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Does Recovery Planning Benefit Threatened Species?

By Madeleine Bottrill

A new analysis suggests that recovery plans for threatened species need to be significantly improved if they are to make a difference.

Recovery planning is a key component of government-funded initiatives to address declining populations of threatened species. In the past decade over $17 million has been invested by the Australian government in developing more than 600 recovery plans for more than 850 species. The purpose of these plans is to collate quantitative data on threatened species with expert opinion to specify threats, management priorities and recovery criteria.

So what’s been achieved? Opinions are mixed. Critics point to the low numbers of threatened species that have been delisted – that is, cases where a species conservation status has improved – while advocates highlight that recovery planning has prevented extinction of species like the eastern barred bandicoot.

In order to throw a bit of light on the value of recovery plans, the federal Environment Department commissioned a group of researchers from the University of Queensland, including myself, to evaluate the effectiveness of single-species recovery planning. The evaluation compared the status of threatened species with recovery plans and those without recovery plans. It should be noted that more than half of threatened species listed under the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) do not have plans.

At first glance this sounds straightforward. One group of endangered species has recovery plans, the other doesn’t. What’s the difference in outcomes? But a direct comparison between these two groups is not appropriate as we found substantial differences between them.

We found, for example, that managers were focusing their recovery efforts on species that were more threatened, had been listed for longer under the EPBC Act and had more scientific information on them. If a straight comparison was made between the two groups it would be uncertain whether any difference was due to the presence of a recovery plan or due to another factor.

We therefore used an econometric approach, which helps to identify a control (a species without a plan) and a treatment (a species with a plan) that share similar characteristics. By using this method we were able to identify species with similar characteristics such as body size or threat status so they could be equally matched.

To collect information on the status of threatened species, we gathered information from literature reviews, monitoring surveys and expert judgment. For many species, particularly those without recovery plans, limited quantitative data were available about how species were faring since being listed under the EPBC Act.

The evaluation found that there was no significant difference between a change in species status for species with recovery plans and those species without plans. In other words, species with plans were not increasing in number due to recovery efforts any more than those without plans.

One interesting result was that more than 40% of species with plans were improving due to increased survey effort. Therefore, one consequence of having a recovery plan is that people go out and look for you.

Why is it that recovery plans aren’t making that much difference? One of the factors underlying the lack of progress among species with plans is that there is no legal obligation to fund recovery actions based on planning. Guidelines in recovery plans are rarely linked to actions.

It is not surprising, then, that without funding for conservation actions the species with recovery plans are not better off. The presence of a recovery plan for a species does not necessarily influence the actions implemented or whether species receive conservation attention.

Based on this, should we abandon recovery plans? Not at all. There’s no doubt that species would be at a higher risk of extinction without planning efforts. There are certainly success stories, but overall the process of recovery planning needs to be improved to maximise its benefits.

The poor quality of information on the outcomes of recovery efforts indicates a lack of basic reporting for most plans. And this lack of reporting has serious implications for public accountability of government expenditure. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant amounts of staff time are invested in developing recovery plans but little attention is given to evaluating the outputs or outcomes of these efforts.

Madeleine Bottrill is a researcher with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland.