Victoria has lost more than half its native vegetation, more than any other state in Australia. More than 80 species are known to have gone extinct since European colonisation and over 1000 others are threatened. But the damage goes much further than that – once common species are declining in numbers and diversity is dropping, particularly for small mammals. In just one example, a study of Sooty Owl droppings in Gippsland showed that 150 years ago the owls preyed on 28 different mammal species, whereas today they prey on just 10 species. It’s not that the owls have become picky eaters, the other species are just not there in sufficient numbers for the owls to find them to eat. There’s a huge ‘extinction debt’ from past environmental damage just waiting to happen.
Victoria is threatened with an extinction crisis. 24 vertebrate species are already extinct in this state and a further 293 species are on the Advisory List of Threatened Vertebrates in 20131, up from 173 species in 20072. 55 percent of our freshwater fish species are listed as threatened. The Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act lists 42 potentially threatening processes3, with weed invasion, habitat loss, inappropriate fire regimes and grazing the most commonly identified. Our biodiversity is under ever increasing threat and measures to protect it have not succeeded in halting the decline4.
The decline in biodiversity is worldwide and shows no sign of halting. International conservation biologists have been arguing the case for creating large-scale, permeable landscapes where management does not stop at arbitrary boundaries. “We cannot manage conservation only in ‘islands’ of nature in a ‘sea’ of land degradation and increased fragmentation, where inappropriate fire and grazing management and uncontrolled invasive species weaken both species and ecosystems” says Penny Figgis, Vice Chair for Oceania of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas5.
The IUCN has adopted ‘connectivity conservation’ as the term for landscape scale approaches to biodiversity protection and endorses this scale as the most appropriate response to climate change. The approach advocates ‘buffering and linking protected areas into large-scale mosaics of lands managed cooperatively by many owners across tenures’6 and encourages cooperation and innovation in funding, governance and management.
Rivers are an obvious focus for connectivity conservation in fragmented landscapes. They provide an aquatic corridor that transports organisms and nutrients (the things they need to survive) from one spot to another, and allows for migration and dispersal. In Victoria we are doubly fortunate that the strip of land abutting rivers, the riparian zone, has remained largely as public land. This zone performs a huge variety of ecological functions – it provides shade to keep the water cool, water quality control, capture of sediment, and also habitat, food and drought refuge. Because it is an interface between land and water it is highly biodiverse. Some animals (like the platypus) and plants are riparian specialists while others depend on it for food. For example aquatic insects that emerge on the river bank are an important food source for birds, bats, ants and spiders7.The river corridor, along with road and rail reserves, has been identified by Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) as the key to connectivity conservation and creating the large-scale landscape mosaic envisaged by conservation biologists8. It’s a ready-made starting point for biolinks and wildlife corridors, and has the added bonus of water built in. But it is in serious need of protection.
Unfortunately almost 80 percent of stream side vegetation in Victoria is in moderate to very poor condition9. While in some areas the riparian zone has been completely cleared, in most cases the key threat is grazing. Unrestricted access for stock animals removes much of the understorey vegetation and destroys habitat for native wildlife. It also causes bank erosion and literally muddies the water, as well as polluting it with faeces causing a public health hazard.
Every single CMA recognises stock access as a key threat to river health and under the Victorian River Health Strategy thousands of kilometres have been fenced off and revegetated10. Several catchments in Gippsland, for example the lower Snowy, the Genoa and the Cann, now have protection along their entire length from the forested reaches to their estuary. The benefits are obvious – increased habitat, more bugs, more wildlife, reduced erosion and improved water quality. There are also less immediately obvious benefits – like a big reduction in the bill for damage due to floods11.
Given these benefits, it’s incredible that 17,000km of river bank is still leased to adjacent landholders for grazing under licence. Recommendations have been made time and again to remedy this situation – most recently VEAC set a target in 2011 that 75 percent be fenced within 10 years – but the rate of progress is glacially slow with less than 200 km per year funded through the Victorian Waterway Management Strategy. At that rate it will take 100 years to fence off the public land from the private.
The grazing licences are up for renewal in October 2014. They need to be rewritten as conservation licences so that if the landholder is going to use the riverbank for grazing, he/she has to look after it and allow native vegetation to regenerate. The riparian zone should be fenced off to control stock access and grazing limited to weed control and fire suppression. Up till now conservation licences have been by mutual agreement – it’s time for them to become compulsory, starting with priority reaches where action is most urgent. For example, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is intending to provide environmental water for the Goulburn with the specific objective of improving riparian vegetation12 – that water would be much more effective if cattle were prevented from grazing on the river bank.
There is even money available to pay for the fencing and the cost of providing off-stream watering for stock. Victorians pay a levy on their domestic water bills to make a contribution to offsetting the environmental degradation caused by water extraction and to promoting sustainable water use. Currently the government spends only about half that money on river health projects13 – the rest could be used to fund the fencing program required to get the cows out of our rivers.
Connectivity conservation is by its nature landscape scale. It aims to connect isolated areas of native vegetation and habitat to provide ecological connectivity including opportunities for migration and propagation. The approach is inclusive because it welcomes participants and contributors at all scales from individual property owners to large-scale public, private or indigenous lands14.
This approach was recognised by the former ALP state government in its ‘White Paper for Land and Biodiversity at a time of climate change’15. The White Paper envisaged a Victorian natural resource management plan that would build ecosystem resilience across the state. It identified 13 ‘flagship areas’ with important environmental, social and economic values that were to be ‘managed to maintain ecosystem services’ and a system of biolinks to strengthen connectivity. While it left many gaps, the White Paper was at least an attempt at connectivity conservation. The ALP government did not survive to see it enacted. The current Coalition government has not come up with a connectivity framework.
In its absence, a number of biolink initiatives are underway across Victoria. Biolinks range from relatively small scale projects, for example in the Yarra catchment (Yarra4Life16 on the Woori Yallock) and South Gippsland (Bunurong biolink17 linking Cape Liptrap to the Strzeleckis), to visionary projects such as Habitat 14118 which extends over hundreds of kilometres from the Murray to the coast, and the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative19 which runs all the way along the Great Dividing Range from northern Queensland to Bendigo – over 3,500km. These projects are innovative, collaborative and long term, operate under a range of governance models, and require funding and support from a variety of different sources.
They also require government support. In its native vegetation investigation20, VEAC identified information gaps and made a suite of recommendations to support existing and new incentives for the conservation of native vegetation on private land and small patches of public land. These would assist in the development of biolinks. The government has accepted these recommendations in principle but has not taken any action or provided any funding to implement them21.
VEAC has recently produced a more detailed set of draft recommendations for the Yellingbo area that is crucial to the survival of the state’s faunal emblems, the helmeted honeyeater and l Leadbeater’s possum22. The area has a complex mix of land tenures and VEAC is attempting to establish coordinated management across a ‘State emblems conservation area’. The recommendations may be applicable to other biolink projects.
Based on successive VEAC recommendations, urgent priorities for government include:
• Development of a statewide biodiversity action program
• Support and expand incentive programs for landholders to engage in biodiversity conservation
• Create an inventory of road and rail reserves and their biodiversity values and implement a plan for their management to enhance connectivity conservation
• Bring all crown river frontages under conservation management within 10 years, fenced off and revegetated
• The creation of 20 local coordinator positions to assist in biolink connectivity planning.
2 SoE Report (2008) p296
4 Victoria: State of the Environment 2013 p75
5 IUCN National Committee Australia (2012) Innovation for21st Century Conservation
6 Ibid p 12
7 VNPA (2011) Riverside Rescue – solutions for riparian land in Victoria
8 VEAC (2011) Remnant Native Vegetation Investigation Final Report
9 DSE (200$) Index of Stream Condition.
10 DSE (2009) Victoria river health report card 2002-09
13 DEPI Annual Report 2012/13 p 199http://www.depi.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/198612/DEPI-8307-…
14 IUCN (2012) op cit
15 DSE (2009) Securing Our Natural Future
20 VEAC (2011) op cit
21 DSE (2011) Victorian government response to VEAC’s Remnant Native Vegetation Investigation Final Report