Death by 722 cuts
The work of a threatened species recovery team is chiefly concerned with figuring out, putting into practice, and reviewing conservation actions to save the species in question. For the Southern Black-throated Finch Recovery Team it all too often means spending time trying to save important habitat from being cleared by proposed developments. University of Queensland conservation biologist April Reside has been part of the team since 2010 (and helping organise waterhole counts of the finch since 2008) and says they’ve faced a constant barrage of proposals for massive mines, new housing estates, solar and sugarcane farms, highway extensions and shopping centres—all in the heart of this Endangered finch’s habitat in Northern Queensland.
“There have been at least 722 projects (at last count) that have been referred to the Federal Government for approval to develop Southern Black-throated Finch habitat since the dawning of the Australian Government’s EPBC Act in 1999—and more than half of them have been approved without requiring any further environmental review from Federal or State governments. This is on top of land cleared for agriculture, which is not under the auspices of the EPBC Act and which the Queensland government requires no permit for and does not usually subject to environmental review. In all, an estimated 80 per cent of their habitat has been lost, and more is being devastated to this day.
The constant chipping away of its habitat has a cumulative effect on the bird that our environment laws fail to take into account. April says even the smallest parcel of land may be important for this wide-ranging savannah species as they need to eat grass seeds every day. “This makes them highly dispersive, thin on the ground and hard to find. They’re constantly moving around the landscape to find food, which is dependent on rainfall, so it’s hard to know where they are and what constitutes ‘the right habitat’—they might only need a particular spot just one month of the year.”
Worse, the government’s ‘solution’ to the loss of Black-throated Finch habitat through development is to create an ‘offset’ whereby other nearby habitat is restored or protected from future clearing. But the only thing that offsets guarantee is that habitat will be lost. It’s never been demonstrated that their habitat can be restored or re-established or that birds can be relocated to new locations with suitable habitat, if it even exists.
April says, “The chief threat to this bird is without a doubt habitat destruction and degradation [but] there is a singular absence of focus on any threats linked to development from our politicians.”
But she maintains the Black-throated Finch can still be saved. “We need to get serious about Black-throated Finch habitat loss today. We need to map the landscape, and work to preserve the good stuff that’s left. At a higher level we need a commitment to prevent extinction, better accountability and adequate resources. Today, the money that is spent on this bird comes mostly through development offsets. It’s ironic that the funds to save these birds come from the chief threat to its existence—the destruction of habitat.”