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What We Can Do for Long-Term Biodiversity Monitoring

By Hugh Possingham

The vexed issue of long-term biodiversity monitoring in Australia has had a long history of discussion but few outcomes. Here are a few obvious things we could do now.

Every 5 years there is a State of Environment Report that laments the lack of consistent nationwide biodiversity data. The Commonwealth Auditor General has similarly called for the country to get its environmental accounts in order.

The Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network was recently established to help us build the infrastructure to assemble consistent long-term data. The Commonwealth government has established the National Plan for Environmental Information. And, in recent months, David Lindenmayer of the The Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions convened a group of ecologists and investors to try to clarify the fundamental principles that should underpin the collection of long-term ecological data.

All these efforts are just a tiny sample of what seems an endless Wagnerian opera lamenting our failure to document changes in biodiversity over longer timeframes. How hard can this be?

Yes, there are many challenges, but equally there are a number of things we could simply get on with. There seem to be several very simple and meaningful things we could do now that, in some cases, require little more than a minor expansion, coordination and analysis of what we already have.

Here are several low-hanging fruit.

1. Big animals from the air: Each year at least four states fly transects across the country counting kangaroos and other large vertebrates. They have been going for almost 30 years. The primary purpose is to set kangaroo-harvesting quotas, but everything else is counted. This is perfect for assessing the benefits of large-scale investments in camel or other feral control. Why can’t we make this a national program with a national database accessible to all? I estimate the extra cost of expanding the survey to all regions and coordination at $500,000 per annum. This mean, that for one four thousandths of the annual military budget we would be the only continent on Earth to have a count of all large vertebrates (outside the forests).

2. Waterbirds from the air: For more than 25 years Richard Kingsford and his team have coordinated a waterbird survey for eastern Australia. At David Lindenmayer’s workshop he showed us a graphic of how often this priceless dataset has required a major funding drive to keep it afloat. Why can’t we do this across the nation, every year, forever? Richard’s work has been invaluable in discussions surrounding the Murray-Darling Basin, helping us to drive policy for multi-billion dollar programs.

3. Vegetation extent: Rumour has it we already have consistent accounts of how much we have of every vegetation type. Each state would simply need to assemble the data and report by vegetation type.

4. Vegetation condition: Almost all the states and territories have their favourite way of measuring the condition of native vegetation. These approaches are very similar and involve sampling vegetation structure (how much stuff is in each layer of the vegetation) and aspects of vegetation composition (how many weeds are there) with special issues relevant to fauna like hollows and dead wood. To get reasonable coverage of the continent (and statistically meaningful data) I would sample 20 sites randomly chosen in each natural resource management region for a habitat condition survey (at a cost per survey of $300), making about 1000 per year. After 5 years we would return to half those sites that were originally sampled, repeat and rinse.

5. Australia’s acoustic accounts – bats, birds, frogs and squeaks in the night: In a previous Ecologic column I argued that one of the cheapest ways to get direct nationwide estimates of changes in the abundance and distribution of all organisms that make sounds is to set up about 2000 acoustic monitoring devices. The estimated endowment cost would be $16 million.

6. Mining Birds Australia’s data: Every month more than 1000 bird lists pour into Bird’s Australia’s databases, mostly collected by volunteers. With some help and promotion, and given increasing cooperation with other bird data collection groups, this could be 5000. While coverage of the north and centre of Australia would always be patchy, we now have many methods to mine these data in a consistent way and deliver trends in common birds by bioregion.

My wild guess of the once-off endowment to secure all these surveys, with money left over for communication, is $100 million. This means that if we stopped military spending for about a day and a half we would save enough to do all this monitoring forever!

Professor Hugh Possingham is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions.