What options are available to Victoria’s Environment Minister to protect the Greater Glider?
Greater Glider populations are suffering across Australia. This is especially so in Victoria where populations in the Central Highlands and East Gippsland are in distress due to – among other reasons – fire and logging eating away at their habitat.
The Greater Glider was listed as ‘vulnerable’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in May 2016. It is expected to be listed as threatened under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (Vic) (FFG Act) this month.
Despite this, logging continues unabated in Victoria in important habitat for the Greater Glider.
This is all happening at the same time the FFG Act is being reviewed by the government.
The plight of the Greater Glider raises questions about what should be happening under the FFG Act to protect the species from activities like logging and highlights some of the key elements a reformed FFG Act will need to contain to make sure forest dependent species like the Greater Glider can continue to survive in the wild.
Options currently available to the Minister to protect the Greater Glider
Both the Minister and the Secretary have the power to intervene and halt harmful logging activities. Under the FFG Act, the Secretary can declare critical habitat for the Greater Glider and the Minister can issue an interim conservation order to stop logging within the critical habitat.
The Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) has recently mapped areas of high value habitat for the Greater Glider. The Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), established under the FFG Act, has also undertaken a significant amount of work in considering the listing of the Greater Glider. This could all be used by the government to declare critical habitat and issue an interim conservation order to protect this threatened species.
It is also possible for the Minister to request her Department – under the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 (Vic) – to issue a direction to Victoria’s state-owned logging agency, VicForests, to apply the precautionary principle by refraining from logging in areas that VEAC has mapped as high value habitat for the Greater Glider or where the species has been found.
Both these options would be appropriate actions to take while detailed protections are being established under the FFG Act through the creation of an action statement (see next).
To date, there has been no indication from the Minister, or her Department, that these actions are likely to be taken.
What must happen next under the FFG Act?
Using the critical habitat and interim conservation order provisions in the FFG Act to set interim protection for the Greater Glider as described above, is – legally speaking – discretionary (i.e. they are optional).
However, what must now occur under the FFG Act for the Greater Glider, is the preparation of an action statement. Action statements are fundamental in establishing adequate recovery planning for threatened species in Victoria.
For species that are listed under the FFG Act and found in areas that are subject to logging activities, Action Statements include management actions that set aside and protect small areas of suitable habitat where logging is taking place, as well as protecting the species when they are found during logging operations. These prescriptions were established under action statements for species like the Powerful Owl, the Barking Owl, Masked Owl, Sooty Owl, the Leadbeater’s Possum, Spot Tailed Quoll, the Long Footed Potaroo and the Giant Burrowing Frog, and many others. They aim, among other things, to ensure that we are not knowingly killing listed threatened species.
The prescriptive protections contained in action statements have also been transferred over to a Code of Practice for Timber Production that VicForests must comply with.
We would expect to see similar prescriptive protections in the Greater Glider’s Action Statement – which should be prepared by scientists and informed by the best available science – and for this to then be implemented by VicForests when undertaking logging activities in Greater Glider habitat.
How could the current review of the FFG Act affect the situation?
The FFG Act has a long history of being poorly implemented by successive state governments. The alarming situation that has arisen with respect to the Greater Glider clearly illustrates this is an ongoing problem.
The Department is currently reviewing the FFG Act. This review is welcome and we are hopeful it will improve the current situation.
The Department recently released a consultation paper setting out proposals for reform. The consultation paper contained some welcome recognition of the issues with the FFG Act and some practical and innovative proposals for reform. However, it also contains some suggestions for reform that we think are problematic, particularly with respect to protections for species like the Greater Glider.
For example, there are proposals to remove mandatory preparation of Action Statements for all listed species and threatening processes and to replace them with ‘a landscape or area based planning process……to deliver outcomes for many species’.
We have concerns that this would mean that detailed recovery plans for forest dwelling species like the Greater Glider, would no longer be prepared.. The usual requirement to set aside areas of habitat for species like the Greater Glider in areas that are being logged, combined with individual protections for the Greater Glider when they are found in areas subject to logging, would therefore not occur. This would effectively remove the aim of making sure that we are not knowingly killing threatened species.
This could have catastrophic impacts for our already suffering threatened species that live in Victoria’s forests that are subject to logging.
The way forward
We are working with our friends at GECO to try to persuade the Minister to:
- IMMEDIATELY provide interim protection to the Greater Glider (sign our petition here); and
- Ensure her Department prepares an Action Statement – based on scientific advice – that will adequately protect gliders found in areas subject to logging in the future.
We are also continuing to work with the Department and the Minister to bring about a reformed FFG Act that provides an ambitious framework to protect nature which – amongst other things – retains and improves recovery planning for species and communities. Our detailed submission response to the consultation can be found here.
Read our media release: Minister urged to heed the science on Greater Glider
Read this story in The Age: Scientists warn greater glider faces extinction and want it protected from logging
Image: Greater Glider by Ed Hill (Goongerah Environment Centre)