Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Threatened-Listed Species And The Proposed Cable Car

The debate about the proposed cable car on kunanyi/Mt Wellington has already been a dismal spectacle of false claims and questionable standards on both sides.  On this site I have already dealt with claims that concern polling or other poll-shaped objects that claim to mention public opinion (see the rolling Polling on the Mt Wellington Cable Car Proposal article and the earlier Public Opinion and the Mt Wellington Cable Car.) 

Now it is time for me to post a new article covering the already suspect claims in the area of threatened species impacts, in the hope of deterring any more threatened species nonsense and encouraging everybody involved to actually do some research.  While this is mainly a psephology site, most of my professional income comes from working on invertebrates of the non-political kind, and I am Tasmania's only living expert on native land snails.  I also have a keen amateur interest in native orchids, and have worked on or surveyed for a range of threatened species of various kinds.

The catalyst for the current burst of threatened species claims is a proposal by the cable car proponent, the Mt Wellington Cableway Co, to have its proposed cable car depart from a site on Main Fire Trail.  This proposal includes a new road from McRobies Gully (see route maps here and here) in an area of bushland that includes extensive areas of a state-listed threatened vegetation community (Eucalyptus tenuiramis on sediments.)

While permission might in theory be given to destroy a threatened vegetation type through this area, the status of this forest means the chance of the proposed road gaining "social licence" from the residents of nearby suburbs is zero, and would be low even without a cable car at the end.  That an impression was originally given that the road would run along an existing firetrail, only to turn out that it would mostly require fresh clearing, hasn't helped.  The proposed road has run into further opposition from the Hobart City Council's Parks and Recreation Committee, which has not only not supported the proponent's request to conduct a flora and fauna survey, but has also recommended that the Council refuse to allow any use of its land on the foothills of the mountain for the project at all.  However a future Council could overthrow that decision, making the whole issue a magnet for political shenanigans on both sides in the leadup to the October council elections.

Not content with all that, some opponents of the proposal, and as a result some media, are now starting to get involved in the time-honoured Tasmanian sport of threatened-species beat-ups.  In this sport, threatened species claims are used instrumentally and politically by activists to try to stop proposed developments.  It's a very easy sport to play since there are threatened species everywhere!  Species will be claimed to be at risk from a development even if they haven't ever been recorded in the actual area and even if there is good reason to suspect that they are absent, or that if they are present the impacts will be negligible.  (Which is not, of course, to say the developer shouldn't be required to address any possibility of presence, it's just to say that concerns should not be invented or exaggerated.)  The threatened species concerns being raised about the cable car are bound to include some valid points, but they also already have included a lot of garbage, and some species have been mentioned that there is no reason to believe will be affected.

Mostly, the problem is as follows: anyone who knows how can produce a Natural Values Atlas report that will say a species has been recorded within a certain radius of a proposed development, but that is not the same as saying that it has been recorded in the area of the proposed impact or that it is likely to occur there.  NVA searches also usually say little about where searches have been made without success.

Some early examples of the claims being made are:

* A tweet by Hobart City Council councillor Jeff Briscoe:

"Luke my man - rein in - look at the facts - 2.5 kilometres of new road bulldozed thru significant bush land of silver peppermints and rare orchids on foothill of our beautiful mountain - thank goodness for the council"

* An article in The Australian by Matthew Denholm (paywalled) which includes the following section:

"While the road may have some aesthetic challenges — initially running alongside the Hobart tip — and be partly built over a fire trail, it would cut through a rare forest type where federally listed threatened species have been found. A search of Tasmania’s Natural Values Atlas shows the area in and around the proposed road has verified reports of six threatened species listed under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conser­vation Act.

These are the eastern quoll, ammonite snail, swift parrot, eastern barred bandicoot, masked owl and a rare plant, pretty heath."

The article included comments by anti-MWCC activist Louise Sales, although she states (see comments) that she was not the source of claims in the article (whether she was the source of the NVA search provided in the article is under investigation).  Comment was reported from the proponent, but there is no evidence that any expert was consulted.  The article's general claim that the proposed road is likely to require EPBC Act referrals is one thing, but the above text seriously exaggerates the potential of some of the species to occur.  

* WIN News reporting on the same thing: "Environmentalists fear up to ten threatened species could be pushed to extinction if the Mt Wellington cable car gets off the ground".  I'd hope even the most extreme "environmentalists" would really not be so silly as to believe that the cable car could cause the extinction of species like devils and eagles that are widespread across the state.  (The report also referred to the "spotted quoll" - all quolls are spotted - a common error which could have created the incorrect impression that the larger spotted-tailed quoll was the species being mentioned.)

I am sure many more such claims will occur - and if we ever get to a final proposal I will probably need a separate edition of this article to cover the summit area.

Suspects Gallery

Here are my comments on the species that have been mentioned so far.  More may be added. 

Bare midge orchid Corunastylis nudiscapa
(Also known as Genoplesium nudiscapum)
(Surprisingly not federally listed)

This orchid was discovered by Joseph Hooker on a "hill E. of Mt Wellington" in 1840.  It was again collected by Joseph Milligan near putalina/Oyster Cove in 1852.  The trail went cold for 155 years (partly because of confusion about when the thing flowered) with the species being presumed extinct until I found it at a site near Huon Road.  I noticed some plants out of season while on a walk that had nothing to do with orchids in 2007 and then returned in 2008 to see what species of Corunastylis they were, and was in for a big surprise.  Research since then by people who spot this tiny plant rather more reliably than I do has found many more plants but has so far (oddly) not extended its range beyond where the early collectors found it - three hillsides on the outskirts of South Hobart and an area near putalina/Oyster Cove.

The hill proposed for the cable car access road is the hill immediately north of those three hillsides.  It seems so similar to them that it is hard to believe the orchid is not there.  And yet, repeated surveying (including a group line-search I was involved in with some of Tasmania's best orchid-spotters) has so far failed to find it there.  Such are the mysteries of orchids.  

Forest fingers Caladenia sylvicola

C. sylvicola was discovered by Hans and Annie Wapstra on a hillside above the Waterworks in 1992.  Shortly after the first specimen was found, I found a colony further down the hill and brought it to the attention of others interested in orchids. (It is possible others also knew about this colony independently).  That little colony kept popping up in the same place for a few years but was destroyed by fire in the late 1990s.  Since then there's been just one more confirmed record in the area, in 2009.  There are no confirmed records in the Natural Values Atlas anywhere else (and I've also tried to find it in the proposed road area a few times, without success.)  

The other thing worth mentioning about C. sylvicola is that orchid taxonomy can be tricky: sometimes plants that look very similar to it turn up elsewhere but apparently don't form persisting populations and are assumed to be just colour forms of common Caladenia species.  So any find of something that looks like it in a different area subject to a development could lead to some interesting discussion of how you decide what is C. sylvicola and what isn't. In any case, this species has not been recorded from the proposed road area.  

Tiny midge-orchid Corunastylis nuda
(Also known as Genoplesium nudum)
(Not federally listed)

This is another orchid that hasn't actually to my knowledge been recorded in the road area, though I can't say I would be shocked if it was.  Here's its NVA record map:

And that's not even all its records - for instance, I've recorded it at at least one (probably two) sites on Knocklofty, neither of which is in the NVA.  That said, I'm not aware of any of the many searches for nudiscapum on the proposed road site turning up nuda either.  

I'm far from convinced an orchid this widespread (and bound to be more so since so easily overlooked) needs to be listed as threatened even at state level at all.  That could lead into another pet subject - the needlessly bloated nature of the state's threatened species list and its lack of dynamism (to say the least) under successive governments - but I'll save that for another time. 

Ammonite snail Ammoniropa vigens
Formerly known and listed at state and national level as Discocharopa vigens

This snail is very rare, and federally listed as Critically Endangered.  It made a poor career move by picking Greater Hobart as a nice place to live, and hence much of what would probably have been its former habitat has been cleared.  Worse, the snail family it belongs to (Charopidae) contains many species that make delicious snacks for invasive introduced glass snails (Oxychilus spp) and possibly also leopard slugs and other exotic nasties.  So bushland reserves don't guarantee its protection.  Ammonite snails also tend to occur in very small localised loose clusters and to then be mysteriously absent from suitable surrounding habitat.  

This snail was known from a few 19th century records and then the recent records started in 1990 when I found dead specimens at Grass Tree Hill.  That site was badly burnt a few years later and I never found the snail alive there.  In all I have found it alive at only three sites ever, with the third one coming only a few weeks ago.  I have spent hundreds of hours looking for this thing - virtually all of them unpaid - and have seen just five live ammonite snails ever (one of them twice!)

Rare land snails are often fussy about geology.  Ammonite snails have so far only been found only on dolerite, and with the exception of the sort-of dry Grass Tree Hill site and a historic record of one shell in unknown habitat on the Domain, they tend to occur in dark, wet gullies and steep slopes.  They've never been found in open forest on sediments such as is the habitat for nearly all of the proposed road line.  Yes, the upper of the two Knocklofty sites (where live specimens have been seen, albeit not since 2010) is only about 350 metres from the nearest section of the proposed closed road.  But 350 metres is a long long way for snail 3.5 millimetres wide and with no evident interest in anything going on on the other side of its favourite rock. The population (if it still exists, which I have to doubt) is on the other side of the Hobart tip; it is not "the area in and around".  On a human scale, it's like saying Launceston is in and around Hobart!

There are some small areas of dolerite (as loose boulders at least) very close to the proposed departure terminal, but I've looked for ammonite snails there without success, before this road proposal came about.  It would be fantastic (though not for the developer) if a live population was found in any area close enough to be potentially impacted by the proposed road, but it is also not at all likely. (By the way, almost every record of this species on the federal Atlas of Living Australia is wrong as a result of misidentifications.)

Pretty heath Epacris virgata (Kettering)

Now until I wrote this piece I didn't know a thing about this plant occurring near the area.  But this is just to show that you can find out more when you look into a subject a bit instead of just whacking names into the NVA and spotting dots on maps.

The two map dots for E. virgata near the proposed road site are not all that near to it.  One is on the slopes of Knocklofty, several hundred metres away, and one is near Noah's Saddle, about 1 km away.  But by clicking on records in the NVA one can bring up lots of data associated with the record.  And both of these records turn out to have a very unusual combination of qualifiers: "Present" with "Locally Extinct".  That combination might result, for instance, from finding live plants at the time of the record, but where the population later disappeared (indeed that is what it is in this case), or from finding dead plants that were identifiable but no evidence of a living population.  Anyway elsewhere I did find a slightly later reference to a very small number of living plants (at least one in 2001!) on Knocklofty. But given that the species has an estimated population exceeding a million plants it might be tough to argue that that sort of population - even if present in the cable car road area - was significant.  Also, the species occurs mainly on dolerite, so the Australian's article is again misleading in creating the impression that this area of E. tenuiramis on sediments is its proven habitat.  (At least based on the NVA records that were the source material.)

Wedge-tailed eagle Aquila audax
Tasmanian devil Sarcophilus harrisii
Eastern quoll Dasyurus viverrinus
Eastern barred bandicoot Perameles gunnii
Masked owl Tyto novaehollandiae

I've grouped this lot together because they're what I call "landscape threatened species", and when I hear them mentioned in a debate like this I tend to have a good long yawn.  Much use of threatened species claims in environmental debate is based on totem species like the eagle and the devil that seem useful for campaigns because they are pretty much everywhere in Tasmania.  If you couldn't ever have the slightest possible impact on them then very little could ever get done in the state.  So just mentioning eagles, devils and the rest as possibly present achieves nothing.  The question is what would be the impact on those species, and is it significant enough for legislators (state and federal) to need to do anything about it?  

It's also worth mentioning that the quoll and bandicoot are mainly on the federal list because they more or less snuffed it on the north island (plus the quoll's population in Tasmania is volatile and has recently declined).  They are not considered threatened on the state list, though in the case of the quoll this is somewhat controversial.  

Forty-spotted pardalote Pardalotus quadragintus
Swift parrot Lathamus discolor

Good luck with the pardalote given that there are no remotely recent NVA records of this much searched for species within 4 km and given that it is generally not the right forest type.  I'll leave the parrot - which if breeding in the area would be the most serious of the issues listed - to the experts.  


And lastly ...

...of course there are quolls near a tip!  

(These bad photos were taken in 2011, more or less at the south end of the small section of the proposed road that actually would run along the existing firetrail.)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Hobart City Council Voting Patterns 2014-8

Advance Summary

1. Traditionally, the Hobart City Council  loosely divided between "pro-development" councillors and councillors who stress environmental issues and/or the interests of impacted residents. 

2. This term of Council has continued a trend from late in the previous term in which voting clusters have weakened and the voting of individual councillors has become much less predictable.  

3. Despite this most councillors can at least be classifying as leaning towards the "pro-development" ("blue") mindset or its opponent ("green").  

4. The results of votes on this council have been very unpredictable because of the weakness of the voting patterns observed, the narrow advantage in numbers for the "blue" side over the "green" side and the frequent absence of various councillors from meetings.

5. A possible ordering of councillors from "greenest" to "bluest" in this term is: Cocker, Burnet, Reynolds, Cooper (no longer on Council), Harvey, Ruzicka, Sexton, Briscoe, Thomas, Christie, Hickey (no longer on Council), Denison, Zucco.

6. Possible causes of the weakening of vote clusters include personality clashes within the "blue" side, a lack of solidarity or a common approach to most council issues among endorsed Greens, and genuine changes in the views of some councillors over time.   

(Note: This article is long and in places very mathsy, but I've cut out some of the really arcane stuff from past editions, mainly because the data entry was such a massive job by itself!)


In the leadup to each set of Hobart City Council elections I post a detailed account of voting patterns on the Council in the previous term.  My findings for the 2011-14 term can be seen here, and that piece includes links back to older pieces.  Now that terms are four years long, this is a much bigger job than it used to be, but at least it only needs doing every four years.  Entering in the data from something like 84 meetings, every single one of them with at least one contested motion, took me much of the last few days.  But it was worth it; the results are rather interesting.

Friday, August 3, 2018

"Margin Of Error" Polling Myths

A lot is said about "margin of error" in public discussion of opinion polls, and nearly all of it is wrong.

This is another piece I've been meaning to write for quite a while.  There are many other articles about this on the web, but I'm not aware of any that make all the points I'd like to make and make them in an Australian context.

The concept of "margin of error" is one that is commonly talked about in discussion of polls.  It is often used to (rightly) deflate breathless media babble about movements in polls that are supposedly caused by whatever the media pundit wants to see as the cause, but in practice are often nothing more than random variation from sample to sample.  Possum's Trends, The Horserace and Random Numbers (2012) was a classic debunking of that sort of commentariat nonsense, written in the days of the older, much bouncier Newspoll.

Unfortunately, of all the things that get talked about in polling, margin of error is probably the concept that best shows that "a little learning is a dangerous thing".  People grasp the basic principle and misapply it constantly - and are assisted by pollsters, the media and even the Australian Press Council's otherwise good (and too often disregarded) poll-reporting guidelines in doing so.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Not-A-Poll: Worst Opposition Leader Of The Last 45 Years: Grand Final!

Oh yes, there was actually a book about these two!
Latham 158 - Downer 141
Grand Final: Abbott vs Latham

Welcome back to the final round of our exciting but brief quest to find this site's pick for worst opposition leader of the last 45 years.  We started by splitting the field into two groups, those who at some stage had been PM and those who had not yet been PM.  Tony Abbott cleaned up the former with an outright majority in round 1, while the latter was a closer contest.

The Latham-Downer stoush showed why I run these things for a month.  Downer led out of the blocks by a surprisingly large margin given Latham's primary vote lead from the first round.  But after a while Latham started gradually catching up.  After 23 days Latham took the lead, and his lead continued to grow; in the end it was close but not super-close (52.8% to Latham, about what John Howard beat him by in 2004).

So it comes down to this.  I stated the case for (or should that be against) Latham last time.  Regarding Abbott, his credentials as a bad opposition leader are seriously dented by the fact that he won an election and won it big, but it's unclear how much credit we should give him for that.  In tactical terms, he did steer the Coalition back to competitiveness by opposing Labor on emissions trading, and it might be that everything Labor did from there was self-inflicted as a result of internal tensions between a factional system and a self-styled presidential leader.  Abbott opponents may also argue that it's not just about whether you win or lose but above all about how you play the game, and I'm not sure those who want to take that line need me to provide examples (or that I have time to list them all.)  As with Latham, I suspect Abbott's post-OL performance taints his legacy as Opposition Leader, though in my view he was actually a much more harmless PM than he could have been.

In comments, reader Carl adds another relevant criterion: that good or bad Opposition Leadership in a tactical sense is not only about whether you win, but also the extent to which your victory limits you. 

Voting is open in the sidebar now and continues til 6 pm 31 August.

Kevin Bonham Leaves Tasmanian Times (2012)

It has come to my attention that the Tasmanian Times website no longer includes my lengthy 2012 rant where I wrote about why I was leaving it as a regular writer and poster, and also the thread where the TT audience (plus one sad interloping chess troll from Melbourne) debated my departure.  (A very limited relationship persisted after that, which I completely ended earlier this year.)

The deletion of these articles, some time since January 2017, was never requested by me and I was never informed of it.  My request to TT, given that they were unwilling to publicly apologise for Ted Mead's garbage to my satisfaction (or publicly at all) was "remove the link to my site from the sidebar immediately and please cease linking to my site in future."  Even if it resulted from a misinterpretation of my request as a request to remove all existing links to my site, numerous other old articles linking to this site are still up.  

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Super Saturday By-Elections Live And Postcount

MAYO: CALLED Sharkie (CA) retain
PERTH: CALLED Gorman (ALP) is new MP, retaining seat

Braddon Swings

Here is a graph showing the relationship between the vote for the independent Craig Garland and the 2PP swing in Braddon:

You can see maps of the Garland vote and the 2PP swing over at The Tally Room.  The Liberals did very well on 2PP swing on the West Coast, were smashed on King Island and the west end of the coast (Wynyard - Stanley area where fishing is important) and got small swings in Ulverstone and Devonport-Latrobe.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Longman By-Election

Cause of by-election: Incumbent resignation (ineligible under Section 44)
Outlook: Your guess is probably as good as mine.

I've finally found the time to write a detailed post about the prospects for the Longman by-election.  This won't be anywhere near as long as my Braddon guide but I think it is worth explaining why we are seeing Labor struggling in the polls, the betting and in commentary perceptions in this seat. (That said quite a few people think Labor will win Longman but lose Braddon instead.)  When I first wrote about these by-elections, I thought national polling gave Labor enough advantage to probably just hold Longman, but since then Labor's national position has declined.  Labor may still win the seat, but their position is quite fragile.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Why Is Seat Polling So Inaccurate?

The accuracy of Australian seat polling has been an important topic lately, especially given the coming by-elections.  By-elections are very difficult to forecast.  Even after throwing whatever other data you like at them (national polling, government/opposition in power, personal vote effects, state party of government) they are less predictable than the same seats would be at a normal election.  So it would be nice if seat polling would tell us what is going to happen in them.

Unfortunately single-seat polling is very inaccurate.  I discussed this in a recent piece called Is Seat Polling Utterly Useless?, where I showed that at the 2016 federal election, seat polling was a worse predictor of 2PP outcomes than even a naive model based on national polling and assumed uniform swing.  The excellent article by Jackman and Mansillo showed that seat polling for primary votes was so bad that it was as if the polls had one sixth of their actual sample size.  It doesn't seem that seat polls are useless predictively, but we certainly can't weight them very highly.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Submission To Tasmanian Electoral Act Review

Initial submissions to the review of the Tasmanian Electoral Act close today.  The review was mainly prompted by issues raised (mostly during the state election, but also during previous state elections) concerning:

* authorisations for social media posts
* restrictions preventing naming candidates without their permission in certain kinds of material
* restrictions preventing newspaper coverage on election day
* lack of state-specific donation requirements
* issues with involvement of non-party actors in the electoral process (the call for submissions singles out unions, though in 2018 there was far more concern about gambling interests)