What do you really value when it comes to allocating resources to threatened species

Sminthopsis dolichura with young 1

Woinarski et al (2015) reported that more than 10% of the endemic Australian mammal fauna had become extinct in the last 200 plus years, a further 21% of Australian endemic land mammals are now assessed as threatened, two species have become extinct in the past decade and the rate of extinction is not slowing.

Clearly, Australians don’t value their endemic fauna that highly, because if it did and we were prepared to spend just 10% of the projected cost of the proposed new submarines on conserving threatened species (i.e. one less submarine; ~$5b) over the next 20 years, then things may be different to the awful scenario painted by Woinarski et al (2015). If you accept the view of McCarthy and Possingham that we have allocated insufficient funds to save all our threatened species, then we must decide which species will face extinction and which ones we will save.

Fleming and Bateman (2016) showed a significant bias in the literature that all threatened species do not attract the same research funding. There was no influence of IUCN status but rather fauna could be divided into the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’. The majority of studies on monotremes and marsupials (the ‘good’) are directed towards their physiology and anatomy, with a smaller ecological focus. By contrast, introduced eutherians (the ‘bad’) have attracted greater attention in terms of ecological research, with greater emphasis on methods and technique studies for population control. Despite making up 45% of the 331 species studied, native rodents and bats (the ‘ugly’) have attracted disproportionately little study.

If we face the reality that there are insufficient resources to save all species, then we need a robust and transparent method of establishing priorities and the allocation of limited funds for threatened species conservation – something that we current don’t do very well. McDonald et al. (2015) argued the inefficiencies in threatened species management include a bias toward large, charismatic species in the listing and recovery process, resource-intensive development of recovery plans, paucity of information about threatened species, inherent uncertainties in threatened species management, politicization of decisions, lack of long-term funding and a lack of feasibility and cost considerations in prioritization.

There are two broad approaches to threatened species conservation; a species focus versus a more landscape-wide focus, and both are valid, and in some cases a mix of the two are used. The current approach seems to focus on species where the Threatened Species Commissioner has named 20 species of mammals and 20 species of birds whose status will be improved by 2020, although there is a landscape approach to dealing with some of the threats (e.g. feral cats).

Carwardine et al. (2014) provided a costed and appraised set of management actions for mitigating threats to species of conservation significance in the Pilbara IBRA bioregion. A list of 53 threatened species were identified and a professional facilitator lead a workshop of researchers, consultants, scientists and conservationists that identified the threats and threatening processes, developed and costed management strategies to mitigate these threats, and allocated priorities based on where best value was derived from the expenditure of funds. The end result was a set of costed priorities that commonwealth, state and local government agencies can use in allocating resources to get the best ‘bang for your buck’. This was an expensive and time consuming process, but it doesn’t need to be so. The Carwardine et al. (2014) methodology, inputs, outputs and conclusions are published so the process is transparent and decisions based on these data are defendable.

Pilbara threatened species workshops

In 2013, the DPaW conducted six excellent workshops on developing research priorities for threatened species in the Pilbara. These workshops indicated research priorities, but no attempt was made in these workshops to assess the cost-effectiveness of any of these priorities, so it may have been the least cost-effective projects were the priorities that have been implemented. It is good to see that DPaW has organised a follow up workshop on 31 May 2016 with the objectives of reviewing Pilbara Northern Quoll research priorities developed in 2013 and determining whether a change in focus is required against those research priorities. It will be interesting to see whether questions about value for money are canvassed at this workshop (i.e. has the community received value for money in what DPaW has been done, could alternative projects have produced better outcomes, could alternative methods of implementation produced better outcomes, could agencies other than DPaW have spent the funds more effectively etc). It remains to be seen how much information is provided to workshop participants and whether the issue of cost-effectiveness is raised and discussed at this workshop.

Environmental offset funds

The funds available for commonwealth and state offsets are increasing but the community is yet to see little on-ground change as a result of spending these funds. To date, the DPaW has essentially retained all available environmental offset funds and actively tenders against researchers, academic institutions and NRM groups for these funds when it is unable to negotiate directly with the proponent to be allocated those funds (e.g. GVD biodiversity projects).

On occasion the public are involved in the setting of priorities on how best to allocate offset funds (e.g. Pilbara threatened species workshops) but on most occasions there is no public consultation and no obvious cost-benefit analysis undertaken on how best to allocate or spend those funds (e.g. Barrow Island offset funds for the Lorna Glen project; $200,000 payment to DPaW by Satterley Property Group for impacting on Western Ringtail Possums). Similarly, there is no external independent assessment of the value that has been obtained from these funds.

A more robust, transparent accountable process is required to ensure the funds available via environmental offsets for threatened species conservation are being used in the most cost effective manner. Perhaps, a cost-effectiveness analysis should be undertaken of the potential uses of all offset funds, and this analysis provided on the Offset Register.

Species recovery plans

Species recovery plans are seldom ever completely or adequately implemented, most often because insufficient funds are allocated for this purpose. The focus of species recovery plans is the series of proposed actions, but there is little evidence in any of the state species recovery plans to indicate a cost-benefit assessment has been undertaken of these actions, and actions have been placed in priority order based on best value for the expenditure of funds. In addition, evaluation of state species recovery plans are almost always undertaken ‘in house’ by the agency responsible for the implementation, so it is very difficult for the public to get a sense of whether we are getting value for money. A more robust, transparent and accountable process is required to ensure the funds available for threatened species conservation are being used in the most cost effective manner.

As a step forward, all species recovery plans should include a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed actions. The details of the cost-benefit analysis can then be included as an appendix, and the actions can be arranged in order of cost-effectiveness priority.

With the ongoing extinction of threatened fauna, continuing decline in abundance of threatened fauna, reduction of funding available for species and habitat recovery and unaccountable use of available resources the community needs to take a step back and decide how much it really values threatened species. If threatened species and ecosystems are important, then a greater attention and focus needs to be made in spending the minuscule funding that is available more wisely.

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Carwardine, J., S. Nicol, S. van Leeuwen, B. Walters, J. Firn, A. Reeson, T. G. Martin, and I. Chades. 2014. Priority Threat Management for Pilbara Species of Conservation Significance. CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Brisbane.

Fleming, P.A, and P.W. Bateman. 2016. The good, the bad and the ugly: which Australian terrestrial mammal species attract the most research? Mammal Review. 1-14

McDonald, J. A., J. Carwardine, L. N. Joseph, C. J. Klein, T. M. Rout, J. E. M. Watson, S. T. Garnett, M. A. McCarthy, and H. P. Possingham. 2015. Improving policy efficiency and effectiveness to save more species: A case study of the megadiverse country Australia. Biological Conservation 182:102-108.

Woinarski, J. C., A. A. Burbidge, and P. L. Harrison. 2015. Ongoing unraveling of a continental fauna: Decline and extinction of Australian mammals since European settlement. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.

Photo credit: Top – Little long-tailed dunnart with young, and bottom – Millstream, WA

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