Policies for Threatened Species and a "New Deal for Nature"

Peter Bridgewater

Adjunct Professor in Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Governance Institute of Applied Ecology and Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis

A world dominated by people and their actions is certainly with us; it is called by many the Anthropocene as Dryzek and Pickering wrote on this blog recently . Whatever the name, in this human-dominated epoch the fate of both people and non-human nature does not depend on sustaining natural systems, since they have largely gone, but on how to reshape and make room for nature. Nature conservation in the Anthropocene-is changing. New names abound; new conservation (recognising the real changes occurring in our land- and seascapes), compassionate conservation (really animal welfare), conservation optimism (largely academic) and nature needs half (a vainglorious attempt to secure half the earth for nature). Policies for this new ear all derive from the C20th and are in urgent need of updating to deliver practical results for people and nature – a new deal, indeed.

But what does all this mean for threatened species, given their key focus the in the science, policy and practice of nature conservation in Australia and elsewhere? As I wrote with a colleague nearly 25 years ago, threatened species are much better seen as symptoms of ecosystem dysfunction, and the imperative for conservation practitioners should be to understand the cause of those symptoms, rather than ‘‘trying to save the man overboard while the ship sinks’’.

 In searching for conservation of relevance we must think broadly and consider known and predicted change of the environment instead of restricting action to threatened species and their long-term survival – which may be a quixotic and expensive effort.  Indeed, today’s non-threatened species may become threatened in the future, and some rare species (not threatened but often confused as such) could be better managed if their place and role in the wider land and seascape is documented. It is the conservation relevance of species that should be the most important determining character, rather than some sort of threat to their existence.  The proliferation of lists of threatened species is not necessarily helpful; decision makers can easily succumb to Threatened species fatigue. Conversely, species that frequent the lists are often not the poorly-known species that may also be imperilled, and upon which much ecosystem function depends.

Yet threatened species feature with ever-increasing importance in national legislation dealing with nature conservation. Many governments have enacted threatened species legislation, including our own. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) is the USA Endangered Species Act (US ESA) of 1973 with devotees and detractors in equal measure, while the Australian and state/territory governments have various forms of threatened species legislation.  Threatened species feature as a specific target for UN Sustainable Development Goal 15, viz. ‘by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species’’.  Nationally, threatened species are matters of national environmental significance under the wide-ranging Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act of 199, that replaced the Endangered Species Protection Act of 1992.

Jedidiah Purdy in his book After nature,  specifically in reference to the US ESA, sums up the dilemmas and conflicts produced by the various pieces of threatened species legislation, goals, targets and policy advice, as ‘‘(ESA) prohibits harm to endangered species and their ‘critical habitat’ in a way that assumes human beings can save everything, if only we limit our incursions into ecologically important places……. The question is not how to save everything, but what to save and why, a question the ESA gives scant help in addressing’’.  Transpose the ESA with Australia’s EPBC Act and state/territory legislation and you have the same situation.

What we really need is not ever more detailed descriptions of ways to save threatened species but a range of steps to help manage development in the Anthropocene biosphere. Such steps include including agroecological innovations, large-scale ecosystem regeneration and restoration projects including rewilding and the design of blue-green infrastructure in cities and developing food production systems that also function as bio-diverse ecosystems. Similar ideas were articulated in CSIRO’s Australian National Outlook in 2015.

A nature conservation for the Anthropocene biosphere must, then, balance the realities of human pressures and demands with sensible strategies to keep as many elements of our current biodiversity as possible, but letting go with regret where we must. Key points in what some conservationists are calling a “new deal for nature” must include evaluating the effectiveness of threatened species legislation. This means a bigger and more important role for zoos, botanic gardens and germplasm banks with a down-playing of the role of protected areas as we know them, to become sites of last resort for some species. 

Identification of key threatening processes has been a feature of the national legal framework for threatened species since 1992.  Now in the context of a “new deal for nature” identification and management of threatening process is even more important, yet often not prioritised well. An excellent example is the role of dingoes in landscape – under consideration since 2015, yet still not accepted, but with an even stronger evidence base since a paper in the journal oikos late last year.  Rewilding through better management of dingoes could help remove the obsession for conservation through fences currently prevalent.

Critically, the time and money spent on developing recovery plans for species with little likelihood of recovery in the wild needs a reality check.  It is unnecessary for most listed species to have a dedicated recovery plan with all the bells and whistles, as often by the plan’s completion the species is beyond saving and funds are not available to implement all the recovery actions. Further, it is inefficient to develop separate and uncoordinated recovery plans for several species and ecological communities in the same geographic area.   There should be a focus on conserving and managing functioning landscapes and their component ecosystems (increasingly perhaps novel ones) using instruments such as the EPBC Act and its conservation advice process. Conservation advices, while seen by some as legally weaker that Recovery Plans, provide a more immediate focus on actions to reduce the threats to threatened species, set in a broader ecosystem context.  Conservation advices can also give guidance to all concerned, from primary producers, Aboriginal groups, conservationists, scientists, and industry, that will help make Australia’s future conservation much more effective over the next decades. 

Nature conservation, reinvigorated for the twenty-first century, should seek to open debates and action on the appropriate but realistic actions to manage threatened species, including how novel ecosystems can be key agents of ecosystem conservation.  Additionally, the roles of restoration, rewilding, and, yes, even de-extinction, should be on the table. A reinvigorated nature conservation must promote adaptive management, create partnerships between all sectors of society and develop a land/seascape focus.

25 years ago, Martin Holdgate, a former IUCN Director- General, observed that “dialogue between all sectors of the community is needed. Especially needed is dialogue between governments as custodians of the economy and regulators of policy and action, and local people who are the custodians of the land and its living resources”.   Nothing much has changed in those 25 years, so the urgent need for proactive action, using simple and effective tools like conservation advices, and eschewing the thorough but complicated recovery plan approach, perhaps except for a few high-profile species, must be the way forward to policies helping shape a new deal for nature.

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