Fourth Column

Endangered Science

On January 21 Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science (DES) announced that the site of Adani’s Carmichael Coal Mine hosted the “largest and most significant known population of the Black-Throated Finch in Australia”. It also announced it had appointed Professor Brendan Wintle of the University of Melbourne to undertake an “independent expert review of the Black-Throated Finch Management Plan”. DES considered “the expert review a necessary measure given the significance and potential impacts to this threatened species”.

This created a new hurdle for Adani. It had already satisfied the Commonwealth on the question of the finch in 2018, having earlier addressed the risks of the mine to the endangered yakka skink and ornamental snake. The “lawfare” engaged in by environmentalists against the Adani mine, on environmental and native title grounds, had delayed the project several years. The invocation of risks to the black-throated finch delayed it further when DES in early May 2019 rejected Adani’s management plan.

The black-throated finch provided a convenient excuse to hold the project up further. In 2008 I delivered a Brisbane Club lecture which drew on my recently published book Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science, dealing with the common phenomenon of “noble cause corruption” in environmental science. I suggested, somewhat whimsically, Kellow’s Law of Endangered Species, which specified that sightings of endangered species were likely to be clustered around sites of proposed developments—for two reasons. First, development proposals were subject to environmental assessments before approval which frequently turned up evidence of an endangered species previously unknown there. Second, the discovery of an endangered species provides a trump card for those opposing a development using politics or “lawfare”. The orange-bellied parrot has popped up at proposed development sites from Point Lillias to the Bald Hills wind farm site.

Which brings us back to the black-throated finch. The finch is present at the site of the proposed Carmichael Mine. But does this mean an endangered species is threatened by the development? The environmental groups opposed to the mine certainly think so, as does DES, and DES engaged Professor Wintle, Director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub (TSRH) to conduct the review, adding weight to the proposition that we are dealing with a threatened species. Problem is, evidence to support the finch’s endangered species status is rather underwhelming.

Internationally, endangered species are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on its “Red List” along a spectrum of seriousness: Not Evaluated; Data Deficient; Least Concern; Near Threatened; Vulnerable; Endangered; Critically Endangered; Extinct in the Wild; and Extinct.

The Red List rather leans towards higher listing on this spectrum, because of the Precautionary Principle. In Science and Public Policy I discussed the case of the snake-eating cow, Pseudonovibos spiralis, on the Red List as “Endangered”. There is no reliable evidence that this creature has ever existed—except in mythology as the khting vor in Cambodia or the linh duong in Vietnam. It has since been removed from the Red List.

But what of the black-throated finch—Poephila cincta? The Red List current in 2019 places the finch in the category of Least Concern, not even Near Threatened or Vulnerable let alone Endangered.

This is not to say the finch is without challenges. It was once recorded in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, and is now considered to be “possibly extinct” there. There is now a tendency to use the word extinct to describe populations in particular areas, even if, overall, the species is of “Least Concern”.

The Handbook of the Birds of the World is equally sanguine about the prospects of the finch. It states: “Not globally threatened (Least Concern). Formerly considered Near Threatened. Uncommon to locally common. Has undergone moderately rapid population reduction and range.”

What explains the frequent references by the Queensland government to the finch as “threatened”? It turns out there are two black-throated finches, Poephila cincta atropygialis (in northern Queensland) and Poephila cincta cincta (to the south).

The subspecies found in northern Queensland is commonly called the black-rumped finch and The Handbook of the Birds of the World gives its distribution as “NE Queensland (C & S Cape York Peninsula, S to SE Gulf of Carpentaria and upper Mitchell R drainage), in NE Australia.” Poephila cincta cincta, the white-rumped finch, has a distribution of “EC Queensland S from Townsville and upper Burdekin R basin.” It is Poephila cincta cincta that the Commonwealth department lists as endangered.

So the Adani mine has been stopped due to its possible impact on an endangered subspecies, rather than an endangered species. Or has it?

A species is defined as the largest group of organisms in which any two individuals can produce fertile offspring by sexual reproduction. The term subspecies refers to one of two or more populations of a species living in different subdivisions of the species’ range and varying from one another by morphological characteristics. The case for protecting a subspecies, because it has a white rump rather than a black rump, is obviously not as strong as protecting a whole species.

But even the status of these subspecies is at issue. The Handbook of the Birds of the World simply refers to them as races:

Race atropygialis has been considered a distinct species on morphological grounds, but the two forms intergrade over a broad area, are nearly identical in song and display behaviour, and in mixed aviaries show no tendency for assortative mating; in breeding experiments with captives, black rump colour dominant over white, and in some offspring black rump has some white feathers.

“Intergrade” means pass into another form by a series of intervening forms. One population fades into the other, in other words. The imposition of two subspecies on these two races is therefore highly discretionary—clearly why both the IUCN and The Handbook of the Birds of the World do not distinguish between the northern and southern populations and classify the finch as of least concern.

But maintaining they are distinct subspecies is politically useful, and expanding the threats to one race back up to the species as a whole in public discourse, as the Queensland DES has repeatedly done, constitutes a serious act of duplicity.

The political context for all this does little to reduce suspicion. Photographs of school children tweeted by Professor Wintle while attending a climate change rally in March 2018 holding a sign reading “I’ll stop farting if you stop burning coal” did little to convince Adani and its supporters that he brought objectivity to his task. Neither did his criticism of policy-makers in the Conversation in December 2018 for “continually” clearing patches of rural vegetation to make way for job-creating mines.

That the Queensland Environment Minister and Deputy Premier, Jackie Trad, held her seat narrowly from the Greens added important context. And the appointment in 2018 to a senior position in DES of Trad’s reported friend Dr Tim Seelig after a late application, accepted after being sent directly to the chair of the selection panel, did not help. Seelig previously headed the Queensland Conservation Council, and campaigned against LNP Premier Campbell Newman at the 2015 election while working for the Wilderness Society. He was somehow able to overcome the selection criterion that the appointee be “apolitical—both politically and advocacy related”. He was then preferred over more than fifty other applicants.

The Adani case, bitterly fought in the courts and the political sphere, played a large part in the failure of the Labor Party to win the May 2019 federal election. The Queensland Labor government has since relaxed its concerns over the finch, and the Adani mine is now likely to be finally approved.

Any development proposal should be subjected to rigorous environmental scrutiny, including its impact on both endangered and non-endangered species, but the conduct of the Queensland government has bordered on the absurd. It did not, for example, require a review of the impact of a favoured road proposal near Townsville on the finch.

There will be lingering damage arising from this case, and not just to the regard by international investors of the desirability of Australia as a destination for their funds.

Science has been further damaged by the convenient use of an endangered race of black-throated finches—or at best a subspecies—to suggest that the whole species was at risk because of the Adani mine. Environmental sciences are widely viewed with suspicion, and this case has done little to salve such concerns.

The British anthropologist Mary Douglas once noted that public policy is almost never resolved one way or the other by some piece of scientific information, yet many scientists like to think that science will solve disputes. She added: “When science is used to arbitrate in these conditions, it eventually loses its independent status, and like other high priests who mix politics with ritual, finally disqualifies itself.”

Aynsley Kellow is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Tasmania.


13 thoughts on “Endangered Science

  • wstarck says:

    With the exception of polar ice caps and a few regions of extreme desert, virtually every hectare of the Earth’s surface is inhabited by thousand of species of living organisms with many of these still remaining to be scientifically named and described. It would be relatively easy to go almost anywhere and find some undescribed micro-organism to name and describe. Although it might in reality be widespread and common, it would then be scientifically known to occur only where it was described from. As there are only a few taxonomists working on many of these types of organisms there are large numbers of the described species which are known to occur only from where they have been scientifically described or at most only a few other locations where they have been identified.
    In addition, there are many organisms with only limited mobility or other means of distribution and which differentiate into numerous locally distinct populations wherein taxonomists have variously chosen to recognise as races, subspecies or distinct species. I once collected a small bag of sand from the lagoon floor at Euston Reef off Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef. A specialist in the micro-molluscs which live among the sand grains found it contained over 300 species of which about two-thirds were new to science.
    DNA analysis has further compounded this situation by finding genetic differences in populations of widespread species which are not manifest in the visually observable characteristics on which classical taxonomy is based. Worse yet, these office-based researchers with little familiarity of the biology of the living organism in its natural environment, are tending toward lending significance to their own findings by claiming them to be separate species.
    This whole situation with “threatened” and “endangered” species is fraught with opportunity for misuse by radical activists and the IUCN Red List has been badly corrupted by such influence. Many of the species in the listing are in fact widespread and common with only localised reductions in their populations but under no global threat at all. Many of the listings are also strongly skewed to the endangered end of the multi-level scale of threats solely on the basis of opinion by self-proclaimed “experts” but contrary to common sense and readily available evidence.

  • johanna says:

    Thanks, Aynsley.

    The other issue with regard to allegedly ‘endangered’ species, which you allude briefly to, is the assumption that population levels and locations are or should be static. This is nonsense, and is rarely admitted out loud by advocates, but does underlie the endless capacity of fake environmentalists to conjure up disaster scenarios every time a local population diminishes or perhaps moves to places unknown.

    I well remember some years ago the Great Elk Extinction scare in North America, which turned out to be simply a change in location of vast herds of elk which were doing just fine. As usual, the scare made headlines, and the retractions, if any, were in 8 point type on page 37.

  • ianl says:

    Mining geologists now expect the finch finally to sign its’ FIFO contract.

  • en passant says:

    Several years ago I was involved in the logistics of a gas drilling exploration in the Coober Pedy Basin (1,000km x 1,500km in size). We lugged all the equipment and sleeving pipes to the site (less than the size of a Rugby field), but the drilling was stopped by an injunction that claimed an endangered species occupied our drill site. $xxxK and a year later the injunction was lifted and another immediately replaced it for a new creature.
    The company packed its gear and took it to Sumatra where the successfully enriched the Indonesians with a significant strike.
    The enemies of civilisation cheered their ‘success’.

  • ianl says:

    In the eastern states here (Aus), multi-billion operations have been summarily shut down for days, in one case weeks, as environmental law allows for an anonomous, unevidenced report of a platypus seen in a creek to over-ride other concerns.
    After the search comes up completely empty and production re-starts, another such report surfaces, again closing operations down.
    Some people think the greenies only attract 10% of the vote and so are just a minor nuisance. Their fanaticism, through that 10% being concentrated in inner-city seats that affect Ministerial aspirants, has thoroughly contaminated both major parties.

  • Alice Thermopolis says:

    “And the appointment in 2018 to a senior position in DES of Trad’s reported friend Dr Tim Seelig after a late application, accepted after being sent directly to the chair of the selection panel, did not help.”

    Does someone know what happened to the “investigation” into this appointment?

  • lloveday says:

    Palaszczuk said she ordered her Director-General to refer that matter to the Public Service Commission 6 weeks ago, no news since so I guess it’s stuck in bureaucratic traffic and will be “forever”.

  • pgang says:

    wstark makes a salient point. What is a ‘species’? The concept is very vague. Creation based scientists now talk of ‘baramins’, which reference the original created ‘kinds’ of the Bible, but they are the first to admit that variation has made it very difficult to identify them. This issue of species is just another way that evolutionism confuses an issue, namely taxonomy.

  • en passant says:

    I can add a amusing true tale to your platypus story. Back in the 1980’s in one Victorian country town the ‘local’ Greens from the city ran a campaign for ‘foreign noxious Willow trees’ to be removed from the banks of a creek. They had been there for about a century. Willows have huge water-sucking root systems and had choked the creek backing up to create a small lake and a large swampy wetland. The mining company I worked for read the history books and figured out what would happen, but we decided to comply as good corporate citizens. A huge ‘Digger’ was brought in, removed the noxious trees and straightened the creek to its original condition.
    We only had to wait a single winter. The creek became a raging torrent that cut the road and rose high enough to cover the platypus burrows (drowning them all).
    The next summer the wetlands dried out, the frogs, fish and 10,000 birds disappeared with it and the sign crowing of their Greenpower achievement vanished. The tiny wharf where children could safely learn to swim or sail stood forlornly over a dried out lake.
    The Green Terror had no conscience and blamed the mining company …

  • Rafe Champion says:

    What is the big deal about losing a single species anyway, are we short of small birds on the planet?

  • pgang says:

    en passant, a classic story. The willows were no doubt planted by some wise person for the very purpose of flow control. What town was it?

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    Years ago I was managing a manganese operation in the Pilbara of WA, when the environmentalists struck. They had found “The mound of the endangered pebble mouse” and all activity within a kilometre of the site was immediately stopped by the Department of Mines.
    Video Cameras and motion doctor cameras were setup for twenty four hour recording of the mound and this continued for nearly six weeks. Our own pet environmentalist carefully catalogued and viewed every one of the tapes. Not a pebble mouse was sited.
    Then an old Geologist happened to visit the site and stated that these mounds in many cases were hundreds of years old and long since abandoned, but they survived the weather and even cyclonic rain by their very construction.
    It took a further six months to get approval from the department to proceed.

  • en passant says:

    The Editor will let you know offline.

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