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7 March 2017 5 min read

Every five years, the Australian Government commissions an independent national assessment of the state of the Australian environment. Australia State of the Environment 2016 is the fifth national assessment and includes nine detailed thematic reports exploring: atmosphere, built environment, heritage, biodiversity, land, inland water, coasts, marine and Antarctic environment. CSIRO's Dr Ian Cresswell and Dr Helen Murphy prepared the chapter on Australia's biodiversity.

Man crouched near water hole
Dr Ian Cresswell in the Northern Territory for the Garma Festival.

ECOS spoke to Dr Ian Cresswell, Research Director of the Biodiversity, Ecosystem Knowledge and Services Program within CSIRO’s Land and Water, with extensive experience working in environment and sustainable development in several different areas, including reserve planning, fisheries, wildlife regulation, protected areas and biodiversity discovery. Ian is lead author on the Biodiversity chapter in the 2016 State of the Environment Report.

ECOS: What were you working on in 2011 when the last State of the Environment Report was released?

IC: I was the Science Director for CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship working on issues dealing with conservation and sustainability. I was also a reviewer on one of the chapters of the 2011 State of the Environment report. The latest report was initially intended to be an update of the previous report, but it’s grown to become a much more comprehensive document.

ECOS: What was the scope of your chapter?

IC: The biodiversity chapter draws together the most important points relating to biodiversity from the chapters on land and marine as well as providing its own view of the state and trends of all parts of biodiversity across Australia.

ECOS: How do you go about gathering so much information and drawing conclusions with such a wide scope?

IC: It draws on a variety of different resources – providing a comprehensive review of the public literature, scientific reports as well as both state and national updates on the trends and impacts and pressures on biodiversity. It’s a meta-analysis which extracts information from individual species in a particular area, to reports from across jurisdictions, action plans and reviews, in order to come up with the most comprehensive view about biodiversity. This work has extended over 18 months providing detailed analysis on major taxa groups, birds, reptiles, vegetation. It’s 18 months’ work. We used our networks and incorporated that into a story, including citizen science networks best demonstrated by the Bird Atlas, they do an amazing job compiling information from nature.

ECOS: What are the top 3 changes since the last report covered in your chapter?

IC: One of the biggest findings is that all of the major pressures on biodiversity outlined in the last report are the same and they haven’t improved. A lot of the pressures are the same that we have been reporting since the first State of the Environment in 1996. What we are doing is providing more and more precision about the decline of biodiversity. We are also able to report on cases where we have been able to arrest or reverse the decline.

The biggest finding is that it’s the cumulative impact of multiple pressures that then amplify the threat to biodiversity. It’s not just cats, it is cats and climate change along with the fire regimes. What that’s telling us is the impact of invasive species is immense but it’s the multiple forms of threats together, a death by a thousand cuts. That’s the planning for the future where we know we have to improve how we systematically synchronise our efforts.

There’s the critical impact of Indigenous land management, we have seen a massive growth of Indigenous owned and managed land and that brings with it a range of management issues and resourcing issues to deal with threats and impacts. Traditional land management hasn’t had to deal with massive introduction of grasses or introduced predators, so it’s a question of working together.

Another of the big emphases for the future is around the peri-urban impacts, suburban development and small-scale farming close to cities, that is driving the loss of biodiversity as well as a constant new source of cats and wild dogs. That the peri-urban area has never been as big a priority.

ECOS: What have been some of the developments in technology or methods to improve the science since the last report?

IC: One area we talk about is the Western Australian government project, the Western Shields program. It is one of the largest wildlife education programs ever undertaken in Australia. The program re-establishes natural animals in large areas protected from the incursion of other animals. They have found that actually releasing multiple species all at once has been beneficial as new environments have been created.

There are also philanthropic conservation organisations now buying up tracts of land for protection and monitoring.

The translocation of threatened animals is becoming more sophisticated. We are now able to save populations of animals. Once we have identified that a mammal is threatened, we can now provide evidence to illustrate the successful relocation of animals to a secure environment once the threat from foxes and cats has been removed/cleared. This is working very well.

There’s some hope but it’s a very large landscape and these are tiny dots. If we think that’s the answer we’ll have these tiny islands in a barren desert, that’s not the entire answer. It’s a bit like having an ark, there actually is one project called the Gippsland Ark.

The rapid improvement in technology and innovations allow us to be more cost effective in assessment and monitoring and that opens up new opportunities for getting information more quickly.

ECOS: If you were writing the next State of the Environment report, what would you like to see?

IC: The Department is moving towards setting up working with state governments ways of doing environmental accounting so we’re pairing together standard national data sets that allow us to monitor whenever you want, a report on demand rather than every 5 years having to trawl through and find out what’s happening. We know that if we have large scale data sets being reported and measured. That’s always been the desire in the same way we have a set of national accounts that tell us the health of the economy, we need a set of environmental accounts. It’s not as difficult as it might seem but it requires a concerted national effort.

Read the full Biodiversity chapter in the 2016 State of the Environment Report.

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