Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs, warns a year-long inquiry into Australia's "most loved animal." The report published by the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW) paints a "stark and depressing snapshot" of koalas in Australia's southeastern state.
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By Jacqui Stol, Annie Kelly and Suzanne Prober
In box gum grassy woodlands, widely spaced eucalypts tower over carpets of wildflowers, lush native grasses and groves of flowering wattles. It's no wonder some early landscape paintings depicting Australian farm life are inspired by this ecosystem.
Native yellow wildflowers called 'scaly buttons' bloom on a stewardship site. Jacqui Stol, Author provided
Huge Increase in Plant Diversity<p>These surveys were part of the Australian government's <a href="http://www.nrm.gov.au/national/continuing-investment/environmental-stewardship" target="_blank">Environmental Stewardship Program</a>, a long-term cooperative conservation model with private landholders. It started in 2007 and will run for 19 years.</p><p>We found huge increases in previously declining native wildflowers and grasses on the private farmland. Many trees assumed to be dying began resprouting, such as McKie's stringybark (<em>Eucalyptus mckieana</em>), which is listed as a <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=20199" target="_blank">vulnerable species</a>.</p><p>This newfound plant diversity is the result of seeds and tubers (underground storage organs providing energy and nutrients for regrowth) lying dormant in the soil after wildflowers bloomed in earlier seasons. The dormant seeds and tubers were ready to spring into life with the right seasonal conditions.</p><p><span></span>For example, <a href="https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/plants-animals/plants/herbarium" target="_blank">Queensland Herbarium</a> surveys early last year, during the drought, looked at a 20 meter (65 feet) by 20 meter plot and found only six native grass and wildflower species on one property. After this year's rain, we found 59 species in the same plot, including many species of perennial grass (three species jumped to 20 species post rain), native bluebells and many species of native daisies.</p><p>On another property with only 11 recorded species, more than 60 species sprouted after the extensive rains.</p><p>In areas where grazing and farming continued as normal (the paired "control" sites), the plots had only around half the number of plant species as areas managed for conservation.</p>
Spotting Rare Marsupials<p>Landowners also reported several unusual sightings of animals on their farms after the rains. Stewardship program surveyors later identified them as two species of rare and endangered native carnivorous marsupials: the southern spotted-tailed quoll (mainland Australia's largest carnivorous marsupial) and the brush-tailed <a href="https://bie.ala.org.au/species/urn:lsid:biodiversity.org.au:afd.taxon:b6930f29-3f26-415e-a760-c12c320c2931" target="_blank">phascogale</a>.</p><p>The population status of both these species in southern Queensland is unknown. The brush-tailed phascogale is elusive and rarely detected, while the southern spotted-tailed quolls are listed as <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=75184" target="_blank">endangered</a> under federal legislation.</p><p>Until those sightings, there were no recent records of southern spotted-tailed quolls in the local area.</p>
A spotted tailed quoll caught in a camera trap. Sean Fitzgibbon, Author provided<p>These unusual wildlife sightings are valuable for monitoring and evaluation. They tell us what's thriving, declining or surviving, compared to the first surveys for the stewardship program ten years ago.</p><p>Sightings are also a promising signal for the improving condition of the property and its surrounding landscape.</p>
Changing Farm Habits<p>More than 200 farmers signed up to the stewardship program for the conservation and management of nationally threatened ecological communities on private lands. Most have said they're keen to continue the partnership.</p><p>The landholders are funded to manage their farms as part of the stewardship program <a href="http://nrmonline.nrm.gov.au/catalog/mql:2407" target="_blank">in ways</a> that will help the woodlands recover, and help reverse declines in biodiversity.</p><p>For example, by changing the number of livestock grazing at any one time, and shortening their grazing time, many of the grazing-sensitive wildflowers have a better chance to germinate, grow, flower and produce seeds in the right seasonal conditions.</p><p>They can also manage weeds, and not remove fallen timber or loose rocks (bushrock). Fallen timber and rocks protect grazing-sensitive plants and provide habitat for birds, reptiles and invertebrates foraging on the ground.</p>
Cautious Optimism<p>So can we be optimistic for the future of wildlife and wildflowers of the box gum grassy woodlands? Yes, cautiously so.</p><p>Landholders are learning more about how best to manage biodiversity on their farms, but ecological recovery can take time. In any case, we've discovered how resilient our flora and fauna can be in the face of severe drought when given the opportunity to grow and flourish.</p>
The rare hooded robin has also been recorded on stewardship sites during surveys. Micah Davies, Author provided<p>Climate change is bringing more extreme weather events. Last year was the <a href="http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/current/annual/aus/" target="_blank">warmest on record</a> and the nation has been gripped by severe, protracted drought. There's only so much pressure our iconic wildlife and wildflowers can take before they cross ecological thresholds that are difficult to bounce back from.</p><p>More government programs like this, and greater understanding and collaboration between scientists and farmers, create a <a href="https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP154278&dsid=DS4" target="_blank">tremendous opportunity</a> to keep changing that trajectory for the better.</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Euan Ritchie, Amy Coetsee, Anthony Rendall, Tim Doherty and Vivianna Miritis
Long-nosed potoroos are a bit like mini kangaroos, but spend much of their time digging for fungi. Zoos Victoria
French Island's thick vegetation provides potoroos with critical refuge to evade feral cats. Vivianna Miritis
Temporal activity of cats and long-nosed potoroos for winter and summer, on French Island, Victoria. Their overlap is represented by the area shaded in grey. Modified from Miritis et al. (2020).
Camera traps can tell us a lot about how introduced predators and native wildlife interact. Zoos Victoria and Deakin University
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Australian researchers captured a stunning scene that looks like something out of Finding Nemo. The drone the scientists used recorded approximately 64,000 green turtles migrating near Australia's Great Barrier Reef for nesting season, as CNN reported.
Anglo-Australian mining company BHP said it would pause plans to destroy 40 Aboriginal heritage sites as part of its expansion of an iron ore mine in Western Australia (WA).
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A healthy coral reef is a noisy place.
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By Samantha Hepburn
In the expansion of its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto blasted the Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 — Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years. These sites had deep historical and cultural significance.
The destruction of a significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation
Not an Isolated Incident<p>The history of large developments destroying Indigenous heritage sites is, tragically, long.</p><p>A $2.1 billion light rail line in Sydney, completed last year, <a href="https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/this-is-a-tragic-loss-sydney-light-rail-construction-destroyed-heritage-site-20190322-p516qk.html" target="_blank">destroyed a site</a> of considerable significance.</p><p>More than 2,400 stone artifacts were unearthed in a small excavated area. It indicated Aboriginal people had used the area between 1788 and 1830 to manufacture tools and implements from flint brought over to Australia on British ships.</p><p>Similarly, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/27/the-rocks-remember-the-fight-to-protect-burrup-peninsulas-rock-art" target="_blank">ancient rock art</a> on the Burrup Peninsula in north-western Australia is under increasing threat from a gas project. The site contains more than one million rock carvings (petroglyphs) across 36,857 hectares.</p><p>This area is under the custodianship of Ngarluma people and four other traditional owners groups: the Mardudhunera, the Yaburara, the Yindjibarndi and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.</p><p>But a <a href="https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/BurrupPeninusla/Report" target="_blank">Senate inquiry</a> revealed emissions from adjacent industrial activity may significantly damage it.</p><p><span></span>The West Australian government is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jan/29/australia-lodges-world-heritage-submission-for-50000-year-old-burrup-peninsula-rock-art" target="_blank">seeking world heritage listing</a> to try to increase protection, as the regulatory frameworks at the national and state level aren't strong enough. Let's explore why.</p>
What Do the Laws Say?<p>The recently renamed federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is responsible for listing new national heritage places, and regulating development actions in these areas.</p><p>At the federal level, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (<a href="http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdb/au/legis/cth/consol_act/epabca1999588/" target="_blank">EPBC Act</a>) provides a legal framework for their management and protection. It is an offence to impact an area that has national heritage listing.</p><p>But many ancient Aboriginal sites have no national heritage listing. For the recently destroyed Juurkan gorge, the true archaeological significance was uncovered <em>after</em> consent had been issued and there were no provisions to reverse or amend the decision once this new information was discovered.</p><p>Where a site has no national heritage listing, and federal legislation has no application, state laws apply.</p><p>For the rock shelters in the Western Pilbara, Rio Tinto was abiding by Western Australia's <a href="http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdb/au/legis/wa/consol_act/aha1972164/" target="_blank">Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972</a> — which is now nearly 50 years old.</p>
No Consultation With Traditional Owners<p>The biggest concern with this act is there's no statutory requirement ensuring traditional owners be consulted.</p><p>This means traditional owners are left out of vital decisions regarding the management and protection of their cultural heritage. And it confers authority upon a committee that, in the words of a <a href="https://www.dplh.wa.gov.au/getmedia/11dd5b41-fcf9-4216-a1ac-06ece672c087/AH-Review-Position-Comparison-for-Aboriginal-People" target="_blank">discussion paper</a>, "lacks cultural authority."</p>
Weak in Other Jurisdictions<p>The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is <a href="https://www.dplh.wa.gov.au/aha-review" target="_blank">under review</a>. The proposed reforms seek to abolish the committee, ensuring future decisions on Aboriginal cultural heritage give appropriate regard to the views of the traditional Aboriginal owners.</p><p><span></span>NSW is the only state with no stand-alone Aboriginal heritage legislation. However, a <a href="https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/researchpapers/Documents/aborigines-land-and-national-parks-in-nsw/02-97.pdf" target="_blank">similar regulatory framework</a> to WA applies in NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.</p><p>There, if a developer is likely to impact cultural heritage, they must apply for an Aboriginal Heritage Impact Permit. The law requires "regard" to be given to the interests of Aboriginal owners of the land, but this vague provision does not mandate consultation.</p><p>What's more, the burden of proving the significance of an Aboriginal object depends upon external statements of significance. But Aboriginal people, not others, should be responsible for determining the cultural significance of an object or area.</p><p>As in WA, the NSW regulatory framework is weak, opening up the risk for economic interests to be prioritized over damage to cultural heritage.</p>
Outdated Laws<p>The federal minister has discretion to assess whether state or territory laws are already effective.</p><p>If they decide state and territory laws are ineffective and a cultural place or object is under threat, then the federal <a href="http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdb/au/legis/cth/consol_act/aatsihpa1984549/" target="_blank">Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984</a> can be used.</p><p>But this act is also weak. It was first implemented as an interim measure, intended to operate for two years. It has now been in operation for 36 years.</p><p>In fact, <a href="http://ymac.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Extracts-from-Evatt-Review-of-the-Aboriginal-and-Torres-Strait-Islander-Heritage-Protection-Act-1984.pdf" target="_blank">a 1995 report</a> assessed the shortcomings of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act.</p><p>It recommended minimum standards be put in place. This included ensuring any assessment of Aboriginal cultural significance be made by a properly qualified body, with relevant experience.</p><p>It said the role of Aboriginal people should be appropriately recognized and statutorily endorsed. Whether an area or site had particular significance according to Aboriginal tradition should be regarded as a subjective issue, determined by an assessment of the degree of intensity of belief and feeling of Aboriginal people.</p><p><span></span>Twenty-five years later, this is yet to happen.</p>
A 26-year-old man was killed by a shark as he was surfing near a state beach in Northern California on Saturday, according to authorities, as The New York Times reported.
Australia's unprecedented wildfires that raged for months and destroyed millions of acres were likely made worse by industrial logging of native forests, according to a new commentary from five scientists published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. The Australian government is trying to buy its crown jewel some time, but is it willing to support what the reef needs most — a reduction in emissions?
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef ecosystem. Stretching 2,300 km along Australia's northeast coastline, this complex of shallow water reefs and islands is home to thousands of species of fish, invertebrates, algae, reptiles, birds and algae. This image, taken by the VIIRS sensor on the Suomi NPP satellite on Aug.19, 2017 uses the high resolution SVI 3, 2, and 1 bands, commonly referred to as "natural color" RGB. NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)
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By Bhiamie Williamson, Francis Markham and Jessica Weir
The catastrophic bushfire season is officially over, but governments, agencies and communities have failed to recognize the specific and disproportionate impact the fires have had on Aboriginal peoples.
Table: The Conversation. Source: Authors' calculations from 2016 Census of Population and Housing (ABS 2020) and 2016 ERP (ABS 2017b). Get the data
Areas in NSW and Victoria burnt and affected by fires of 250 ha or more, July 1, 2019 to January 23, 2020, and Aboriginal legal interests in land. Author provided