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Problem Parks
<p>Courtesy Australian Wildlife Conservancy</p>

Courtesy Australian Wildlife Conservancy

A Feral Cat Ate My Bilbies

Are national parks saving Australia’s wildlife? Well, it is difficult to say for sure, but the country has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world.


The chief executive of the New South Wales Department of Environment and Heritage, Sally Barnes, is plagued by a recurring nightmare.

“I’m on my death bed and someone will say to me ‘So Sally, you were the head of parks’,” she recalls.

“And I go, ‘Yep.’

“And they go, ‘So, when you were the head of parks, how did the critters go? Did things get better for them?’’’

Barnes says her answer is always the same, “I don’t know. And I hate the fact that I don’t know.”

<p>Courtesy Office of Environment and Heritage</p>

Courtesy Office of Environment and Heritage

Sally Barnes, chief executive, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage

It will stagger most readers to learn that for most of the hundred-plus-year history of national parks in Australia, park managers have had no way of gauging whether their attempts to preserve Australia’s unique flora and fauna are actually working.

The problem has been that hard data was always in short supply. Very little was known about anything, really, be it the health of native plants and animals in the parks, weed infestation, or feral-animal numbers.

Who knew?

As recently as 2007, it certainly surprised Carly Cook, then a student completing a PhD in environmental decision making, when she started field work in NSW and Victorian national parks.

“I was stunned,” Cook recalls. “I said, ‘How can you not know whether what you are doing is working?’”

So what did national park services use to gauge the effectiveness of their park management? “Nothing,” Cook says simply. “There wasn’t any capacity [to do that]. And that’s still true in most jurisdictions in Australia.

“Mostly they kill weeds, foxes [and other feral animals], mend fences, clean and maintain toilet blocks. But rarely do they get to do much ecology,” she says.

In fact, Cook says, during her time with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, officers spent a lot of time trying to work out how to show that what they were doing was making a difference.

“One of the most common answers,” Cook says, “was, ‘If things are not getting worse.’

“Now, in some places that’s just not good enough,” she says with considerable understatement, adding that it’s also “not a very optimistic view” of how the service is preserving Australia’s remaining wild places.

Over the past few years, Australia’s two leading national parks services, in NSW and Victoria, decided things needed to improve.

But rather than establishing costly scientific monitoring programs in each national park, they began asking park rangers to fill out an online survey in which they were asked to guess at what was going on in their patch.

<p>Courtesy Carly Cook</p>

Courtesy Carly Cook

Dr Carly Cook

“Most rangers don’t record how they spend their time,” Cook says. Instead they have to estimate how they divide up their working life.

“For instance, they might say they spend three per cent of their time on weed management.” She adds that it’s hard to be more precise even about how much herbicide is used by national parks, because such chemicals are purchased at a regional level.

What is the overall approach to pest animal management in this reserve?” is one enquiry on the Victorian questionnaire, which can cover up to 30 areas of parks management. The 2010 surveys for NSW and Victoria are here.

This question is multiple choice, and rangers are asked to choose from:

A. a comprehensive, planned approach

B. a planned approach, constrained in scope or capacity

C. reactive management

D. little or no management

One can imagine the computer mouse hovering over the various options.

Did anyone really click on little or no management?

Victorian rangers were first asked these sorts of questions in 2000. A year later, their counterparts in NSW filled in a similar questionnaire.

The answers are collated, grouped together with whatever hard data is available, and distilled into reports which are publicly released every three years in NSW, and less frequently in Victoria.

One senior park manager described the survey results as “better than nothing”, and, staggeringly, it’s much, much more than most other Australian states and territories provide.

In the absence of any hard science, surveying manager knowledge is an internationally accepted way of assessing outcomes. But there is widespread scepticism about relying on such questionnaires as a guide for allocating scarce conservation resources.

Surveys might be a useful way to collect information about the visitor experience in parks, or relationships with traditional owners, but are they really a good substitute for hard science? What if the ecological data they produce is poor, and scarce conservation resources are misdirected?

“It’s pretty vague,” Hugh Possingham says. A professor of mathematics and biology, he directs the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland.

<p>Courtesy University of Queensland</p>

Courtesy University of Queensland

Professor Hugh Possingham, University of Queensland

“When people answer these questionnaires without having to provide data, they are often double-guessing what the consequences of the answer are,” he says.

Hmm, if you tick the box that says there are increasing numbers of feral cats, foxes or donkeys in your park, you might get more money for feral animal control. Then again, you may not get that promotion.

What to do?

Which is where Carly Cook’s work is valuable. After recovering from the shock of discovering how little historical data had been collected in, and about, our national parks, she worked with parks services in NSW to “ground truth” — to fact-check in the field — their survey results.

As part of her doctoral thesis on environmental management, she took rangers’ answers to a few simplified questions and tested them against what she observed on the ground in a sample of parks.

For instance, one such question was designed to judge how well rangers were able to estimate the extent of infestation by the noxious weed, blackberry — it’s a highly distinctive and visible plant. They were also asked to assess the condition of vegetation in their parks.

And their guesswork on that second question wasn’t good. Up to 46 per cent of them in NSW got it wrong. Remarkably enough, Cook's thesis noted the failure rate was about the same in Victoria.

Similar questionnaires are still being rolled out every few years in NSW and Victoria. The results have been carefully collated into glossy publications and weighty public reports, even though everyone knows up-front that nearly half the answers might be wrong.

Remarkably, since Cook was awarded her PhD from the University of Queensland in 2010, no-one has ever taken the time to “ground truth” the survey results again.

SO WITH AUSTRALIA IN THE GRIP OF AN EXTINCTION WAVE, with dozens of plants and animals being added to the endangered species list every decade, no one has any real idea of whether our traditional national parks services are part of the problem or part of the solution.

And, increasingly, politicians don’t like the fact that they don’t know, and they are demanding that national parks services detail what the public is getting for its conservation dollar.

For years, state governments in Australia have been funnelling money into national parks services, with very little proof that the money is well spent.

Farmers have long made exaggerated claims that parks are merely havens for feral animals and weeds.

No-one would suggest that Australia should abandon all its national park reserves. But apart from one notable study, published in 2010, which found some evidence that national parks in Australia contribute to the stabilisation of populations, or the recovery of threatened species, there is very little evidence about which approaches to protected-area management work best.

And the case for the status quo isn’t good.

University studies at two of Australia’s World Heritage-listed parks — Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory and Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park — show catastrophic declines in natural values.

In 2010, after 13 years of monitoring, scientists declared that Kakadu’s native mammal fauna were in “rapid and severe decline”. The causes, according to the study’s authors, were “not entirely clear” but probably relate to bad fire management, too many feral cats and the steady westward hop of the cane toad.

Last month scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville reported that more than half of the Great Barrier Reef had disappeared over the past 27 years. Another introduced species, the crown-of-thorns starfish, was the major culprit there.

To combat such threats, Kakadu is armed with an annual budget of $18 million. And $50 million is spent each year in the Great Barrier Reef.

When national parks as significant as these, with the best legislative protection in the country and the biggest budgets, are in such decline, is it any wonder that managers such as Sally Barnes are being asked by their political masters to produce hard evidence that their management is effective and they are extracting the best possible benefit for the conservation budget?

But Barnes, like the rest of her current generation of park managers, is dogged by the failures of history.

She freely admits that what she calls “serious management” of national parks, only really began just over a decade ago. “In the 2000s, we started [asking] ‘How do we really manage these [protected areas] to make a difference?’”

The parks service, she says, is now starting to fill “significant gaps in our understanding”.

When in 1879, the Royal National Park south of Sydney became only the second national park in the world to be gazetted, the view was that protecting natural areas didn’t require much more than drawing lines on a map. Creating a national park estate wasn’t so much about protecting biodiversity as keeping aside picturesque landscapes for the appreciation of painters, poets and the public.

As land clearing gathered pace after World War II, there came a new urgency. The priority was to protect wild places from the bulldozers. Most of the conservation budget went on buying up land, rather than on the day-to-day management of the burgeoning national-park estate.

As a result, very little science was done. In most places, no-one established or conducted initial, scientific base-line surveys: doing the hard work of dividing up parks into grids to work out just how many native animals were around, what was the condition of the flora, how bad was the weed infestation and what was the penetration of feral animals.

Little wonder, Sally Barnes can’t answer that question that plagues her dreams: Are things getting better or worse? Better or worse than what?

<p>Courtesy Tony Varcoe</p>

Courtesy Tony Varcoe

Tony Varcoe, manager of research and management effectiveness at Parks Victoria

At Parks Victoria, the manager of Research and Management Effectiveness, Tony Varcoe, concedes that he’s been left with a “dog’s breakfast”, a patchwork of 2,800 reserved areas many of which are tiny areas saved from the bulldozers.

“The last 100 years has been mostly [about saying], ‘Let’s get these places reserved before we lose them’,” he says.

“Because of that long history, we’re playing catch-up.”

Just how hard Parks Victoria is having to scramble to catch up is evident in the popular Great Otway National Park, southwest of Melbourne.

When filling in the ranger’s survey in 2010, a local ranger reported that while foxes, deer and cats were found throughout the park, it was not known whether the populations of these feral animals was increasing or decreasing.

In a startlingly frank bit of feedback, the ranger repeatedly described park management of pest species as “ad hoc”; that is, limited or non-existent.

The Ranger’s Answers: Great Otway National Park

All this in a reserve described by Varcoe as “one of our highest priority parks”.

Internationally, experts are wondering out loud whether protected areas are doing any good.

The Zoological Society of London held a conference earlier this month which asked the question: Protected Areas: are they safeguarding biodiversity? Scientists, conservationists, and government representatives from around the world attended.

According to an Australian participant, the University of Adelaide’s Professor Corey Bradshaw, there is “a growing realisation that just adding more and more protected areas is not enough to ensure biodiversity preservation within them. You have to put in some hard-core management to make them work.”

Bradshaw briefed the conference on the findings of a major study he co-wrote for the journal Nature which revealed that among 60 tropical protected areas across Asia, Africa and the Americas, about half “weren’t doing terribly well”.

“We’re not necessarily talking about [needing] more money,” Bradshaw concluded in one of his regular newsletters. “Rather, efficient and effective use of the money invested is key.”

Citing the results from Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef, he said, “Being financially well off does not guarantee biodiversity preservation at all. You have to put in the effort, too.”

Advances in technology have made it easier for national parks services in Victoria and NSW to start to plug the gaps in their basic understanding of the areas they manage.

In one study, Parks Victoria deployed cameras at 150 sites in the Mornington Peninsula and Point Nepean National Parks, to research which native mammals were present and what feral animals roamed the parks.

In the video footage above, the cameras spy a fox with its lunch, a jumpy long nose bandicoot (just watch for a few seconds to see why they call it “jumpy”), a bird called a Lewin’s rail and a white-footed dunnart, which is a little marsupial about the size of a mouse.

In addition, satellite images and image-processing software are used to map invasive weed species, such as English Broom, in the remote Alpine National Park.

As part of a broader, more systematic approach, Victoria now has some form of monitoring in about 60 to 70 per cent of its 40 to 45 most significant national parks, which Varcoe says still provides “less data than we would like”.

NSW also has extensive scientific monitoring in individual national parks, places “where it makes a difference for management,” Barnes says.

Barnes has also commissioned a scientific fauna monitoring pilot called WildCount this year, deploying motion-sensitive digital cameras in 200 sites east of the Great Dividing Range to track trends in native species across the landscape over time.

Despite these projects, neither Barnes nor Varcoe imagine ever being able to provide comprehensive data on all variables in every national park. They will have to rely on ranger surveys to fill the gaps.

“Would I do that [extensive monitoring] everywhere?” Barnes asks rhetorically. “No. We cannot do the hard data in every park every year. It’s just impractical. So you have some of it through the staff survey.”

Barnes adds that in some places, extensive monitoring isn’t necessary anyway.

“You just know, from having trained, experience people, that if you keep the ferals down, keep the cattle off, or whatever, you [will] be in pretty good shape.”

Parks Victoria’s Tony Varcoe concedes that having proper scientific monitoring is the “gold standard” for measuring ecological health, but says comprehensive monitoring of all four-million hectares of Victoria’s national parks estate would be “impossible”.

There is a growing debate within many state governments about whether that is good enough.

ARE NATIONAL PARKS SERVICES — with their wide-ranging brief to provide everything from educational tours for busloads of primary-school students to campsites and toilets for tourists — best placed to provide the hard-core management needed, particularly in remote regions?

These are questions politicians can sensibly ponder because these days national parks services have competition.

Private conservation groups raise money from rich philanthropists and mum-and-dad donors to buy up land across the country to establish private national parks. They came to exist on the basis that there had to be a better, more effective way to do conservation.

And these rivals view with disdain the continued reluctance of national parks services to precisely gauge whether or not they are doing a good job.

“If you’re not measuring performance you’re not going to perform well,” says Atticus Fleming, the chief executive officer of the nation’s largest private conservation group, Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). “That’s just a fundamental principal for any organisation.”

Established 11 years ago, AWC today manages more than three million hectares across 23 wildlife sanctuaries around Australia. Unlike national parks services, it’s a conservation-only organisation, which doesn’t provide extensive tourist, educational or cultural programs.

AWC seems to operate with about the same amount of conservation funding as many other Australian national parks services.

AWC reckons it budgets about $3 annually per hectare for conservation, which is about what Tasmania and the Northern Territory spend on conservation alone, more than South Australia but less than the federal agency Parks Australia, which manages six national parks including Kakadu, Christmas and Norfolk Islands.

The Global Mail asked that nation’s national parks services to estimate the amount of their total budgets spent purely on conservation. Many national parks services were reluctant to supply the figures or simply didn’t know, saying that to tease the conservation component out from funds spent on tourist facilities, educational and cultural programs was impossible.

The results — such as they are — are shown in the table below.

Conservation By The Numbers
— Or Not?

JurisdictionTotal parks HectaresRanger numbersConservation only budget Spending per hectare
AWC3m65-70$9.15m$3.05
Federal Govt.2.12m103$15m$7.04
South Australia19m87 (plus 235 support staff)$39m$2.05
Tasmania2.5m250$7.9m (inc. $1.5m external funding)$3.06
Northern Territory4.6m127$16m approx.$3.46
Western Australia6.2m*100*N/AN/A
Queensland12.5m750N/AN/A
New South Wales7.08m1,750N/AN/A
Victoria4mN/AN/AN/A
Source: AWC and respective state environment departments
* includes terrestrial and marine national parks.

NOTES ON TABLE: The Commonwealth noted that further research in its national parks was funded jointly with universities.

What is clear is that with about the same resources for conservation as are allocated to national parks, AWC has a comprehensive framework for measuring the ecological health of each of its properties.

It's been able to use that information to start producing annual scientific reports on about ten of its properties.

These provide a detailed summary of the results of their efforts to control fire, weeds and feral animals, and to boost the numbers of native plants and animals on their reserves.

Red flags in these documents indicate clearly whether their targets have not been met.

Fleming says these documents are not just glossy publications to impress AWC investors, but represent the key to their sanctuaries’ impressive ecological performance.

“You could go to any business professor — look up the Harvard Business School website — and there will be so many quotes [saying] if you’re not measuring performance, you’re just not going to be performing well,” he says. “Measuring performance means measuring outcomes,” he adds.

“Are the species we are supposedly protecting being protected? Are they still there? Are their populations increasing or not? Are there more or less feral animals on the ground? Is the area of weeds increasing or decreasing? And at a more sophisticated level, are the ecological processes that drive all this still functioning?

“Because if you’re not measuring, then almost certainly you are not allocating your funds on management in the right way. If you don’t know whether the feral animal numbers are going up or down, if you don’t know whether the threatened species populations are going up or down, you don’t know where to spend your money.”

For Fleming, substituting ranger surveys for this ecological work doesn’t cut it.

“The only comment I would make about the questionnaire approach is, it’s extremely limited in its effectiveness, because you must be measuring performance with science,” he says. “There has been a trend for many public agencies to reduce their level of investment in science. And I think that is a mistake.”

Both Varcoe and Barnes remain committed to their ranger surveys, even though neither was aware that Cook’s research revealed up to half the answers may be wrong.

“Really?” Barnes says. “They under-estimated or over-estimated?

“Because, god bless them … the [rangers] tend to say it’s worse than it is.

“[The ranger survey is] not black and white, good and bad, like a report card. For us, it’s a management tool … rather than a measurement … which sounds like a cop out, but it’s not.”

Varcoe declares himself “not surprised” to hear of the 46 per cent mistake rate, countering that in the five years since Cook’s research, Parks Victoria has implemented many of the recommendations contained in her report and that significant improvements have been made to the questionnaire process.

Neither park service has ever “ground-truthed” the rangers’ answers again.

Perhaps part of the reason that the parks services declare that such intensive monitoring of park health is impossible or unnecessary, is because they simply don’t have the boots on the ground to do the work, particularly in remote areas.

By contrast, freed of the requirement to provide tourism and educational services, AWC is a leaner organisation that bases 80 per cent of its staff on the ground in its remote sanctuaries — and a quarter of them are scientists.

“If you look at what’s happened across northern Australia, many national parks are now not staffed,” Fleming says. “And if there’s no one living on these properties, it is very hard to deliver effective management.

“If you said to a pastoralists, you must manage your property, but you’re not allowed to live on it, they’d laugh. It requires very active land management.

“You need people on the ground doing the fire management, doing the feral animal control, doing the weed control and doing the science. That's really the formula if you want to make a difference, whether its a national park or a private wildlife sanctuary.”

For instance, Fleming says AWC thought it was running a very effective program to muster and shoot feral herbivores — donkeys, horses and buffalo — at its Wongalara property in the Top End.

But after a count of the remaining feral animals on the property showed they weren’t even making a dent, AWC spent nearly $500,000 to fence and remove feral animals from around 100,000 hectares of land, creating the largest feral-herbivore-free area on mainland Australia.

<p>Wayne Lawler/Australian Wildlife Conservancy</p>

Wayne Lawler/Australian Wildlife Conservancy

The AWC’s fence around its Scotia property.

By contrast, at present NSW only routinely collects figures on how many feral animals are removed from its parks, not on how many are left.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re taking off 1,000 or 10,000,” Fleming says. “It’s how many [are] left that really matters. So you’ve got to measure, but you’ve got to measure the right things.”

Clearing out feral herbivores from another of its sanctuaries in the Kimberley region of Western Australia has allowed AWC to record a doubling of small animal numbers on that property, defying the trend across the Top End, where even Kakadu National Park has seen a steep decline in small-mammal populations.

Perhaps the best evidence to support the case for having staff on the ground is AWC’s tremendous success in protecting bilbies at its property in south-western NSW.

(Bilbies are a type of bandicoot much loved in Australia, where their fans have long proposed them as an indigenous alternative to the Easter bunny — perhaps reflecting dark feelings about plagues of the introduced rabbit.)

Every two days, AWC rangers patrol an electrified fence around an 8,000-hectare area, which keeps 2,000-plus bilbies and other endangered mammals in, and the feral cats and foxes out.

Compare that with the great bilby massacre which occurred at the Currawinya National Park on the NSW-Queensland border.

After years of fundraising, half a million dollars was scraped together to build a feral-proof enclosure. But heavy rains over the past few years must have rusted the fence.

When horrified researchers visited the park earlier this year, they found no bilbies inside the fence, just a few dozen well-fed feral cats.

They estimated the cats had been inside the “predator-proof” enclosure for about year — a whole year.

It’s hardly surprising then, that in the vast frontier state of Western Australia, the state government has decided that if AWC has staff on the ground in remote locations, it will put them to work.

In 2007, in an unprecedented move, it contracted out fire management services over between four and five million hectares of the Kimberley to the private conservation group. This would ordinarily have been the work of government agencies.

AWC’s resident staff, working with local indigenous communities and pastoralists, were judged by the government to be best placed to conduct nimble, well-timed burn offs early in the dry season.

Such controlled burn-offs are essential to preventing the apocalyptic fires later in the dry season, which can burn out a million square kilometres of this ancient landscape at a time, wiping out the food supply for vulnerable native birds and small mammals.

This so-called EcoFire program could herald a new era in the management of Australia’s protected areas.

In a letter published in an AWC newsletter, Premier Colin Barnett described the arrangement as “ground breaking”, saying that in the vast Kimberley region in the southwest of his state “the challenges are too great for government alone.

“It’s time to see if there isn’t a better way of delivering conservation in Australia,” the AWC’s Fleming says.

“I wouldn’t say we’re best placed to do everything. But at the moment, for national parks, it’s been purely delivery by government. And particularly in remote areas, there will sometimes be organisations other than government that can deliver more for the available money.

“That might be a private conservation organisation like AWC, an indigenous ranger group, in some cases maybe a pastoralist may be able to deliver more for available funds. Such outsourcing would be overseen by government, which would set clear, measurable targets for the conservation work.

“We have the worst mammal extinction rate in the world,” Fleming says. “We have a couple of thousand species on the threatened-species list. So all the indicators nationally are heading in the wrong direction.

“We have a narrow window, maybe five or 10 years, to really turn that around. So we’ve got to get smarter and better at the way we do that, in a hurry.”

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Correction: The published text has been amended from the original to reflect that Dr. Carly Cook's field work  to “ground-truth” ranger surveys covered national parks in New South Wales only and did not extend to Victoria as originally stated. Her final thesis however refers to the accuracy of ranger surveys in both New South Wales and Victoria.

The story has also been clarified to ensure that readers understand clearly which survey question it was that 46% of NSW national park rangers in the sample group got wrong.

In the reporting of this story, the author became aware that Graeme Wood, The Global Mail’s philanthropic founder, also contributes funds to Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

29 comments on this story
by Paul Willows

NSW is now going to allow recreational shooters to go into National Parks to target ferals.
I can't wait to see the first one come out, grinning broadly as he shows his 'bag' of 50-60 cats.
Never going to happen. Plinking at cats is not what it's about, it will be deer for the table and billy goats for the bragging rights.

November 27, 2012 @ 1:58pm
by Drew

Working across parks in Tasmania and Queensland I would argue that you can also drop the education and cultural programs from the departments priority spending. In most cases the only priority is to keep tourist facilities running; walking tracks, toilets, campsites etc. There is nothing wrong with promoting National Parks for tourism, it builds awareness and the intrinsic value of biodiversity amongst the greater public. However as discussed in this article keeping parks 'open for business' does little for the ecosystems the public come to enjoy. Once again and as always it comes down to dollars. If governments are serious about biodiversity conservation significant investment in research and management is required. After all clean toilets do little for most marsupials.

November 27, 2012 @ 2:02pm
by Patrickg

Great piece, and super informative. Thanks very much Ellen.

November 27, 2012 @ 3:21pm
by Richard

In Qld, the LNP government has already savagely cut the number of staff employed in National Parks. It is planned that these parks (or at least the most attractive ones) will then be open for some kind of commercial development. Can anyone seriously believe a commercial interest will care one iota about the fate of some near-extinct native animal that is sometimes too hard and too elusive for humans to observe?

November 27, 2012 @ 4:30pm
by Rotha Jago

A very welcome article. We have noticed a lot of weed spraying, and careful unnecessary bands of herbicide round trees and along paths in local National Parks. Also dropping incendiaries from helicopters in remote areas to burn off-, which results in dreadful erosion when old trees are incinerated. There is a lot of concern in country North Queensland about National Parks. Weeds are sprayed even on remote islands, which make me wonder what the birds live on. Accountability and scientific assessment is truly lacking. Young scientists need jobs and National Parks certainly need science. Time to get a lot smarter and a lot more honest. Instead of stating " we are going to spend X millions of dollars", Politicians need to state attainable measurable objectives and then publish evaluations.

November 27, 2012 @ 5:17pm
by Christian Bell

The article makes many valid points but there is good evidence that National Parks can produce good survey results that show their effectiveness such as the current survey being undertaken in the Grampians National Park by Parks Victoria & Museum of Victoria.
http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/about-us/news/grampians-crawling-with-wildlife-and-researchers
Also marine reserves are relatively easy to monitor and measure their success (compared to terrestrial reserves) no doubt land managers would love to be able to survey their reserves and come with such definitive results.

November 27, 2012 @ 6:40pm
by jo

has to be said: the headline is in very poor taste!

November 27, 2012 @ 8:11pm
by Gerry

A very interesting article. It supports what I have thought for the last three decades . It is not just 'declaring national parks to protect/save' it needs the annual budgets to ensure appropriate management is in place. Which then as this article highlights leads to the question of what is appropriate management and how can KPIs be determined and measured? AWC has the ability to say to donors 'give us $$ & we will do great things, but do not expect to see first hand what we do'. State governments do not have that luxury. They must allow the public access, which in part can educate people as to why we need to protect and actively manage parks. That said, there must be scope to be able to fence off and cleanse areas of ferals. This will require a commitment to provide and maintain budget and staff.

November 27, 2012 @ 10:23pm
by jeremy

sadly we (aussies) have a very poor record on protecting our native fauna and flora, unless that is of course it effects farmers

feral dogs and rabbits get more funding that cane toads, and cats

November 27, 2012 @ 11:43pm
by Murray Scott

I applaud the work of Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Australian Bush Heritage and have been priviledged to visit properties of both organisations. I am not impressed however by this attack on government National Parks services.

National Parks and Wildlife Sevices have a far more difficult job than AWC ro ABH because theri primary brief is to serve the public who visit the Parks estate by right, not by invitation. They must suffer even that minority who vandalise environment and facilities through ignorance or contempt for conservation objectives. Readers here will have no such contempt but we all began our journeys of enlightenment from embarrassing ignorance. National Parks provided the stimulus for most of us to become involved.

The conservation brief for public Parks and Reserves is not confined to farming emblematic species, for which "measurable objectives" are more straightforward. It aims to embrace whole ecosystems including uncountable invertebrates, recognising that much of the species interdependency therein is unknown. We should moreover have the humility to recognise that much of it is unknowable, given the wide range of timescales involved, the stochastic nature of conditions and relentless exogenous changes to sample habitats. All wildlife managers, private or public, aim to get rid of ferals, that's a no-brainer, but doing so in large inaccessible reserves (the term "Wilderness" does have meaning) is difficult, balanced to some extent by the protective redundancy of extensive habitats and by the advantages of inaccessibility to vehicles, insensitive visitors and arbitrary management interventions.

Attempts to estimate and restore something like the pre-European baseline for ecosystem change are often scorned but that condition was the only example of demonstrable stability. With the help of history, science and residual Aboriginal knowledge, approximate restoration is a reasonable goal. Disturbance by a criss-cross of roads and a fire regime imposed for asset protection is unlikely to be compatible with that goal.

Parks Services have by no means won the battle to restore resilient ecosystems throughout the public estate. The message for us onlookers and, dare I say it, competitors, however is not to attack them and further weaken political support for conservation. The fruits of that is evident in NSW, with two Shooters and Fishers Party MLC's now leveraging a balance of power to mount an all-out attack on the concept of nature conservation, particularly its implementation through National Parks. Thus NSW Parks will suffer unsupervised amateur shooting, horseriding, grazing (probably with dogs), possible logging and mining, together with NP&WS staff cuts and evisceration of its scientific team. Not such a good idea.

November 28, 2012 @ 2:29am
by Nature Advocate

I solved part of the cat-equation for you, also explaining why your Dingo experiment failed (I could have told you it would), but this site won't let me post the full explanation and proof (your major loss, as it is an original discover and completely explains how cats can wipe out whole ecosystems). So here's the summation only.

Native predators are just not going to be able to override millennia of perceiving bold patterns as dangerous or deadly. Nature is NOT going to save us from this man-made ecological disaster. Native predators might pick off a bland-patterned cat or two, but leave all the bold-patterned ones to continue to breed out of control, passing on their coloring patterns to the offspring. The ONLY predator that can solve this now is a human with a discerning mind that can pick off the correct species with a gun, as fast as is humanly possible.

November 28, 2012 @ 2:37am
by Sean

If you put a fence around something it becomes a zoo in everything but name only. It's very nature keeps both things in and things out - which leads to stasis, which can be a bad thing in the long term. It is also expensive, both at the front and back end. Governments don't have the durability of vision to maintain such an investment because they only have responsibility to their 'shareholders' for about four years. Put simply if the General Public wants to preserve what is left then the General Public is going to get off its fundament rather than simply wagging its collective finger at Government conservation services and saying "gee mate, that's not good enough". Which they (sadly) won't.
In the end, the best we can do in both Government and private conservation services is, in the face of ignorance and apathy ,to "manage the decline...gracefully" in the quiet confidence (and with great sadness) that very few of the Great Unwashed will notice.

November 28, 2012 @ 11:24am
by Veronica Le Nevez

Hi Ellen,
Thanks for a great article.

As a former policy officer with the NSW Environment Department for 9 years, including a stint in both national parks and marine parks, I can say it is absolutely correct that the Parks Service has very little information on the ecological health of the parks. Some does exist – but the point is, there is no systematic program of monitoring and evaluation, and even if there was, there is no systematic link between these programs and decisions about park management. Good work does happen – but it's almost entirely haphazard,

However what I wanted to point out was that in my view, there are a couple of other aspects to the story that you haven't looked at in detail. For one thing, much of the land set aside as parks before the 1990s is ridgetops and other land that couldn't be developed. This is not to say it's worthless, but the AWC carefully selects land for its conservation value, which is a significant benefit when you're calculating the cost effectiveness of investment in conservation.

Another highly important factor is that national parks are public land – with all the public accountabilities that come with it. When you ask what rangers are doing if they aren't carrying out conservation work, the answer is balancing the often conflicting expectations of the public – answering complaints and letters, providing visitor services, managing tracks, buildings and other assets and so on. Of course on private land – which the AWC reserves are – none of these concerns apply.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, while I support the AWC assisting in park management, I don't think that will solve the problem on its own. This is because the real problem is that conservation is not prioritised in our national parks, and priorities need to change if outcomes are to.

Kind regards,
Veronica Le Nevez, BSc MEnvSc

November 28, 2012 @ 11:36am
by Rolly

First, it would be useful to survey the general public to determine the number of people who care enough about nature and conservation to actually contribute time, effort and money towards preserving as much as is possible of the remnants of the natural ecology.
I suspect that the numbers would be infinitesimally small.
People are mostly far too short sighted and tunnel visioned to let such matters intrude into their collective consciousness: The next new electronic toy is of far greater importance.
Only a complete revolution in human behavioural patterns and ecological awareness has any hope of stalling the obliteration of the thousands of plants and animals at risk of extinction, and that is most unlikely to occur in any meaningful time frame.
Only by reducing the vast numbers of the most efficient of predators - humans - is there any hope at all.
We shall soon have to find other planets on which to wreak havoc when this one becomes uninhabitable.

November 28, 2012 @ 1:42pm
by Ashley Hall

sorry I have not read all the articles as yet. The fox in the video with the bilby states that it is a Feral Fox- which is incorrect- Feral means a domesticated animal gone wild. RE feral goat, cats and pigs. There is only wild Fox, rabbits, cane toads etc

November 28, 2012 @ 5:09pm
by Ashley Hall

Its simple really, we came over from Europe and brought with us all our European animals and plants, we did not have to eat native animals, thus we forged no real value to start with, as time passed, native animals became pests so the value was of an opposite one. Now we as a government have put all rules and regulations around owning, interacting or even killing and eating these critters. So how can we even form a value?. We don’t even see them, or even understand what their role is in the landscape. How can wildlife charities and biodiversity centres expect people to support them, when there is no emotional connection to these animals. Is being cute really going to cut it, if it was do you really think our biodiversity would be in crisis?

November 28, 2012 @ 5:11pm
by Dr Carly Cook

This article highlights an important issue within protected area management globally: measuring the effectiveness of management is important to understand when and where management strategies need to be adapted. While I think progress needs to be made in understanding the outcomes of management in protected areas worldwide, Victoria and NSW are leading the way in evaluating the performance of protected areas. My research addressed the accuracy of staff-based management effectiveness assessments. I only collected empirical data to verify rangers’ estimates of the effectiveness of their management in NSW, not in Victorian protected areas as was reported. I assessed the accuracy of rangers’ perceptions of on-ground conditions in 28 protected areas. I asked rangers to judge the condition of one vegetation type and the extent of blackberry infestations in their protected areas.

I found 100% of rangers accurately predicted the extent of blackberry in their protected areas, even when infestations were very low (less than 5% of the protected area) and they had nothing but their experience to inform their judgments. The figure quoted in this article relates to the accuracy of rangers judgments of vegetation condition, where 56% were accurate and almost 80% were within one assessment criteria of the empirical estimate. When rangers were not accurate they tended to underestimate the condition of the vegetation, meaning their management was more effective than they thought. This is a very encouraging result considering that vegetation condition is notoriously difficult to judge visually, and experienced botanists are not much more accurate than this.

My interpretation of these results is that rangers are highly accurate in judging the conditions in their protected areas for management issues where they receive direct feedback from their management activities, such as weed management (i.e., they can see whether their activity led to a reduction in the extent of weeds or not). However, for more abstract aspects of protected area management, such as vegetation condition, personal judgments may be less reliable.

Collecting empirical data is not possible for all aspects of management in every protected area, but rangers are the experts in the management of their reserves, and their contribution should not be undervalued. It should also be remembered that if protected area management agencies were to spend the funds necessary to collect empirical data about the effectiveness of every aspect of their management, there would be no funds left for management itself.

November 28, 2012 @ 8:51pm
by La'or Na

While I appreciate the intent of the article is to have a narrow focus, is that not dangerous ?

Let's FF a few decades, we have 35 - 50 Million people in Aus. and another couple Billion wanting lands cleared in Aus. so they can be fed from our exports . Would not the best thing for the long term survive-ability for the Billby be free contraceptives rather than a fence ?

Just to heat the debate a little more, we do believe those other group of Scientists don't we ? The Climate guys.. and we will have vastly changed weather patterns decimating the stasis. Why are we poring money into saving the Bilby (for example) while we pour much money into killing the Bilby ? To paraphrase Thoreau, "What use a National Park if we don't have a Planet to put it on ?"

November 30, 2012 @ 5:54pm
by Marc Hockings

Ellen Fanning’s article raises a number of valid points about the lack of quantitative information available to managers of protected areas in Australia. However the article does a disservice to the park management agencies in NSW and Victoria who lead the country in the assessment and use of management effectiveness information to improve park management.
Apart from errors in reporting the research results from Dr Carly Cook (managers were 100% accurate in assessing the extent of blackberry infestation in parks, not 54% as Fanning reported), the story does not acknowledge the considerable efforts that the park agencies go to audit the results of the survey responses received from park staff. Firstly the assessments collect information on the evidence used to support the assessments which will vary from quantitative monitoring data to assessments based on the experience of the staff in managing the sites, commonly over many years. The extensive auditing of the results is followed by an intensive program to maximise the use of the results of the assessments in planning and decision making to improve park management. Also, as Dr Cook points out in her comment, the issue where managers were least accurate (the assessment of overall vegetation condition where 56% of assessments were accurate and79% were within one assessment grade of the measured vegetation condition) was probably the most difficult issue within the evaluation system to assess and even here managers tended to be conservative - underestimating rather than overestimating their effectiveness. On other indicators managers will be more accurate. Wherever possible, staff assessments are validated against available quantitative data. Both agencies are extending their monitoring systems to provide quantitative data on key aspects of management. The efforts of agencies such as those in NSW and Victoria are leading the world in both assessing the effectiveness of their management and in using these assessments to understand and improve management of the parks.

Professor Marc Hockings
Professor of Environmental Management, University of Queensland
Vice-Chair, Science and Management of Protected Areas
IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas

Note: Professor Hockings worked with park agencies in NSW and Parks Victoria in establishing their State of the Parks assessment systems and was principal advisor for Dr Carly Cook’s PhD. He has over 15 years’ experience in the assessment of management of protected areas around the world and is the lead author of the IUCN Guidelines on evaluating the effectiveness of management of protected areas.

November 30, 2012 @ 6:48pm
by Marc Hockings

Further to my previous comment on the assessment of management effectiveness in protected areas, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy is to be applauded for their work in monitoring and reporting but it should be pointed out that AWC manages 23 sanctuaries across Australia covering approximately 3 million hectares. The Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies manage more than 7000 protected areas covering over 65 million hectares. In addition to managing the biodiversity and ecosystem services in these areas, they also provide for and manage very large numbers of visitors (estimated at over 84 million visit/year in 2005). As Cook’s research shows, park managers do understand what is happening on their parks in a majority of cases and can provide a valid and useful assessment of management. They are not being asked to “guess at what was going on in their patch” but rather to use their knowledge and experience and all available data to make the best possible assessment of management. As Vice-Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, I have been involved in assessments of management of protected areas in dozens of countries over more than 15 years. These studies have shown that a minority of protected areas globally meet standards of sound management, with levels of resources provided for management commonly being well below desirable levels. It is therefore not surprising that despite an increase in the coverage of protected areas, biodiversity continues to decline at alarming rates. Governments around the world need to recognise that protected areas need adequate resources if they are to function more effectively.

Professor Marc Hockings
Professor of Environmental Management, University of Queensland
Vice-Chair, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas

Note: Professor Hockings worked with park agencies in NSW and Parks Victoria in establishing their State of the Parks assessment systems and was principal advisor for Dr Carly Cook’s PhD.

November 30, 2012 @ 6:52pm
by Peter Whelan

I speak as a "real" conservationist. I go out and shoot feral cats and dogs, foxes, goats and wild pigs. "Shock-horror" I maybe hear from some sections of the "Greenie" community! However the facts are there for all to see. Getting rid of feral predators from our national parks and state forests is helping save our precious native animals. Even shooting a few rabbits and wild goats may prevent degredation of a delicate environment. It isn't the single solitary solution, but conservation hunting should be encouraged as part of an overall startegy.

December 1, 2012 @ 5:24pm
by Greg

@ Ashley Hall.
You have nailed it.

December 2, 2012 @ 8:41am
by Mac Moyses

The Territory Parks Commission has also run surveys with its park managers to build a picture of what are "likely" outcomes for its ten larger, more biodiverse parks. Admittedly we don't yet have in place the full holy grail - systematic monitoring of plants and animals (native and feral) for a clear picture of ecological health; status and trend. But its on the way...

Meantime there is good value in the "soft" data from staff surveys. It helps understand shortfalls and strengths from park to park in knowledge, planning, policy/processes, staff capacity, resources (and how they're being allocated) and generates important conversations - where are the gaps and where can we be more effective?

December 3, 2012 @ 6:45pm
by David Leyonhjelm

The success of AWC shows the benefits of private ownership (not necessarily for profit). When everyone owns the environment, nobody does. That which is not owned is not cared for.

The Liberal Democratic Party (www.ldp.org.au) has a policy of progessively privatising all our national parks. We firmly believe it would yield far superior environmental outcomes than the current approach.

December 3, 2012 @ 10:34pm
by Max Bourke

This is an excellent piece. Some of us have been writing and urging, including using our own funds, to get State and Federal Parks services to commit more funds to long term research, for many decades. Many of the people in this story took part in a workshop we conducted with Dr David Lindenmayer at ANU early last year, the results of which have been published in "Biodiversity Monitoring in Australia" Lindenmayer and Gibbons, CSIRO, 2012. The core problem it seems to me still is that funds to detect change require very long cycles while governments (and indeed privates reserves) cannot guarantee long term funding so that you do know whether or not you have made a difference. Very few ecological shifts are detectable quickly and a culture of measurement seems always to wiped out by a culture of acquisition (ie more hectares is good, better managed hectares is ...) Max Bourke AM, President, Capital Woodlands and Wetlands Conservation Trust.

December 22, 2012 @ 11:43am
by shane

Years , nah, decades of blah blah blah. Its not hard to trap or poison feral cats. Lets forms some more committees and waste money the labor way investigating the rights of feral cats and foxes.

January 19, 2013 @ 3:55pm
Show previous 26 comments
by James

Just get on with it ....

January 21, 2013 @ 9:28pm
by Stephen Allen

Ah yes, feral control in our reserve system. I recently sought numbers on feral control in the OEH (Dept. of Premier and Cabinet) annual reports, yet nothing to find. Which begs the question how did the Minister obtain feral control numbers across the reserve system as reported in her latest media release on supplementary conservation hunting. The CEO of the NSW Parks Service, unable to account for feral control within her portfolio, is clealy not upto the tasks that have been delegated to her. The CEO has been head of the service for a sufficient period to establish systems of monitoring and reporting. Unable to do so and to admit an inability is an admission of incompetence. Clearly, the Government in appointing the current CEO misjudged her competence in providing strategic direction in the establishment of systems for accounting for feral control across her asset portfolio. Her focus on approaching our parks as a tourism cash cow, particularly wilderness areas, clearly demonstrates that the current CEO has not had a long history in park conservartion nor understands the thinking of our dedicated forefathers who for decades nigh on centuries campaigned for a reserve system across NSW. That there is a significant morale problem within the service, which is the largest across Australia, is further evidence of inexperience and incompetence. It is time heads rolled.

March 20, 2013 @ 9:47pm
by Jane Kelly

Parks budgets and staff numbers at state environment departments are slashed every time a Liberal/National Government gets in. Projects are not funded for the long term, so that staff are scrabbling for limited grant money to continue research. Dedicated on-ground staff work very hard in difficult circumstances, mostly prescribed by miserly budgets handed down by bureaucrats who have no idea of the importance of biodiversity.

April 7, 2013 @ 6:57pm
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