Are we getting value for money from offset research programs – a case study of the Northern Quoll in WA

Richards (2016) questioned whether offsets were sufficiently transparent of know whether they were achieving their objectives and whether they were value for money, Lindemayer et al. (2017) reported offsets of a nest box program where ineffective, Maron et al. (2012) concluded that many of the expectations set by current offset policy for ecological restoration remain unsupported by evidence, and Maron et al. (2010) questioned whether offsets genuinely compensate for habitat removal. The Western Australian Auditor General (2011; p.7) when commenting on the mining industries compliance with approved conditions, including offsets, concluded that:

  • While some agencies monitor their own offsets, there is no clear record of how many offset agreements the State has entered into, what it should be receiving and whether the offsets are being fulfilled.
  • Government is currently developing a formal offsets policy, and has been for a number of years. In the meantime a number of agencies have been and continue to enter into agreements without any clearly defined supporting policy on what is acceptable as an offset and how they should be reported.
  • A lack of approved Government policy and effective monitoring and reporting of offsets causes poor transparency and accountability and a risk that offsets are seen as a means to buy project approval or extract money from proponents.

So, are research offsets effective and are we getting value for money in Western Australia? This is a quick review of the effectiveness of the environmental offsets for Northern Quoll in the Pilbara.

In 2013, the then Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) convened a one day workshop of research scientists employed in the university or government sectors (13 people), research scientists and environmental consultants employed in the private sector (30 people), mining industry representatives (22 people) and representatives of Western Australian and Australian government departments responsible for environmental regulation and approvals (9 people) to develop the research priorities for Northern Quoll in the Pilbara to be funded from environmental offsets and managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA; Cramer et al. 2016).

The agreed research priorities were (Cramer et al. 2016):

  1. Develop appropriate and standardised survey and monitoring methods;
  2. Improve our understanding of habitat requirements;
    • Define areas of critical habitat for the northern quoll in the Pilbara;
    • Understand how disturbance affects habitat quality and connectivity;
  3. Population dynamics;
    • Better understand the population dynamics of the northern quoll in the Pilbara;
    • Investigate population structure and the interaction between populations;
  4. Key threats and the interaction of these threats;
    • Introduced predators;
    • Cane toads;
    • Infrastructure development and interactions with humans; and
    • Interactions between threats.

Dr Stephen Van Leeuwen (Assistant Director, Biodiversity and Conservation Science, DBCA) kindly provided the following information on the environmental offset funds used by the DBCA for the Northern Quoll projects:

  • $400,000 from Fortescue Metals Group (4th year of 10yr commitment)
  • $135,000 from Roy Hill (3rd year of 10yr commitment)
  • $62,000 from Process Minerals International (once off payment)
  • $25,000 from MRD (once off payment)
  • Roy Hill is also funding monitoring work on a fee-for-service basis and post-graduate (PhD) research.

This is a total of $622,000 plus Roy Hill’s fee-for-service funding, plus there is $350,000 from Atlas Iron via DBCA directed to Murdoch University for genetic research. There is also a Rio Tinto offset funded project at Yarraloola ($3 million over 5yrs) which involves work on Northern Quoll, Pilbara Olive Python, feral cats, fire management/mapping, weed control and pasture/livestock management. DBCA is undertaking the Northern Quoll portion of this project on a fee-for-service arrangement which includes training of Traditional Owners and a PhD student.


Terrestrial Ecosystems has used annual reports published by the DBCA as an indication of the output for this expenditure of funds. Research is typically evaluated by both the number of peer-reviewed publications and the quality of publications. Quality is often assessed by the standing of the journal in which the information has been published and conference presentations, although useful, are generally ranked low as a research output.

Department’s annual reports for the Northern Quoll project reviewed included:

  • Dunlop et al. (2013) Ecology and management of the northern quoll Dasyurus hallucatus in the Pilbara, Department of Parks and Wildlife, Perth.
  • Dunlop et al. (2014b) Ecology and management of the northern quoll Dasyurus hallucatus in the Pilbara, Department of Parks and Wildlife, Perth.
  • Dunlop et al. (2016) Pilbara Northern Quoll Research Program, Department of Parks and Wildlife, Perth.
  • Dunlop (2017) Pilbara Northern Quoll Research Program, Department of Parks and Wildlife, Perth.

All of these are publicly available, and we can forward you copies for your own assessment if you don’t have them.

The 2013 annual report indicated that DPaW was involved in five major tasks:

  1. undertaking a literature review;
  2. developing a Pilbara wide survey and monitoring program;
  3. undertaking Northern Quoll surveys and landholder consultations;
  4. implement a Pilbara wide monitoring program; and
  5. undertaking ecological and demographic study of quolls in the Pilbara.

The literature review was completed in 2011 (Cook 2010).

Work commenced on a Pilbara wide survey and monitoring program for Northern Quolls. This 10-year survey was not discussed nor was it a recommended research priority by the 2013 Department sponsored workshop or resulting publication. The Commonwealth Government has no record of requesting this survey, so it appears that it was an initiative of the DPaW.

In 2012, a project commenced where up to 20 cameras were deployed for at least 2 nights for up to 100 sites to detect the presence of Northern Quoll in the Pilbara. There is a spreadsheet attached to the annual report that provides limited data from this survey. No other substantive report or outcomes of this survey could be found.

Surveys were undertaken between 2011 and 2012 on BHPBIO mine sites and a granite quarry to determine usage and compare Northern Quoll abundance and density with nearby areas. A brief report of the outcome of this work was included in the annual report.

A report on the genetic structure of Northern Quolls in the Pilbara was commenced (Spencer et al. 2013) and Lorna Hernandez-Santin commenced a PhD on the population dynamics, demography and threats to Northern Quoll around Python Pool and Yarrie.

The 2013-14 annual report (Dunlop et al. 2014b) indicated the following was undertaken:

  1. launch of NatureMap threatened fauna portal;
  2. collation of distributional data;
  3. selection of long-term monitoring sites;
  4. development of standard monitoring protocols; and
  5. species distribution modelling.

Other than the NatureMap portal and data collection sheet for Northern Quoll surveys, there were no other peer-reviewed publications from the 2013-14 year.

DBCA published survey and monitoring guidelines for Northern Quolls (Dunlop et al. 2014a). Although they are described as survey guidelines there is no link between area surveyed and the suggested trapping protocols, which is essential given that the size of an impact area and its terrain will affect the survey effort. These survey protocols may be suitable for some areas but will be inappropriate for other areas. No mention is made of the use of detection dogs, which have now been shown to be a very cost-effective strategy for surveying for threatened species such as Koala (Cristescu et al. 2015, Woosnam and Wedrowicz 2017) and tuatara (Browne et al. 2015). There is no obvious science behind the suggested guidelines, and Cramer et al. (2016) indicated that the effectiveness of these guidelines in determining presence/absence, let alone relative abundance, should be tested. This guideline is inadequate for surveys to support EIA assessments, as it does not indicate the survey effort per unit area. This research program was given a high priority, so it could provide information to non-government agencies undertaking Northern Quoll surveys to support EIA assessments in the Pilbara.

Spencer et al. (2013) provided a preliminary report on the genetic diversity of Northern Quolls in the Pilbara. This work was funded by the Commonwealth Government through the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW).

In 2014-15 annual report (Dunlop et al. 2016) listed projects as:

  1. the collation of data from external sources;
  2. collection and addition of new presence records;
  3. distribution modelling;
  4. deployment of a standardised annual monitoring regime for Pilbara populations;
  5. research into the impacts of disturbances from industry and development;
  6. movement and dietary studies; and
  7. population genetics research.

The NatureMap was updated and new records were added to the portal.

The second annual survey of Northern Quolls was undertaken, and a summary of the results was provided in the annual report.

Northern Quoll distribution modelling was completed, and a publication prepared. Based on the outcomes of the 2013 workshop, this modelling should have defined habitat critical to the survival of Northern Quolls. Given the nature of the data modelled (i.e. where quolls had been caught, and that almost all of the surveys for Northern Quolls in the Pilbara were based on Meri Oakwood’s indications that Northern Quolls were in mesas, rocky areas and breakaways, riverine edges and other areas were not as well surveyed) it was not possible for this modelling to describe, define or map ‘critical habitat’ for Northern Quolls at a sufficiently fine scale to address the issues in the Commonwealth Government referral guidelines (Department of Sustainability Environment Water Population and Communities 2011). Molloy et al. (2015) basically reaffirmed that Northern Quolls were found in mesas, rocky areas and breakaways, and riverine edges because that is where the majority of surveys for this species had been undertaken.

GPS collars were attached to seven Northern Quolls (3F and 4M), with 130 locations recorded to give mean minimum convex polygons for the home range of 13.4 ± 2.7ha for females and 58.0 ± 5.65ha for males or kernel density estimation of 45 ± 35ha and 143 ± 151ha for females and males respectively (Dunlop et al. 2016). The author acknowledged these were underestimates of the home range sizes. The purpose of this research was to investigate the interactions of Northern Quolls with linear infrastructure habitat barriers and determine whether manufactured underpasses were effective in facilitating movement between areas of habitat separated by rail lines. Collared Northern Quolls were not observed to cross over or under (via underpasses) rail lines in this study (Henderson 2015), but other studies (e.g. Creese 2012) have recorded Northern Quolls passing through underpasses and Terrestrial Ecosystems’ had a radio tracked a Northern Quoll that cross the elevated FMG rail line and was then subsequently killed by a train. Creese (2012) used camera traps, sand pads and track pads to record vertebrate fauna that passed under the BHP Billiton iron ore mainline north of Yandi Junction to Port Hedland and recorded 45 species using culvert. The most frequently recorded species passing through culverts was the Northern Quoll. Henderson’s (2015) study indicated that there was strong relationship between rocky landscape features, geology and northern quoll habitat preference. Henderson’s (2015) honours thesis is available, but we have not seen this work published in the literature.

Spatial patterns were inferred from genetic data – the genetic profiles demonstrate that the Pilbara Northern Quoll population is a single genetic cluster, suggesting high levels of annual male dispersal occurring between localities across the region. Mainland Pilbara Northern Quolls retain moderate genetic diversity and show no evidence of recent or long-term population bottleneck (Dunlop et al. 2016).

Study was being undertaken on the paternity of pouch young to assess mating patterns, but there were no data available at the time of reporting.An analysis of Northern Quoll scats was undertaken and the results of this were published in Dunlop et al. (2017) to indicate Northern Quolls are opportunistic omnivorous, and its diet varied across the region.

A population viability analysis (PVA) has been undertaken, indicating that population growth rate was most sensitive to perturbations in adult and juvenile mortality, with increases of more than 10% or 5%, respectively, above current estimated (baseline) levels leading to dramatic declines in Northern Quoll numbers. An increase in juvenile mortality of 5% caused a predicted 22-54% decline in the population and a moderate to high chance of extinction in 20 years (Moro 2015). No publication in the peer-reviewed literature was located.

We located another study on testings the effectiveness of GPS units on Northern Quolls (Rayner et al. 2015) that was not mentioned in the 2014-15 annual report, so we have presumed this was not funded using environmental offset funds, although the report indicates it was funded by Rio Tinto.

The annual report for 2016 (Dunlop 2017) indicated the following was undertaken:

  1. additional records in the NatureMap portal;
  2. the third survey of Northern Quolls was completed;
  3. detection probabilities and cost of analysis for detection;
  4. survey of Karlamilyi National Park;
  5. defining critical habitat and the impact of disturbances;
  6. occupancy modelling;
  7. population dynamics and ecology;
  8. paternity of pouch young;
  9. dietary analysis;
  10. key threats – introduced predators; and
  11. recolonization of restored or artificial habitat.

Additional data has been added to the NatureMap portal. The third survey of Northern Quolls has been undertaken indicating a decline in the number of Northern Quoll captures.

Preliminary work has been undertaken to compare the efficacy, cost and minimum effort required to achieve 95% confidence in detection probabilities of trapping and camera traps based on existing surveys. It is possible that the survey effort to collect data used in the analysis has been insufficient to provide accurate estimates of occupancy. No peer-reviewed publication has been located.

Survey of Desert Queen Baths, Karlamilyi National Park was undertaken based on records reported by Turpin and Bamford (2015).

The early work by Molloy et al. (2015) was used to comment on the model used and confirmed that Northern Quolls are most likely to be found in ecological habitat associations of vegetation, climate and slope, within the rocky areas (Molloy et al. 2017).

A PhD student started work on occupancy modelling, but no information was available at the time of reporting.

The earlier reported genetic research is continuing, but we could find no publication in the peer-reviewed literature.

The earlier work on paternity of pouch young was continuing as an honours project in 2017 with no report available yet.

Dietary information referred in the previous annual report has been completed (Dunlop et al. 2017).

A paper by Hernandez-Santin et al. (2016) that was based on her PhD project found that dingoes were scarce in the Pilbara, and their role as top predators in their study areas was weak. Cats avoided dingoes in time at a fine scale, but their spatial distribution was not affected by dingoes. Cats frequently used flat and open habitats, and Northern Quolls avoided areas used by cats. They suggested that introduced predators influence the use of landscapes by Northern Quolls at both local and larger scales and speculated that predator avoidance is likely to be a major reason for the contraction of the distribution of Northern Quolls to rocky areas across northern Australia.

Department staff undertook Northern Quoll surveys for a mining company (Dunlop et al. 2015a, Dunlop and Johnson 2016); presumably at the direct request of the company.

Assessment of outcomes

The value of what has occurred to date should be judged against three questions:

  1. what evidence is there to indicate that the completed research is likely to increase the long-term survival of Northern Quoll in the Pilbara;
  2. how will management of Northern Quolls now be altered as a result of the research; and
  3. what components of the research plan agreed to at the 2013 workshop have been completed for the ~$1m s that has been spent and has the tax payer received value for this investment.

These questions should be addressed in the context of the agreed research priorities, which were (Cramer et al. 2016):

  1. Develop appropriate and standardised survey and monitoring methods
  2. Improve our understanding of habitat requirements
    • Define areas of critical habitat for the northern quoll in the Pilbara
    • Understand how disturbance affects habitat quality and connectivity
  3. Population dynamics
    • Better understand the population dynamics of the northern quoll in the Pilbara
    • Investigate population structure and the interaction between populations
  4. Key threats and the interaction of these threats
    • Introduced predators
    • Cane toads
    • Infrastructure development and interactions with humans
    • Interactions between threats

To date, there appears little new data generated by this research program that would make a significant difference to how Northern Quolls should be managed in the Pilbara, with a corresponding increase in their distribution and abundance.

The Northern Quoll survey guidelines published by the Department are deficient, incomplete and inadequate for the purposes of EIA surveys and management in WA.

The studies by Molloy et al. (2015, 2017) refine the habitat used by Northern Quoll but do not define ‘critical habitat’ or improve our knowledge of ‘critical habitat’ beyond what was known at the time of the 2013 workshop (i.e. mesas, rocky areas and breakaways, riverine edges). This should not be viewed as a criticism of the Molloy et al.’s research, as the data were never available to provide the fine-scale analysis necessary to determine critical habitat. We are, however, aware of a proposal that was presented to the Department to place GPS collars on 20 Northern Quoll that would have provided the necessary information about Northern Quoll critical habitat, but this project was not supported by the Department.

There was an honours project (Henderson 2015) on Northern Quoll movement patterns in relation to infrastructure, but the findings of this small and limited project are different to information provided by numerous environmental consultants and a Masters’ thesis prepared by Creese (2012; i.e. Northern Quolls will use underpass and cross rail lines).

Analysis of DNA is ongoing to understand population dynamics and population structure of Northern Quolls in the Pilbara. It is anticipated that at some stage in the future these data will be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

There was a PhD project (Hernandez-Santin et al. 2016) that shed some light on the interaction of cats and Northern Quoll, and cats and dingoes. Hernandez-Santin received in-kind support from the Department and a small financial contribution to attend a conference and one return airfare to the Pilbara.

Considerable funds from the environmental offset resources have been spent on four surveys of Northern Quolls at multiple sites in the Pilbara, but the 2013 workshop on Northern Quoll research priorities did not recommend a 10-year annual survey of Northern Quolls.

The Department has undertaken a survey of Karlamilyi National Park and published data on Northern Quoll diets, both of which are interesting, but not recommended research priorities. In addition, the Department has undertaken Northern Quoll surveys for mining companies (e.g. surveys in 2011 and 2012 on BHPBIO mine sites and granite quarry; Johnson and Anderson 2014, Dunlop et al. 2015a, Dunlop and Johnson 2016), and also see Johnson and Andersen (2014) and Dunlop et al. (2015b). This work was presumably done at the request of the respective companies. These surveys could have been undertaken by environmental consultants, which begs the question: why is a government department that supposedly short of staff resources doing these surveys?

Research published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature includes one publication by the Department (Dunlop et al. 2017), two publications by an academic consultant team (Molloy et al. 2015, Molloy et al. 2017), one by a PhD student (Hernandez-Santin et al. 2016) and an honours thesis (Henderson 2015). The report by Cramer et al. (2016) was based on the workshop outcomes.


It is not clear how the data collected thus far will significantly improve the geographical distribution and abundance of Northern Quolls in the Pilbara or improve how we manage Northern Quolls in the context of continued mining development and rehabilitation. Do we need to wait another four years to learn that the research effort is unlikely to make a difference to the conservation status of Northern Quolls? Perhaps we should have asked the question in the 2013 workshop: how is this new knowledge likely to improve outcomes for Northern Quoll?

Had a university research team, not-for-profit agency (e.g. Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Bush Heritage), a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) or an environmental consulting team or team of consultants been commissioned to undertake the research priority projects agreed to during the 2013 workshop, then would the output have been any different? After 4 years and approximately $1m spent, is this a reasonable output? Is it unreasonable to expect six to eight publications in the peer-reviewed, scientific literature after four years?

We suspect the Department might not like our conclusions that the WA tax payers and mining industry (who largely provide the offset funds) are not receiving value for money, so here is the challenge to the Department:

Put all ongoing and future Northern Quoll research programs and research projects that are funded from environmental offsets out to public tender.

The Department can submit its tenders on the same basis as anyone else, and all submissions should be independently assessed. If the Department wins the contracts and delivers on its contract obligations, then we will know we are getting value for funds spent.


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Photo – Northern Quoll; Northern Quoll and cat tracks



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One Response to “Are we getting value for money from offset research programs – a case study of the Northern Quoll in WA”

  1. Dave Kabay on April 9th, 2018 8:44 pm

    Excellent report. Good recommendations for improvement. It would be a great pity for the department to take offence of it. Off sets expenditure, objectives , results and KPI’s should be very open, effecient and transparent otherwise its great benefits to conservation could be compromised by the very institution commissioned to look after it

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