Recovery plans designed to prevent the extinction of almost 180 threatened species and habitats, including the Tasmanian devil, were scrapped by the Coalition in one of Sussan Ley’s final acts as environment minister.
Last year, the Morrison government proposed removing the requirement for a legislated plan for 185 plants, animals and habitats, including several plans that were years overdue.
In March, Ley signed off on decisions to remove that requirement for 176 of the species and habitats, with the move quietly published by the environment department after the election was called in April.
Ley made the decisions despite a government call for feedback receiving 6,701 responses, all disagreeing with the proposal.
Manager of policy and strategy at the Wilderness Society, Tim Beshara, called the former minister’s decision “disgraceful” and said he hoped the new environment and water minister, Tanya Plibersek, would revisit it.
“On what sort of planet does the commonwealth think they don’t need a recovery plan for a Tasmanian devil, one of the ecologically most important species in existence or the critically endangered Christmas Island flying fox, a species entirely under commonwealth control and one of Australia’s most likely next extinctions,” he said.
“I can’t think of a better way that the incoming minister Tanya Plibersek can come to understand the entrenched policy dysfunction in her portfolio than through this example of administrative ineptitude and contempt for the community.”
The requirement for a recovery plan is at the discretion of the environment minister but, where that requirement exists, ministers are legally bound not to make decisions that are inconsistent with the plan.
Responding on Thursday to Ley’s decision, Plibersek said: “This is alarming. I have asked my new department for an urgent briefing.”
The proposal to scrap plans for almost 200 plants and animals was met with outcry from conservationists last year. It followed a review of recovery planning by the threatened species scientific committee (TSSC).
Among the 176 are the critically endangered nightcap oak, which was affected by the 2019-20 bushfires, the critically endangered Cumberland Plain woodland, regularly cleared for development in western Sydney, and several Christmas Island species, including the critically endangered Christmas Island flying fox.
In her published reasons for each decision, the minister said she had followed the advice of the scientific committee and had formed the view that a recovery plan would “not provide a significant conservation planning benefit” over and above other mechanisms that were already in place.
All of the affected species and habitats have what is known as a conservation advice, which is a similar document but it is not legally binding in the same way that recovery plans are.
The chair of the TSSC, Helene Marsh, has previously said recovery planning had been ineffective, with plans often unfunded and actions not implemented, and that a conservation advice could often be updated more quickly after emergencies such as bushfires.
Before the election, Labor promised $224.5m for a national threatened species program that would include addressing a backlog of overdue and outdated recovery plans.
The appointment of Plibersek, one of Labor’s most experienced ministers, to the environment and water portfolio has been welcomed by conservation groups given the scale of reform that has been identified as necessary to turn the decline of Australia’s environment around.
Sophie Power, of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said Ley’s decision was disappointing and one that groups would take up with the new minister.
“We shouldn’t just be giving up and abandoning recovery planning. It’s a key conservation tool,” she said.
“If it’s done well and properly resourced, we think it’s critical.”
There were nine species out of the 185 that Ley – now the deputy Liberal leader – decided would still require a recovery plan, including the spectacled flying fox and the golden sun moth.
Her office directed questions to the environment department because she no longer has responsibility for the portfolio.
A spokesperson for the environment department said the former minister had followed the advice of the scientific committee in each case.
The TSSC reviewed recovery plans for 914 threatened species and habitats last year and its initial advice was that 676 no longer required a plan.
The 185 represented the first tranche of what was to be a broader proposal.
The spokesperson said the scientific committee’s aim was to modernize conservation planning and “ensure that all listed species and ecological communities have fit-for-purpose plans to support their recovery”.