Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Spot Of Bother About Quolls

(This article is a pseph-free-zone, but you can always vote in my Not-A-Poll to the right on how many federal Tasmanian seats Labor will winFor those more interested in polls than quolls, I aim to post poll roundup very late on Monday night.)

 The species photographed above is the eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus).  It's very cute.  It comes in two colours (tan and black) and, if you believe some people, our limited supply is very nearly gone.  If you believe others, its numbers are just on the bouncy side. 

The species featured on 7:30 Tasmania this Friday with a lengthy headline report concerning the decision by Environment Minister Brian Wightman to reject an application to list the species as Endangered on the Tasmanian Threatened Species List, even after approval was recommended by the Scientific Advisory Committee.   For the time being, you can see the main report here and a following interview with wildlife biologist Nick Mooney here.  These may not stay up for all that long.

The main report interviews PhD quoll researcher Bronwyn Fancourt, her supervisor Prof Chris Johnson, and Dr David Obendorf.  Dr Obendorf, a veterinary pathologist, is a favourite go-to person for some sections of the Tasmanian media, a regular source of controversial comment about wildlife issues.  All of these support listing the Eastern Quoll as endangered, while Nick Mooney defends the decision to not list it. 

Eastern quolls were very common in Tasmania (their sole wild stronghold following probable extinction on the mainland) a few decades ago but their numbers have clearly declined.  Those supporting listing argue that there is demonstrated spotlighting and trapping evidence that the species has lost more than half of its numbers in its last ten years, and thereby qualifies for listing as Endangered.  They also point to specific population loss events that appear to have a cause, such as feral cats moving into populations, and possible explanations for why the species might decline now, such as "trophic cascade" following the flow-on effects of crashes in Tasmanian Devil populations.  (Fewer devils equals more cats equals fewer quolls and so on.)

Those opposing the listing argue that the species appears to be just one prone to natural population booms and busts, and that there are problems with the standardisation of sighting data that mean that we can't be sure that (a) there has been a decline above the 50% level (b) that the decline is not just normal.  The debate about the decline rate comes down to what point you measure it from and which data sources you accept as equivalent in methods, and also to how accurate you think particular methods of monitoring actually are.

The science of the debate, as I understand it, is covered fairly well in the TV report, although the Government's side is rather disadvantaged by having its view heard largely through the mouths of its opponents.  However, the legal workings of threatened species listing in Tasmania are very poorly covered.  The problems start with a quote by Bronwyn Fancourt about two minutes in that says something like this:

"The legislation at state, federal and international level, all require it to be categorised as endangered - that a species has declined by fifty percent or more in the last ten years, or three generations, whichever is greater.  For these guys, three generations is six years, so looking at a ten year timeframe, they've definitely declined by more than fifty percent."

I am not sure this transcript is exact because the syllables immediately following "require" are hard for me to hear.  But if viewers gained the impression that a definite 50% decline (assuming it has happened) in ten years obliges listing at state level - something they certainly would have gained from the second interview - then that is at least four degrees of separation from the truth.

For starters, the Tasmanian legislation does not require that the Government list any species:

"An extant taxon of native flora or fauna may be listed as endangered if it is in danger of extinction because long term survival is unlikely while the factors causing it to be endangered continue operating." (my emphasis)

Secondly, as the same quote shows, the legislative test is nothing to do with a specific decline rate.  The legislative test is whether the species' long term survival is unlikely under current conditions.

So where does the 50% come in?  It comes in in the Guidelines (PDF link). The Guidelines are closely modelled on the IUCN Red List rules, but they are not prescriptive:

"It is the intent of the SAC to have guidelines that are transparent, quantitative and checkable. However, there must also be flexibility in application of the criteria to ensure that each individual species proposed for listing or de-listing is treated on its merits and particular circumstances. Thus the Guidelines are not prescriptive, but are used as a screen to inform the recommendation process."  (my emphasis)

And furthermore, these guidelines are not for the Minister; they are for the Scientific Advisory Committee of seven scientists that advises the Minister.  The Minister also can, and in this case doubtless did, seek advice from government scientists, and can also seek advice from qualified people outside government.  The Minister is not bound by SAC's opinion, and the Minister is not bound by the constraints placed on SAC in forming their recommendations.

Departmental Interference?

Another aspect of the report that is concerning is an allegation that "the Department" (it's not stated which, but I'm assuming it's DPIPWE) wanted Bronwyn Fancourt to change a paper she had co-written.  This is an accusation regarding which much more detail would be useful.

Normally, a researcher writes a draft of a paper, which they may then submit to a range of colleagues for comment, before submitting a manuscript to a journal.  The journal will then send it off for refereeing to appropriate expert scientists that it has selected.  For a scientist to send a paper for comment to a department, and for an official response to a paper requesting changes to then be supplied by a department, would be a bit unusual.  For a scientist to send a paper to a given person who happens to work for a department, and for that person to then reply making suggestions, is much more normal, but that's not typically an action on behalf of a department, not even if it arrives from a government email. Likewise, if a journal sends a paper to a government employee who is selected as an expert reviewer, and that employee then provides feedback in their capacity as a reviewer, that is hardly a government position.  So what, exactly, was the story here?

In the case where a paper is sent to a department for feedback, or a department provides feedback, that's still really nothing too concerning.  Anyone who reads a draft of a paper might make suggestions to an author about the content, but it is hardly as if those making suggestions will normally have control over changes to the content of a paper.  It is the editors of a paper who determine what is published.

This whole accusation needs much more detail and fleshing out, to establish if it is something the public really should be concerned about, but unfortunately instead we got David Obendorf alleging corruption of process, when we don't know enough about the real nature of this alleged corruption to judge for ourselves.  No evidence was presented that Dr Obendorf knew about what the supposed process actually was, let alone whether he has much clue about the nature of this supposed corruption.   Earlier on in the report, Dr Obendorf alleged that the decision to refuse delisting could not have been scientific but must have been political. 

I have been round this sort of block before with Dr Obendorf  in 1999, when he made numerous false claims about my research concerning a snail that was eventually correctly delisted, including falsely alleging that my report did not separate numbers of live and dead snails.   Many times I have stressed to Dr Obendorf that a scientist who makes false statements about the work of another should retract those claims, but he has failed to do so.  Yet here he is presuming to lecture the government and the public on what things are an "anathema of science" that "should never happen".   I strongly suspect he does not know what he is talking about in this case either, but that that will not stop him continuing to rack up more media appearances on wildlife issues.

It's even more unfortunate that the report misrepresents the nature of the supposed interference as "There's also concern the government tried to interfere to make the population of the quoll not look so low."  So this is roping in the government as a whole to the supposed actions of government-employed scientists (I'd be deeply surprised if the Minister had any involvement in the review of a paper).  But worse, this isn't even an accurate account of the claim being made.  The accusation being made doesn't even involve disagreement over the size of the current quoll population, with the lurid taint of attempting to falsify existing data that that implies.  Rather, it involves disagreement about the size of the quoll population at times in the past and whether there is, or is not, sound evidence that it has been this low before.

The Mooney Interview and the Precautionary Principle

Nick Mooney is a former DPIPWE wildlife biologist who is also quite high-profile, especially as a result of contention about the presence or absence of foxes in the state.  The interview with him is entitled "How endangered is the eastern quoll?", a loaded heading which wrongly implies the species is somewhere between slightly endangered and very endangered, and ignores the possibility that it is just not endangered at all. Indeed a species can be threatened without being endangered, and can also be neither.  "Is the eastern quoll endangered?" would have been a more appropriate and neutral heading.

After Nick Mooney suggests the Scientific Advisory Committee may have invoked the "precautionary principle" in deciding to recommend listing, Airlie Ward puts to Nick Mooney that the "precautionary principle" would support listing the species at a lower level given the doubts about whether the data actually support the 50% decline rate.  As I've pointed out above, whether or not the species has actually declined by 50% in ten years is only marginally relevant anyway; just as there is discretion not to list a species that appears to be slightly over a threshhold, so there is also discretion to list a species that appears to be a bit short of the guideline limits, if it is actually threatened.

The idea that listing borderline/arguable species as threatened (at least at a lower level) embodies the "precautionary principle" is a somewhat loose usage of the PP concept anyway.  The PP in its most common forms applies to the taking of a decision that may harm a species, the environment or human health - for instance the approval of a major development that involves land clearance or pollution - where a risk is credibly suspected but the science is not fully "in".  The PP might be used to argue a case against, say, logging half the forest on North Bruny Island on the grounds of suspected harm to the quoll population, but it doesn't really support a case against leaving a species off a threatened species list.  Such a decision is not an impact, merely a maintaining of the status quo.  And, as Nick Mooney points out, it is not clear that listing will even assist the species' management, so it is not clear what potentially harmful action is being averted.

What listing of the species would, however, do, is lead to a massive upswing in the instrumental and political use of the species to pursue political goals like stopping logging, whether or not those goals had anything to do with actual threats to the quoll.  It would be a rerun of the kind of tiresome abuse of a threatened species listing continually seen in the case of the Tasmanian devil (see Tasmanian Devils Not On The "Verge Of Extinction") and the quoll would be another great one for the sillier green groups to play their little games with, precisely because the species is so widespread.

The other problem with the PP is that laypeople frequently treat it as if it is some scientific law that has to be observed.  But it is not.  It is just a moral philosophy that provides an approach to environmental decision making, and that has widespread support in government and conservation group circles and multinational waffle-fests.  Many government bureaucrats like it because it works extremely well when you are more concerned about not being blamed for things than about making things easy for your clients.  It also has widespread support in environmentalist circles, because it encourages governments to reject development proposals.   Given that it is a moral philosophy and not a law of science, people can subjectively take it or leave it, and I, for one, think it is overrated and inflexible.  Also, some of the goods it tries to protect, such as environmental wellbeing and human health, are sometimes in conflict because of the adverse health impacts of unemployment that can result from restrictions upon industry and development. 

Nick Mooney argues that "this submission about listing the quoll, is a very detailed submission about very fine lines, over 50% ... in fact, 51% is barely over it, and you have to have a very very strong argument, with very profound data, to have a listing based on that".  After repeating the incorrect claim that the legislation refers to a ten-year period (see above), Ward gets somewhere when she asks the big question: how does the listing process for the quoll compare to other species?

This elicits the frank comment that the Tasmanian subspecies of the wedge-tailed eagle, a constant totem species for green protestors because it lives pretty much everywhere in the state, may not be endangered.   The eagle has a long history of upward revision of population estimates, and while it does require sensitive management against various threats and does suffer from persecution by idiots, I do believe the threats to its survival in the state are at times overstated. 

Comparisons like the one involving the eagle are really the nub of it.  If we are saying the case for listing the quoll is not strong enough, and it should not be listed until we have enough evidence to be confident there is real risk, that's fine in isolation.  But to take that position is to admit that dozens if not hundreds of species that were more or less handwaved onto the list in its early days (and there are plenty of less deserving inclusions than the eagle too) and are mostly still there are no more worthy of listing at this time.  This should not be a difficult thing to admit given that it is true.

So if we are not going to accept debatable cases like the eastern quoll as really threatened, we should also not be accepting many of the species that are already on the list, and we should be removing all questionable listings from the list until the evidence for listing them is strong enough to justify listing based on the same level of scrutiny we are applying to the quoll.  Otherwise, the list is inconsistent and reflects not the species that are most at risk, but simply the species that got there first, before governments realised there were way too many species listed already. 

Airlie Ward is right when she states that getting on the list seems to have become harder.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing overall, given that originally it was much too easy and that that is why the list is so unmanageably long.  The problem is that too many species that got on too easily are still there - and the recent failure to completely delist the Mt Mangana Stag Beetle (Lissotes menalcas) is in my view evidence that it is still way too difficult to remove species that we would be hard pressed to exterminate if we tried.  It doesn't help that there are some scientists who believe that species should be kept on the list because of the contribution that listings supposedly make to conservation or research funding generally, even when those listings are not really justified. 

Overall, 7:30 Tasmania's presentation, while relatively detailed and in places getting to some of the real issues, was really not as balanced as it could have been.  Quite aside from the issues of fact I have mentioned in this article, the nature of the screened stories allowed the first report to act as a mouthpiece for Fancourt, Johnson and Obendorf without any evidence that they were asked any of the more difficult available questions about their positions. Meanwhile, the sole defender of the listing interviewed (Nick Mooney) was asked a lot of challenging questions and frequently interrupted. 

Case For A Halfway House

This is how I think cases like this one can be resolved. 

One of the many shortcomings of the Tasmanian threatened species system is that it has no halfway-house category for recognising species that might be threatened and deserve some management consideration, but for which the case for keeping listing as threatened indefinitely, with all that that entails (including the difficulty of removal), is not (yet) strong enough.

Among many reforms that in my view should be applied to the mess that is threatened species classification in Tasmania, I would create a Data Deficient category (Data Deficient is an IUCN categorisation; alternative terms could be Insufficiently Known or Possibly Threatened).  Data Deficient listings would provide the listed species with a level of management protection similar to listed threatened species - prevention of knowingly impacting the species without a permit for instance .  However Data Deficient listings would not trigger requirements for listing statements or management plans and would automatically lapse after a set period, unless the species was uplisted or a fresh application to retain its DD status was accepted.  

Such a listing category under legislation would be a useful category for two groups of species:

(i) Species that were poorly known and it is thought they could be threatened, but more research is required.  Many species already on the list fit this definition, as do many newly discovered species.

(ii) Species, like the eastern quoll, that are reasonably well studied but it is debatable based on the existing data whether they are actually threatened or not.

Creating such a category, and placing the eastern quoll in it, would ensure the species received what conservation attention does arise from listing, while at the same time ensuring that it would not remain listed indefinitely should its numbers be simply naturally fluctuating.

Many other species on the present list would be better moved to such a category too.

Unfortunately over its fifteen years in power, Labor has generally not shown interest in serious review and reform of Tasmanian threatened species legislation.

PS (16 July): I understand that it is not even accurate to portray the Minister's decision as a final rejection of listing the species.  Rather, it seems the matter is being referred back to SAC for further consideration.

Update 24 Oct:  The matter has surfaced on Tasmanian Times here and predictably the discussion is for the most part idiotic and irrational.  The lead author initiates the trainwreck by calling the Minister's decision "absurd and unscientific" but providing no evidence; someone needs to tell him that science does not proceed by such empty say-so or me-tooing.  The first seven comments are the usual shambles of irrelevant distractions and unsubstantiated covert motivation theories by the usual TT suspects.  However the lead "article" does at least include a list to this link giving Minister Wightman's initial reasons for knocking back the listing proposal.


Disclosure: (1) I have fairly often worked on contract for projects funded by DPIPWE, and have now and then worked on contract for projects funded by the University of Tasmania. (2) I applied for a vacancy on SAC last December, and strangely, still haven't heard how it went!


  1. "Final estimate under Gillard was 56.1." in the sidebar. Is that supposed to be 46.1, (to the Coalition) or is that seats?

    1. It was 56.1% 2PP to the Coalition. Coalition has been ahead for so long that I forgot that when the lead changed it would become confusing if I didn't specify which side that was to! Fixed now.

  2. Just as a note, all of the papers I write have to be passed through a (federal) government review prior to issue, because they have an 'interest' in the work and some content may, potentially, not be suitable for wider circulation.

    This may (or may not) be the case with DPIPWE above - if they are funding the research.

  3. Modding yourself now, Kevin? ;)
    I definitely agree that the current threatened species act and associated processes have turned wildlife management into even more of a political football than it could otherwise be. I think a data deficient or similar category could be useful as a management tool.
    I have seen Dr Obendorf's contributions at TT, and it does strike me that he may be seeking to occupy a space that is seen to have been vacated by the state Greens with their move into minority government - although there are large numbers of groups and individuals doing the same thing in response to the TFA.

    As an aside, what is your take on the remediation proposal for Lake Pedder? Aside from the fiscal limitations at both state and federal levels.

    1. The comment I removed was identical to the one that appears in reply to intuitivereason; I just deleted it because the intervening comment meant it was in the wrong place.

      Pedder - I don't think there is really much environmental benefit in remediating it. If there is a business case that it can be profitable from a tourist viewpoint I'd be interested to see that; if there isn't I suspect the money is better spent elsewhere. On a pseph note, the Pedder 2000 campaign in the 1990s was a dismal failure with a poll (forget who but my memory is it was a real poll, not just a dodgy opt-in) showing only 6% support and that after it had been going for some time. It will be challenging for those promoting it to break out of the perception that this is just the old-time Greens wanting to get a symbolic reversal of an event that should not have happened in the first place.

    2. Really, anyone who wants to 'remediate' Lake Pedder hasn't visited recently. It's beautiful, and the beaches have formed (and will conntinue to form) all around the lake where it is. Half a century will do that.

      'Remediating' will just mean another 50 years of transition to get back to where we are now, without the water storage.

    3. I have to disagree with that intuitivereason, the "beaches" that are around the impoundment are formed with quartzite gravel, not the sand of glacial activity. I've been there a few times and I plan to go back in the summer.

      I can think of a bunch of potential economic and hydroelectric possibilities that a drained Lake Pedder could allow, but I think I've hijacked Kevin's blog enough.