Doomed Planet

On the origin of the specious

If you listen to the ABC, or read press releases put out by environmental activists and the Greens, you will know that Western Australia is going through a period of devastating loss of biodiversity. Our native species are “falling off the planet”, as the current eco-jargon has it. Or to use the favourite word of green-tinged MP Janet Woollard (in one of her predictable pre-election outbursts), our native biota is being “decimated”.

The causes of this catastrophe are many and varied. There are the two usual suspects of course, climate change and logging of native forests. But there are other dastardly human activities that are taking their toll: land clearing, urban development, fuel reduction burning, genetically modified crops, herbicides and pesticides, mining, fishing, plantations, 4WD vehicles, plant diseases, weeds, feral animals, fire (and presumably) brimstone.

I find this disturbing as I love the Western Australian biota and the landscape it inhabits. And because I am a forester, a tree farmer, a 4WD owner and support prescribed burning for the mitigation of bushfire damage, I am clearly one of the culprits responsible for the ecological disaster that is upon us.

Even more distressing are statements that the rate of loss of native species is accelerating. It is not just that we are losing species, but we are losing them faster than ever before, perhaps faster than at any time in geological history. I recently overheard Tim Flannery on the radio, speaking on this very point.

Is any of this supported by actual data about our native species?

With respect to the flora we get a clue from information provided by Western Australia’s Minister for the Environment. In October 2010 the Minister was asked two Parliamentary Questions, as follows: “In reference to native Western Australian plant species, (1) How many are considered to have become extinct in the last five years? and (2) How many new native plant species have been discovered in the last five years?”

Her answer (prepared by her environmental bureaucrats) to the first question was “Nil”. To the second it was “Between 2005 and 2010, a total of 539 new species were added to the State’s census of native flora”.

This was good news and I waited for a report on the ABC news, or perhaps a welcoming press release from the greens. There were no reports. Had I not preserved the quotations from Hansard, the Minister’s statement would today be totally forgotten.

We all know, of course, that the 539 new species are not “new” species in the sense that they are new life forms that have just magically reared up from Western Australian soils. More accurately, they are ‘newly discovered and named’ plant species. This is a pleasing outcome of botanical research rather than a burst of creativity by Mother Nature.

And while it is great to hear that no plant extinctions have been recorded, we also know that plant extinction is not a clear-cut concept. For example, a plant species can exist as soil-stored seed when no actual plants are to be found growing in the bush. And there are numerous examples of plants which are said to be on their last legs in the bush, but are found everywhere growing in botanic gardens and urban parks. This has led to a qualification about endangered plant species, that they will become extinct “in the wild” even though they may be found in suburban gardens in their thousands or in scientifically-managed seed banks.

I have also looked at Western Australia’s native fauna, having recently submitted this question to a wildlife expert (who asked not to be named) in the Department of Environment and Conservation: “How many WA native fauna species have become extinct in the last 10 years?”. The answer was “None”, although he did list a number of animals that were “likely soon to become extinct” and pointed out that we still know very little about the status of most insect species.

As with plants, the concept of animal extinction is also often qualified. Thus, the quokka is regarded as threatened with extinction “on the mainland” even though they are in plague proportions on Rottnest Island. The western ringtail possum is classed as close to extinction in the bush, but is regarded by home-owners in south-west towns as a confounded nuisance. Other animals are described as “locally extinct”, which means they are no longer found in part of their former range. A further modification of this is “temporarily extinct” a term I have heard used to describe species displaced by fuel reduction burning or logging even when it is known that their numbers recover in the regrowth vegetation. These sorts of qualifications dilute the notion of extinction and could discredit the conservation message.

There is also “presumed extinct” which sounds sensible, but can be over-turned. I know of two “presumed extinct” animals that have been rediscovered in my lifetime (the Noisy Scrub Bird and Gilbert’s Pottoroo). And I can think of several others that were said to be “on the brink of extinction” (e.g., the woylie and the rock wallaby), whose populations recovered amost overnight thanks to fox control programs.

The presumption that there will be massive losses of species due to climate change seems to me to fly in the face of evolutionary history. What I learnt in Ecology 101 was that there are always winners and losers from environmental change. Species adapt, or benefit by the change and become winners, or they cannot adapt or compete, and become losers. This is how evolution works. I am also aware of the ecological theory that Western Australia’s exceptionally high biodiversity is a response to past climate change – i.e., increasing aridity, which in turn led to increased speciation. This suggests that the result of the climate becoming hotter and drier (as computer models project) may be more, not fewer species.

The status of Western Australian biodiversity is far from the simple cut-and-dried picture of species dropping like flies. Yes, the projections are alarming (as environmentalist projections always are), but the current situation, especially in relation to flora, appears to be at least stable. Western Australians can also take heart from the excellent research and recovery programs that focus on flora and fauna conservation, and have such a proud tradition of success.

Wildlife conservation is noble work and deserves support … but in its own right, and as one of our responsibilities as land managers, not as a response to manufactured or exaggerated alarmism.

— August 2012

Roger Underwood is a former firefighter and a district and regional manager with the Forests Department in WA.

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