Tasmanian and federal bureaucrats pushed for a recovery plan for a critically endangered parrot species to be changed to remove and play down the scientific evidence that logging was the biggest threat to its survival.
Scientists said the proposed changes to the recovery plan for the swift parrot – revealed in draft versions made available under freedom of information laws – were more focused on protecting the forestry industry than preventing the species going extinct.
The swift parrot is a migratory species that spends winters in Victoria and New South Wales and summers nesting in forests scattered across Tasmania depending on where its main food sources, blue and black gums, are flowering. A CSIRO-published guide last year estimated the population had slumped to about 750, down from 2,000 a decade ago.
Peer-reviewed studies have found it could be extinct in 10 years if no action was taken to improve its protection, and that forestry was the greatest threat to its survival.
A new recovery plan for the species was expected last year but is yet to be released. Documents published online include several drafts drawn up by a swift parrot recovery team, and responses from state and federal departments.
In June last year, the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and the Environment warned the state may withdraw its support for the recovery plan unless it was rewritten to address what it called an “imbalance in narrative” that placed too much weight on the role played by the forestry industry.
Its proposed changes included cutting a reference that said native forest logging and intensive native forest silviculture posed “the greatest threat to survival of the swift parrot population”.
It also suggested removing a sentence that said about 33% of native eucalypt forest was converted to plantation or harvested and 23% of identified nesting habitat was lost between 1997 and 2016.
In December 2020, officials from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (Abares) and the forestry branch of the federal agriculture department argued protecting the parrot’s habitat was “not the main issue” and that focusing on it when talking about the urgent action needed to save the species was a “non sequitur”. They said the parrot was listed as critically endangered due to predation from sugar gliders, which are an introduced species in Tasmania.
Dr Matt Webb, a conservation biologist and a member of the swift parrot recovery team for almost two decades, said the proposed changes and the rationale given for them were “just wrong” and “called into question what recovery teams were for”. He said if they were accepted they would take efforts to protect the species back 20 years.
“None of these changes have come back to the recovery team as far as I’m aware,” he said. “A lot of the comments that are being made are not based on what’s best for the birds. They appear to be about political sensitivities [over the future of the forestry industry].”
Webb said sugar gliders were a threat to the parrot, but the bird had been listed as endangered due to the primary threat of habitat loss. He said the risk from sugar gliders increased as more swift parrot habitat was destroyed. “They are not mutually exclusive,” he said.
Dr Jennifer Sanger, a forest ecologist with advocacy group Tree Projects, said the drafts showed the Tasmanian government, in particular, was trying to water down the recovery plan, a step that would be “signing the death warrant” for the species.
She said the recovery plan would be “absolutely useless” and lead to the parrot’s extinction if it did not address logging.
“This is the smoking gun. The Tasmanian government is fully aware that logging is a major threat to the swift parrot, but they are just sweeping the issue under the rug,” she said. “When the swift parrot goes extinct, the Tasmanian government will be 100% to blame for this.”
The federal environment department said the swift parrot recovery plan was still being finalised and would ultimately “reflect the best available scientific advice”. A spokesperson said the department consulted widely on its development and was “giving proper consideration to all the feedback we have received”.
The Tasmanian department said the recovery plan had been updated to “include new information on emerging threats, particularly the predation by the introduced sugar glider”, but it had not seen the final version. It said the state’s government had committed $1m over four years to a swift parrot recovery project.
Recovery plans are drawn up at the discretion of the federal environment minister and can have the power to require that habitat critical to the survival of a species is protected. Once they exist, ministers are legally bound not to make decisions at odds with them.
Plans for hundreds of threatened species and habitats have been delayed or abandoned. Guardian Australia revealed that almost 180 plans were scrapped by the then minister Sussan Ley in the dying days of the Morrison government.
The swift parrot recovery plan will need to be signed off by the new environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, before being released.
This article by Adam Morton was first published by The Guardian on 24 August 2022. Lead Image: The swift parrot recovery plan will be ‘absolutely useless’ and lead to the bird’s extinction if it does not address logging, an ecologist says. Photograph: Rob Blakers.
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