Damning report into threatened species conservation in Queensland

posted in: Tales of science | 21

I rarely get political on this blog, but what follows is an important part of my story, and of the struggle we’re in to try to save threatened species in Queensland.

A few years ago I resigned from my job in the Threatened Species Unit of the Queensland Government out of sheer frustration. I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall, and achieving very little for conservation. I had worked there for 7 years, in roles ranging from Senior Conservation Officer to Acting Director.

Yesterday the Queensland Audit Office released a report into Conserving Threatened Species in our state which summarises many of the reasons that I left. In particular:

The department has no strategy or framework for conserving or managing threatened species. … Because it has no strategy, its efforts in managing threatened species lack purpose, direction and coordination.

…The department does not systematically plan where to deploy its available resources to achieve the most effective balance of actions to protect habitats, mitigate threats and reduce species decline. It is not clear how much the department spends each year in total on threatened species management as it does not effectively track and account for funding used on specific activities…

…With few exceptions, the department does not currently know how threatened species are faring and whether management actions are having the desired impact.

…The department’s decisions about which species receive its greatest conservation efforts are often determined by iconic value, individual interests, departmental knowledge and advocacy, rather than by objective assessments of appropriate priorities…

…Despite, managing land with over 1 000 threatened species and having a total 2017–18 budget of $111.3 million, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) does not identify specific allocations of funding for the protection and recovery of threatened species on the land it manages.

Sadly, the main recommendation of this report is more ‘plans’.
We don’t need another plan. We know that many species are in decline, but we also know – in great detail – what needs to be done.

We need the government to actually support and implement actions on the ground to DO SOMETHING. Now.

Read the full report, or the summary, here.

I am deeply troubled by what I have just described above. It means that the urgent issue of saving our biodiversity in Queensland is being completely mismanaged by the government department that is supposed to be the leader in this area. But I am glad that the concerns I have held for many years have been documented by the Queensland Audit Office. They are not just the gripes of one disgruntled employee. Let’s hope that some change will come, for the better.

I’d also like to stress that parts of the Queensland government still do strive to formulate science-based policy, and they do it well. E.g. the Queensland Herbarium. There are still good scientists working for the government who are allowed to excel at their work.

Many good groups and individuals are trying to conserve and recover threatened species across Queensland, and many are achieving great things. The government needs to support these people by identifying priorities, coordinating actions, managing up-to-date data and providing expert advice. It needs to invest resources and show leadership in the areas that a government body is best placed to act (e.g. scientific monitoring and analysis, the employment and training of species experts, and the management of public lands, just to name a few).

The scientific research most needed for conserving threatened species is often not ‘sexy’ or ‘novel’ enough to receive attention from Universities and academic funding bodies. This is where the government must step in. Essential tasks include measuring the abundance, distribution and population trends of species; identifying and quantifying threats; measuring the effectiveness of actions to counter threats, and basic ecology and life history studies.

On a lighter note, if the department I worked for had not been so dysfunctional, I would probably still be working there today. I may have even made some good progress to recover some of our threatened species.

But this blog would not have been created, nor would all the artwork, or the stories, or the books that you can find on these pages. Perhaps no nature journaling workshops either. So when one door closes, another opens. I’m a firm believer of that.

For those of us who care deeply about the environment, there are many, many different ways to try to make a difference in the world. You never really know which is the most effective thing you could be doing. Immediate and obvious results may not be far-reaching or long-lasting. Or you may have no idea that you’ve inspired a complete stranger, on the other side of the world, who will then go on to do amazing things.

I think the most important thing is to find something that you are good at, and that is sustainable for you. Then try your best. That’s all you can do.

Thanks for reading.

21 Responses

  1. Marie

    Thank you so much for this honest heart felt post, Paula. Sometimes I feel so helpless and hopeless in my grief at what we are not doing to care for this precious place we call home. But we all just have to keep doing what we can where we are.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Marie. And yes we just need to keep trying, every little bit helps. And try to get out into nature often, if you can, to cherish the life that’s still thriving.

  2. Y Jasperson

    Sometimes the output and influence of people at the ‘grass roots’ level is more powerful then what any bureaucracy can achieve. I have seen this amongst grass roots people interested in Australian native fish and water plants; Australian insects; local creek catchment groups etc. What they have achieved is phenomenal and their knowledge of their area surpasses many ‘bureaucratic’ experts. It is a shame that government experts do not tap into this wealth of knowledge and zeal and listen to what they know and support their efforts more.
    Congratulations on what you have achieved since leaving the service. Your influence on the general public and their children through your books and nature journalling and workshops cannot be underestimated. Well done Paula.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Y Jasperson, I really appreciate your kind words. I certainly have been inspired, many times, when I meet and work with people at the ‘grass roots’ level. It is important to be reminded of all the work that is going on out there, much of it voluntary, by people who don’t want to bring attention to themselves, but just want to ‘make a difference’. These projects don’t make the news, but are achieving wonderful things, so we can get a skewed idea of what’s really going on.
      Many government ‘experts’ are trying their best, and want to make a difference, but are completely ground down and overworked. They may also be forced to spend endless hours in an office, far away from the ‘grass roots’ people you describe. These ‘experts’ need our sympathy and our support.
      But there are other government staff who don’t care enough, are too risk-averse, or too concerned with progressing their own careers to attempt the hard, often thankless work to achieve real change in a government bureaucracy. These people hinder, rather than help, efforts to conserve biodiversity, and they should get out of the way.
      And overarching all of this, is the need to make the Minister look good in the eyes of the media. Political concerns often trump evidence-based thinking, and take scarce resources away from real conservation action. This pressure can extend to all government employees, and I really don’t know the answer to this.

  3. Paula Schetters

    That’s a very worthwhile ‘rant’, Paula. I applaud your passion to save endangered species. What a loss you are to the Qld Gov. Having also worked in government, in a different state and area, I can appreciate your frustration. I hope that there are more people out there like you and the government gets on board with all your programs. You’ve got some really great ideas, Paula! From little things, big things can grow.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Paula, you are very kind. No one’s indispensable, and there are many people with skills, drive and the desire to make a difference. They just need to find a place that will give them the support and opportunity to excel. I am so glad that you have made the leap to leave the frustrations behind and explore all the other ways you can utilize your skills. You’ve got many fab ideas too. 🙂

    • Paula Peeters

      Yes it is happening in many places, which is enough to make us all very miserable. But we must not lose sight of the progress that is also being made, and of the many like-minded people trying to make a difference. Thanks for reading and commenting Sherry 🙂

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Renee. We can all make a difference by talking about it, writing about it, sharing the info and keeping the issue in the public’s mind – to keep the pressure on our elected representatives. And not losing sight of the beauty, wonder and uniqueness of every single species that is threatened with extinction.

  4. Sarah Way

    I have always admired your knowledge and passion for Australia’s biodiversity, Paula. A necessary and passionate post. Thank you for shining a (well informed) light on an important – and very alarming- report. Let’s hope QPWS are held to account and improve their management and custodianship of QLD’s biodiversity!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Sarah for your kind words. Yes I hope so too. There are certainly many people working for QPWS who would like to see a greater focus on biodiversity conservation. But what a shame you had to return from your epic trek to read crap like this! I am still looking forward to hearing all about it.

  5. Morika

    Pesticides in our backyards, pesticides on GMO crops (which birds and insects eat) “A single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird,” Palmer said. “Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with the oldest neonicotinoid — called imidacloprid — can fatally poison a bird” https://abcbirds.org/article/birds-bees-and-aquatic-life-threatened-by-gross-underestimate-of-toxicity-of-worlds-most-widely-used-pesticide-2/ Its amazing that these have now been banned in Europe but are still in use in Australia.
    over clearing of land by private landholders, poor governance over new developments in wildlife sensitive areas, land clearing for livestock. The statistics are horrifying – 65% of deforestation for the whole of Australia occurred in Queensland. No forest – no wildlife. As for National Parks QLD only have 5.3%. The minimum you need to sustain any kind of biodiversity is15 per cent. Victoria has 15 percent. The Future is bleak for your grandchildren unless we don’t make sure real change happens now. Some ideas Join the wilderness society. Learn about permaculture in your garden – lAgroecology – for large scale sustainable farming – food without pesticides. Lobby your MP to get rid of neonicotinoids. Another impending threat is the use of pesticides to deter the Fire Ant. There are alternatives and natural ones but there is little community education about these matters. In fact in my experience everyone is afraid to talk about it. Everything we do is political. Saying nothing is political. Thanks for being political.

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Morika, there are certainly many ways that we can make a difference, and I’m glad that organic growing is becoming more and more popular (and I love how the Gardening Australia show on TV has been quietly championing this for years). Being political can be very effective. It’s just that too much ‘political’ can also turn people off before they even start to care about things.

      • Morika

        I agree but we are fast running out of time. Getting the right information out there and the truth about issues that are destroying our planet has never been more urgent. At least give them the facts and they can make a decision to do something or nothing. See you soonxx

  6. Eleanor Velasquez

    Dear Paula,
    Fantastic post. I also left the Qld State Government for similar reasons. It makes me feel less “insane” for leaving upon reading your passionate words. I found through my government career, that legislation is weighted towards polluters and developers. Despite the wording of many job applications “help protect Queensland’s precious environmental assets…” etc., there was never really any intention of legislating much in favour of nature and biodiversity.
    Although I have found in my limited experience, that university’s do do fundamental work on biodiversity and endangered species. Having just finished my PhD in examining biodiversity at QUT and specifically looking at an endangered regional ecosystem formed by Melaleuca irbyana. A couple of PhD friends were also examining rare mammals such as Antechinus species. So there is good work being done by universities – although perhaps not enough?
    I find government’s unwilling or deaf to the findings of these studies. I’m not sure what they are so afraid of? Is it the short election cycles we have in place here? Is research too siloed and intercommunicated, rather than extracommunicated? Are the public too disengaged with nature for politicians to take any of it seriously?
    Perhaps one of the big big problems is that academics are so overworked that they have no time to really engage with the public/governments to communicate their findings.
    When I was developing environmental policy we rarely engaged with any experts – it was just a mish mash.
    Maybe that’s where fabulous art like what you produce comes in?
    I totally agree with you that the government can do more, much much more than they currently do (which is essentially nothing). And I love your blog – it’s inspirational.
    Please keep posting and maybe I will have time to come to one of your journaling days now that I have finished my PhD :).
    Thanks for posting this – it was perfect timing for me as I am now looking for a job and trying to decide why I don’t want to work for government again.
    Eleanor

    • Paula Peeters

      Dear Eleanor, thanks for your generous praise. And you’ve studied Melaleuca irbyana! Well done.

      Yes you are right that threatend species research does take place at Universities, and many useful findings have emerged. And some not so useful. But the more ‘routine’ monitoring, over long timeframes, rarely attracts research funding or PhD students. And this kind of science is crucial for good adaptive management.

      It’s true that current legislation does not provide adequate protection to threatened species. And working for government, as you’ve experienced, can be very unsatisfying. But it doesn’t have to be. Some of my friends have satisfying (albiet pretty demanding) government jobs where they are allowed/encouraged/expected to use science and best practice, resulting in good (often extraordinary) environmental outcomes. You just have to find a section of government where science is respected, and the management is good (easier said than done, but they do exist!).

      On the other hand, there are many ways to ‘make a difference’. So try to figure out what you enjoy, and what you’re good at, and give it a go.

      All the best for your future adventures, and it would be great to see you at a nature journaling workshop some day.

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