and find ways to prosper and coexist without continuing down this old, outmoded and unsustainable path.

I wonder if we’ll ever wake up, get the connection and realise what’s actually happening around us. As a society, represented by our governments and their policies and priorities, why don’t we really care about the plight of the King Island Scrubtit and all that it represents?

Background: The King Island Scrubtit is a species listed globally (IUCN Red List) and nationally (EPBC Act) as Critically Endangered; and is listed as ‘endangered’ for Tasmania. The King Island local government area covers the entire habitat for the species. There is a national recovery plan for the scrubtit and this has been incorporated into the King Island Biodiversity Plan 2012-2022; the latter being developed with a steering committee of community representatives and DPIPWE representatives and others. The King Island Biodiversity Plan was funded by federal and state governments, as well as the King Island Council and the King Island Natural Resource Management Group. So, with a cast of many being responsible or aware - how has the King Island Scrubtit come to this? Where are Greg Hunt and Matthew Groom when they are needed most?

*Endangered King Island scrubtit needs help to avoid extinction, scientists warn

By Kieran Jones, 13/03/16

A critically endangered bird native to King Island in Bass Strait is now on the brink of extinction, according to a new scientific study.
The population of the King Island scrubtit has fallen to fewer than 50, after sitting at about 200 birds 10 years ago.
Fire, agricultural drainage and native predators are among the factors that have seen the small bird almost wiped out.
Matthew Webb from the Australian National University (ANU) said at the current rate the bird was destined for extinction.
“They’re in a considerably worse state than previously thought,” he said.
The birds are now confined to about half a square kilometre of habitat and Mr Webb said new habitats needed to be created for the scrubtit.
“If we’re going to try to prevent the extinction of the King Island scrubtit, we really need to act now, otherwise it’s just going to be too late,” he said.
“Once species get to this sort of level, without management intervention, really they’re on the road to extinction.
“It is possible to rectify the situation but it will take considerable commitment and effort from the government and community.”
The birds rely on old-growth wet swamp paperbark forest, and require a dense understory in the forest.
With that habitat significantly shrinking, the birds are on the brink, prompting Mr Webb to call for government intervention.
“Essentially there hasn’t been anything happening for the past couple of decades,” he said.
“Even though the situation is quite dire it definitely is possible to turn this around.
“One of the things we do have on our side is that the birds are quite sedentary. It’s really easy to define where the birds are, so that could help.”

*Lyndall Rowley: ‘I was an early school leaver and a late bloomer (due to lack of ambition and being directionless), and only entered the environmental field of work after completing a certificate of horticulture which led to an associate diploma and then slipped into a bachelor’s degree in wildlife, parks and heritage management as a mature-age student. My various work in the environmental field for nearly 20 years involved threatened species and habitat management on both private and public land which necessitated dealing (painfully and not very successfully) with competing land-uses such as mining, forestry, fire management, agriculture and residential settlement, as well as strategic planning. I reached an existential-like halt to work a few years ago due to my disillusionment with the lack of decisive global action on climate change, as well as the continuing decline of the natural environment due to the ongoing direct impacts of human activities. The realisation finally struck - it seemed despite all of the collective work done over decades for the good of the environment, (not to mention the supporting science, education, information, legislation, strategies and billions of government dollars), the relentless processes of an expanding human occupation and development were taking precedence and overpowering. The past and present pattern remains the same – business as usual. And with no sign of real awareness, urgency and a serious change in governments’ priorities, it’s effectively ‘game over’. There’s little doubt that life on earth as we know it will end. This is just another era in geological time, after all. But it’s a little crazy for humans to hasten that end by trashing our own habitat. And it’s unconscionable to degrade life support systems for human generations in the interim (intergenerational theft!). Besides, what gives us the right to take everything else down with us?’