ACT State of the Environment 2007
Issue: Conserving biodiversity
Following the January 2003 bushfires that burned much of the natural areas west of Canberra and the fringes of Canberra itself, the Territory has been in the grip of a major drought that has undoubtedly affected recovery of natural ecosystems and, in the case of some unaffected by the fires, had its own impact.
Ecological monitoring in Namadgi National Park has demonstrated the remarkable powers of recovery many natural ecosystems have, although there are many areas that will show evidence of the fires for many years. The ACT Department of Territory and Municipal Services (TAMS) (Parks, Conservation and Lands) have started developing ecological thresholds for fire1 in Namadgi, an essential foundation for assessing ecological condition leading to more informed fuel management in this important water catchment, natural and wilderness area.
Recovery of vegetation in the Lower Cotter Catchment and at Jedbinbilla (in the Tidbinbilla valley) has also been impressive, due largely to an unexpected level of natural regeneration from seed lying dormant in the soil. Intensive replanting projects managed by government and community groups at Blundells Flat and in other parts of the former Lower Cotter pine plantations are also making a major contribution. However, much remains to be done in what is probably the largest area in the country of native vegetation restoration following pine plantation forestry. The Lower Cotter Catchment is to be re-zoned in the new Territory Plan as Mountains and Bushland; with water supply and nature conservation being the primary and secondary objectives respectively.
The ongoing contribution of community groups in support of management and conservation of the ACT's natural resources must be recognised and celebrated. Marshalling the support of people with a wide range of technical expertise, enthusiasm, time and energy to do, among other things, tree planting, bird observing, frog watching and many other environmental activities requires committed individuals and strong community groups. The ACT community's continued involvement in these activities is evidence of a healthy community.
Growing our nature conservation estate
The significant additions to the ACT's nature conservation estate since 2003 reflect the considerable survey and assessment work ACT Government ecologists have undertaken in grassy woodlands and natural grasslands. This means that additional examples of two of the ACT's most threatened ecological communities will be subject to conservation management. However grasslands continue to be under great pressure with several areas destroyed or under threat at the airport and/or threatened by overgrazing from kangaroos on Defence land at Belconnen and Majura. Although the conservation values of these grasslands have been known for some years, they have not been formally protected and until they are they face an uncertain future and inadequate management. Two significant remaining natural temperate grasslands found in the Majura and Jerrabomberra valleys, identified as being of high conservation value, are yet to be included in the ACT's nature reserve system.
It is important that government agencies and private landholders responsible for managing native grasslands continue to cooperate with the scientific community as well as involving community groups in developing management arrangements and plans.
The World Wildlife Fund's 'Triple A' assessment of the ACT's nature conservation estate in 2006 recognises the considerable achievements successive ACT Governments have made in developing a comprehensive, adequate and representative protected areas system for the ACT. During the reporting period 1457 hectares of new nature reserves were added or announced (subject to the necessary changes to the Territory Plan). One of these is a very significant area of Yellow Box-Red Gum Grassy Woodland, Goorooyaroo, bordering the northern part of the ACT. Goorooyaroo abuts Mulligans Flat, together these areas constitute the largest area of this ecosystem protected in public ownership. A significant research partnership is underway between the ACT Government and the Australian National University (Fenner School). Established at Goorooyarroo and Mulligans Flat nature reserves, it is aimed at improving scientific knowledge for conservation management of biodiversity in woodlands.
Given the importance of this area it seems worthwhile to consider its long-term status, possibly as a National Park. This type of approach is proposed as these areas are currently part of the Canberra Nature Park, which encompasses a variety of lands ranging from very low to very high ecological significance yet these areas are generally perceived to be the same by the general community and therefore treated accordingly. Any designation will need to be considered with respect to the overall status of all areas of high ecological significance, including other types of ecosystems (e.g. Natural Temperate Grassland). It may be that Goorooryarro/Mulligans Flat should be part of a network of areas considered for designation as a National Park or be given additional protection and recognition by some other over-arching designation.
As at June 2007 only a few ecological communities lacked adequate protection and it is hoped this deficiency will be addressed during the next reporting period. The priority ecological community for survey and assessment is Snow Gum – Candlebark Tableland Woodland and, for legal protection, the grasslands in the Majura and Jerrabomberra valleys. The necessary change to the Territory Plan, announced in 2004, for Jerrabomberra Valley is yet to be made.
A number of Management Plans were at various stages of preparation at the end of the reporting period (June 2007):
- A draft management plan for the Jerrabomberra Wetlands area, recognised as a significant freshwater habitat in the ACT, was released in 2006 for public comment. The plan was not final at the end of the reporting period.
- A final draft management plan for the Lower Cotter Catchment was ready for ACT Government consideration at the end of the reporting period. The Draft Plan was released in 2006 with the aim of protecting the existing and future water supply, natural and cultural heritage, conservation, and recreational values.
- The Namadgi National Park Revised Draft Plan of Management was released in 2005 for comment: 175 submissions were received. By the end of the reporting period the plan was not finalised.
- The Googong Foreshores Draft Management Plan (2007) has been prepared for the Googong Dam Area (commonly referred to as Googong Foreshores), which is Commonwealth land within New South Wales, managed by the ACT Government on behalf of the Australian Capital Territory Executive. The Plan has yet to be finalised.
Increasing the knowledge base for management
Placing land within reserves is an important step towards ensuring the ACT's natural resources are protected and contribute towards making the ACT sustainable. Once these areas are committed to reserves, it is vital that they be managed using the best available experience and knowledge based on sound science and research. Important initiatives have been taken since 2003 to develop this knowledge base through research partnerships with the Australian National University and the University of Canberra. While it will be some years before this research bears fruit, developing close relationships between managers and researchers is fundamental to practising evidence-based management directed towards recovery and conservation of the ACT's natural resources.
The community's concern about certainty for its domestic water supply has stimulated support for research into the threatened fish fauna in the Cotter and Murrumbidgee rivers. As with terrestrial ecosystems, the information obtained from targeted research is vital if sound decisions are to be made about the infrastructure required to secure Canberra's water needs. Knowledge gaps still remain and addressing them, as part of the planning and management of our rivers and reservoirs needs to be a high priority.
These examples of linking ecological research with management of the ACT's nature reserves, threatened species and ecological communities and planning of Canberra's development are significant changes that have occurred during the reporting period. It is very important that the knowledge and experience of the scientific community be routinely sought and applied to the many existing and emerging resource management tasks.
Community involvement in management of the ACT's natural resources is significant and valuable. A number of volunteer groups undertake projects to collect data and improve the condition of the natural environment. The groups include experts (such as Canberra Ornithologists Group) and membership numbers range from a few people (some ParkCare groups) to hundreds of people (e.g. Greening Australia). The ACT Government employs coordinators and facilitators to work with the community in conservation management.
It is important that ACT Government agencies work with qualified community groups such as the Canberra Ornithologists Group to ensure data collected are made available for use in planning and managing the ACT, particularly its natural resources.
Fire fuel management in natural areas is an important part of resource management, particularly near urban developments. Fuel reduction activities, including burning and particularly grazing, are increasing in bush-fire prone areas. Monitoring the effectiveness of fuel reduction measures is critical to avoiding or minimising biodiversity losses and to providing feedback to those responsible for fire management. Failure to understand the ecological consequences of particular fire regimes may lead to unintended outcomes, including spread of fire resistant vegetation and serious or total loss of some communities. It is important that work continues on improving the scientific knowledge of managers and custodians of the ACT nature conservation estate about fire fuel management through research, monitoring and evaluation.
Expanding the knowledge base for natural resource management is an essential pre-requisite to supporting the community's response to climate change. Issues such as changed frequency and behaviours of bushfires, altered rainfall patterns and stream flows, capacity of our flora and fauna to adapt to changes in their habitats, fragmented habitats and poor connectivity across the landscape (causing isolation of threatened species) and further spread of weeds and feral animals, can be expected to become central to the activities of land managers.
Investment in research and evidence-based management has begun for some high priority species and communities (for example fish, Northern Corroboree Frog, woodlands). However, greater effort is needed in the immediate future if the next state of the environment report is to record satisfactory progress. Pooling resources and expertise, developing multi-agency and regional partnerships, and accessing national programs are some of the ways in which the ACT can magnify the resources it can make available. The ACT is also in a good position to offer leadership in best practice management of some special environments such as native grasslands and grassy woodlands. The structure of Canberra as a carefully planned 'city within the landscape' could also enable the ACT to play a key role in planning and managing ecological connectivity across the landscape at local (Canberra Nature Park), landscape (whole of ACT) and regional (Alps to the coast) scales.
Since the 2003 bushfire, the interaction between government agencies involved in fire management planning, especially during development of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan, has increased. However, there is no central and uniform source of information about fires, the hazard reduction activities of all agencies, the effectiveness of these activities, and relevant ecological data and monitoring outcomes. This is also reflected in other management disciplines. It is important that the proposed fire management database and information system – part of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan Version 2 –be designed to address this gap. The availability of such diverse information and the ability to integrate disparate types of data are essential to ensuring fuel reduction activities are appropriate (in terms of their frequency, physical location and spatial scale, etc.) to reduce Canberra's bushfire risk to an acceptable level, while ensuring such programs do not have unwanted or unplanned adverse affects on the ACT's native species and ecosystems.
Another consequence of the 2003 bushfire was destruction of gates and fences, thereby allowing access to areas formerly closed to public vehicles. While the gates have been restored, there is anecdotal evidence of illegal fishing in the Cotter Reservoir and the Cotter River between the reservoir and Pierces Creek junction. The potential impact on the remnant Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) population, even though fishers in the area may be mainly targeting trout, is of concern. There is also anecdotal evidence of illegal fishing in the closed section of the Murrumbidgee River, which has been closed to protect a stocked population of threatened Trout Cod (Maccullochella macquariensis).
Two species close to local extinction
Despite the major improvements in protecting woodlands and grasslands, it is of major concern that two of the ACT's most threatened species, the Northern Corroborree Frog (Pseudophryne pengilleyi) and the Grassland Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla) continue to decline. The Northern Corroboree Frog's decline has been evident for over 15 years and is in common with frog species across the world. The ACT Government has put in place measures designed to rescue the species from possible extinction through a captive breeding program that has taken eggs through to mature adults. The next state of the environment report may be able to report on the success or otherwise of attempts to stimulate breeding and possibly to initiate release of frogs to the wild.
In the case of the Grassland Earless Dragon it is too early to report whether the severe decline of the Majura population, be it due to the recent drought and/or overgrazing by kangaroos or some other reasons, will lead to local extinction. However, recovery of the grassland habitat and improved management of this important area will be vital to the survival of this species and possibly others dependent on this type of habitat. Best practice management of Grassland Earless Dragon habitat will require land managers to put aside differences in land tenure and past practices in favour of developing more cooperative approaches to understanding what is needed to ensure recovery of threatened species, perhaps through combining management resources and focusing on achieving tangible long-term conservation outcomes.
Development pressures on ACT biodiversity
As Canberra grows, so the pressure to clear native vegetation for development continues. Dependence on land-related economic activities has had consequences outside economic growth, leading to loss of biodiversity. Land and infrastructure development is a continuing threat to biodiversity. Related to this is the increasing importance being attached to the need to maintain and provide connectivity between areas of the conservation estate. This is so that there are potential avenues for the movement of species but also to assist the ability of species to respond to the affects of climate change. Such connectivity may be vital to the survival of some species. Hence, high priority needs to be given to providing, maintaining and enhancing connectivity between core nature conservation areas when planning greenfield and urban renewal developments and major infrastructure projects.
Gungahlin continues to expand, and planning for a proposed new town in the Molonglo Valley has begun. There is a critical need for sound environmental information to inform the planning process if the ACT is to achieve the Government's sustainability goals. In the Molonglo Valley, for example, there are many challenges. The advantages of urban consolidation to achieve reduced use of water and energy and more efficient travel, have to be compared with the clearing of about 650 hectares of Yellow Box – Red Gum Woodland and threatened species habitat in Central Molonglo. Planned research into woodland birds and their use of these woodlands is welcome and warrants continued support as it can be expected that improved planning outcomes will eventuate.
Yellow Box–Red Gum Woodland has been a significant conservation priority in the ACT since it was declared an endangered ecological community in 1997 and is the primary focus of Action Plan 27 (ACT Government, 2004). Continued concern about conserving this woodland type is appropriate due to the historically greater extent of clearing in New South Wales compared to the ACT and the location of some ACT examples within areas identified for future development. While significant examples are protected in the ACT's Nature Reserve system (e.g. Mulligans Flat, Goorooyarroo, Mount Ainslie, Mount Majura, Mugga Mugga, and Callum Brae), parts of the Molonglo Valley are subject to planning for new residential development. The woodlands at Kinlyside are also subject to further planning and, at the time of writing, the new Territory Plan (2008) identified most of the area with the endangered community for urban development. Woodlands at Kama and surrounding parts of the Molonglo Valley are also subject to planning for new residential development.
Commercial native seed harvesting
Use of native species, particularly native grasses, in the ACT's conservation, restoration and landscaping projects has the potential to make an important contribution to recovery of native ecological communities and maintenance of their ecological integrity. Such projects create a demand for suitable native seed. Where native ecological communities such as threatened Natural Temperate Grassland or Yellow Box – Red Gum Grassy Woodland exist, it is important that seed used in adjacent developments be of local provenance to protect the genetic integrity of such communities.
Commercial seed collectors want to be able to collect seed from unleased land in the ACT. Limited seed is currently kept in store, and there is frequently a turn-around time of over a year to collect adequate seed locally for some of the large-scale projects.
The current licensing system in the ACT does not cater for commercial seed collection. To correct this, it would be appropriate to develop an interim policy to allow for limited commercial seed collection on selected unleased sites, pending the completion of the review of the Nature Conservation Act 1980.
Management of pest plants and animals.
The impacts of pest plants and animals continue to be widely felt, although the drought will have had some local effects on their spread or survival. While Government and private landholders continue to apply considerable financial (greater than $2m on weeds) and other resources to controlling pests, any reduction in effective control programs could easily lead to increased impacts.
The Government has prepared a revised weeds strategy for the next 10 years (2007–17) (TAMS 2007). The strategy builds upon the experience of the last 10 years and takes account of the new legislation and declared pest plants list. The strategy provides for an ACT Weeds Advisory Group to oversee and report on implementation of this strategy.
Any on-going control program will need to ensure that on-the-ground results are monitored so that the beneficial effects of applying pesticides or other control methods and value for money can be demonstrated. While determining beneficial effects is likely to be difficult, it is important, as it will allow land managers to more effectively target scarce resources on priority areas and species.
In 2003 the Commissioner for the Environment recommended that the ACT Government should "assess the contributions of existing ACT Government pest plant control programs to achieving pest plant control, biodiversity conservation, and catchment management objectives, and if appropriate, trial alternative programs" (Commissioner for the Environment, 2003).
While new legislation has been enacted and a revised pest plant management strategy has been prepared and are both welcome, there is little evidence that control programs are being evaluated for their effectiveness or if alternative programs have been considered let alone trialled. Over the next reporting period this deficiency will need to be addressed by all agencies and landholders alike and the next state of the environment report will include evidence of effective programs that have focused on achieving pest plant control, biodiversity conservation, and catchment management objectives.
Pest animal control programs have, to date, focused on pigs and horses in Namadgi National Park. Deer are reported to be an emerging pest species and rabbit populations appear to be increasing. The European wasp is widespread and firmly established in the ACT, including in remote natural areas such as the Bimberi Wilderness Area. This illustrates the need to maintain vigilance and to develop additional survey, control and monitoring programs. Careful setting of priorities and access to additional resources commensurate with the new control tasks is needed if environmental and economic damage from animal pests is to be contained or reduced and development of research and management partnerships with other agencies is an appropriate way to make best use of available resources.
Management of Eastern Grey Kangaroos
Under continuing dry conditions, management of Eastern Grey Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) populations in some areas of the ACT has become contentious. The issue involves animal welfare, road safety, catchment management and the impact of overgrazing on ecological communities. Considerable effort has been made to develop a clear scientific basis for kangaroo management; however, most opposition to culling is based on ethical grounds that are unlikely to be swayed by scientific evidence. Kangaroo management policies need to be regularly updated in consultation with key stakeholders.
Areas where kangaroo densities have reached high and unsustainable levels during the reporting period are Googong Foreshores, Belconnen Naval Transmission Station (NTS) and Majura Training Area.
A particularly important management consideration when kangaroo populations reach unsustainable and high levels is the impact of kangaroo grazing on ecological communities (that is, the vegetation cover, the habitat it forms, and plant and animal species). In lowland ACT, some kangaroo populations are concentrated in areas containing endangered ecological communities and over-grazing threatens plants and animals that are dependant on the habitat in those communities for their survival. These conditions currently prevail at Belconnen NTS and Majura Training Area.
Between 1995 and 1997 the Kangaroo Advisory Committee (KAC) prepared three reports that reviewed kangaroo management on public land (KAC 1997), rural land (KAC 1996a) and in captive situations (KAC 1996b) in the ACT. The Natural Resource Management Advisory Committee has monitored the implementation of the recommendations contained in the three reports prepared by the KAC.
Successive ACT governments have adopted the KAC recommendations as the policy framework for managing kangaroos in the ACT. One recommendation found in the KAC reports is that an overall kangaroo management plan be developed for the entire ACT. This kangaroo management plan is now in the early stages of being prepared. It will incorporate those recommendations from the KAC reports that have continuing relevance and will provide a basis for kangaroo management in the ACT in the future.
The following recommendations are made to the ACT Government with a commitment from the Commissioner to assist in advancing their implementation.
1. Strengthen the nature conservation estate by:
- Completing the Territory's nature conservation estate by protecting the few remaining areas of high conservation value including natural temperate grasslands (in the Majura and Jerrabomberra valleys), Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodlands (at Kinlyside, Kama–Molonglo Valley) and the Snow Gum–Candlebark Tableland Woodland. This must include full assessment and recording of the location and condition of remaining examples of Snow Gum–Candlebark Tableland Woodland.
- Protecting lands identified for nature conservation under the Territory Plan in a timely manner. Priority should be given to Jerrabomberra East native grassland nature reserves.
- Considering Goorooyarroo and Mulligans Flat nature reserves (Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodlands) for designation as a national park. It may be that Goorooyarroo–Mulligans Flat should be part of a network of areas considered for designation as a national park or be given additional protection and recognition by some other overarching designation.
2. Strengthen partnerships by:
- ACT Government agencies working with qualified community groups (such as the Canberra Ornithologists Group) to ensure data collected are made available for use in planning and managing the Territory's natural resources.
- ACT Government and Australian Government agencies, and private landholders responsible for managing native grasslands cooperating with the scientific community and community groups in developing management actions that will ensure survival of threatened grassland communities and the species they support.
3. Achieve effective nature conservation management by:
- Finalising, implementing and monitoring management plans, with all stakeholders participating and progress being publicly reported, particularly for:
- Jerrabomberra Wetlands Nature Reserve Management Plan,
- Lower Cotter Catchment,
- Namadgi National Park,
- Googong Foreshores.
- Finalising, implementing and monitoring the ACT Weeds Strategy.
- Maintaining and enhancing connectivity between core nature conservation areas. This needs to be given a high priority in planning greenfield and urban renewal developments and major infrastructure projects.
- Developing and implementing an interim policy to allow for limited commercial seed collection on selected unleased sites, pending completion of the review of the Nature Conservation Act.
- Assessing and implementing mitigation actions on the potential impact of illegal fishing on the remnant population of the threatened Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) in the Cotter Reservoir and the Cotter River between the reservoir and Pierces Creek junction.
- Finalising, implementing and monitoring the kangaroo management plan for the whole Territory. Consultation with the community is to occur at the planning stage.
4. Improve the scientific knowledge of managers and custodians of the ACT nature conservation estate by:
- Continuing existing research, monitoring and evaluation programs.
- Ensuring threatened species and communities, and river biodiversity are the subject of research and monitoring programs, with results from these informing management actions.
- Monitoring and evaluating fire fuel management effectiveness and its effects on ecological and catchment conditions. A central and uniform source of information on all ACT fuel reduction activities, research, monitoring and evaluations should be created.
5. Effectively control pest plants and animals to minimize adverse affects on nature conservation by:
- Continuing existing programs to manage known pest animals (foxes, dingoes/wild dogs, pigs, rabbits, feral horses) and plants (Serrated Tussock, St John's Wort, Chilean Needlegrass, African Lovegrass). Given the significant increase in rabbits, existing rabbit control programs may need to be enhanced.
- Monitoring and controlling emerging pests, such as European wasps and deer. Given that European wasps affect humans as well as biodiversity there is need to give priority to this species.
- Evaluating the effectiveness of pest animal and weed control programs in achieving pest control, biodiversity conservation and catchment management objectives. This information should be used in the ongoing management of such programs, and be made public.
Data sources and references
Indicators used for this issue paper were:
- Ecological communities
- Harvesting native species
- Native species
- Pest animals
- Pest plants
ACT Government, 2004, Woodlands for Wildlife: ACT Lowland Woodland Conservation Strategy, Action Plan No. 27, Environment ACT, Canberra, available at <http://www.tams.act.gov.au/live/environment/ native_plants_and_animals/threatened_species_and_ecological_communities_in_the_act/woodlands_strategy>
A.C.T. Kangaroo Advisory Committee, 1996a, Living with Eastern Grey Kangaroos in the A.C.T. – Rural lands: First Report to the Minister for the Environment, Land and Planning, available at <http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/13837/actkangarooadvisorycommitteereport1pdf.>
A.C.T. Kangaroo Advisory Committee, 1996b, Kangaroos in captivity in the A.C.T : Third Report to the Minister for the Environment, Land and Planning, available at <http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/13823/actkangarooadvisorycommitteereport2pdf.pdf>
A.C.T. Kangaroo Advisory Committee, 1997, Living with Eastern Grey Kangaroos in the A.C.T. – Public Land : Third Report to the Minister for the Environment, Land and Planning, available at <http://www.tams.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/13051/actkangarooadvisorycommitteereport3pdf>
TAMS Territory and Municipal Services 2007, Draft ACT Weeds Strategy 2007–17, Environment and Recreation, Department of Territory and Municipal Services, Canberra, available at <http://www.tams.act.gov.au/play/parks_forests_and_reserves/ policies_and_publications/strategies,plans_and_reviews/weeds_strategy>