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.  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 six 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 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) hundreds of metres south of the proposed departure terminal, but I've looked for ammonite snails there without success, before this road proposal came about.  There may be other very small such areas closer.  It would be fantastic (though not for the developer) if a live population of the snail was found in any area close enough to be potentially impacted by the proposed road, but it is also highly unlikely. (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.)


  1. Hi Kevin, good article. Do you have any thoughts or views on environmental groups becoming the “boy who cried wolf”. Will the sometimes false and exaggerated claims they make about endangering plant species and animals in already compromised areas (such as mcrobies gully) lessen there creditability when it comes to protecting a truly unique and endangered area or species?. I can understand preventing an ancient rainforest from clearfelling, but an area the size of the proposed cable car access road, this would have a low percentage contribution to the overall survival of a species surely?

  2. I have exactly that concern, and the more serious concern that they make it hard for any of us who want genuine threatened species issues taken seriously. It's not just the cynicism that appears about all threatened species claims, it's also the defeatism that develops about the possibility of saving species. If there are so many of them and serious threats to them are everywhere then it follows we will lose many and so many people will conclude we should accept that and give up. I don't accept that defeatism - I think nearly all threatened species are saveable if we focus on the neediest cases and their most serious threats. As for the risks, if there was a very localised threatened species in the road area the road might greatly increase extinction risk but there's no evidence this is the case. I wouldn't ignore small risk increases entirely - if a development increased the extinction risk for swift parrots by 0.1% that might be a valid reason not to do that But for most of the widespread listed species the risk could obviously not be that great - even assuming thoae species are even at such risk as their status on official lists suggests.

  3. The swift parrot would have to have the largest range of habitat of any creature in Australia/Tasmania. As soon as a proposal to build something is released out comes the line "this will affect swift parrot numbers due to blah blah blah" The other favourite is the orange bellied parrot with the quoll taking out the trifecta, wedge tail's for the quaddie.

    1. The main issue with swift parrots is that the eucalypts they feed on nectar from are quite widespread in the state but the areas of strongest flowering vary. Thus although swift parrot numbers are now very low, they will turn up where the flowering is strongest, meaning that there are a lot of places they will be sometimes (but not consistently). If they would keep coming back to one area, or better still stay in one area (preferably Bruny Island where there aren't any sugar gliders) saving them would be much easier!

  4. I find it pretty hilarious that MWCC have posted this article on their website as if it somehow justifies their proposal to plough a 2.5km road through a threatened ecological community. And I have to wonder if they actually bothered to read the article – since it points out that “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”

    I have to pull you on suggesting that I was the source for the claims in Matt Denholm’s article however – I wasn’t. I’ve only ever said that the area is a threatened ecological community and potential habitat for a number of threatened species. Which it undeniably is.

    An anti-cable car activist I might be – but I also have a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation - so I have a better understanding of these issues that most people. Not that I should have to defend myself in this way – but since you’ve singled me out I will.

    And I’m happy to send you the Natural Values Atlas for the area of the proposed road if you are interested.

    1. Hmmm, with my usual keenness to make everything as factually accurate as possible I edited the reference to you then immediately wondered if I needed to do that. If a journalist somewhat exaggerates or misunderstands their reporting of technical claims (which when it comes to threatened species issues happens more often than not) it is still accurate to say their article is based on those claims. However I don't know for certain whether you supplied the NVA search to Denholm. Anyway the key point there is that the journalist did not seek third-party expert input that might have improved the article, and instead engaged in she-said-he-said reporting of the comments of opposing sides.

      I am interested to see the NVA result that was supplied to Denholm just to see what parameters were used (email ). That said I have already checked the NVA records for most of these species in writing the article. The issue is not with the content of the NVA report but its interpretation. The NVA is a pre-screening tool. Records in proximity do not alone demonstrate "potential habitat" no matter what the text spat out by the NVA tool may say otherwise. Habitat type and history of past searching (if any) must also be considered.

    2. I also note that Denholm was provided the image.

      Can I please have a GPS location of where the Blakers photo was taken. I am familiar with the area but can’t place the location of the photo.

  5. What a man of many surprising qualities you are. I applaud your work of discovery and in support of Tasmania’s rare, threatened, endangered and just plain extraordinary wildlife. I had never heard of the orchids, native grasses and snails and will probably never see them, even though I am now intrigued by them. I am amazed and thrilled that they even exist. The Silver Peppermint gums that I rode through the following day were enough for me.

    The points you make on range and existence come from an expertise and experience that have the ring of truth to them.

    I have no such expertise and neither does Matt Denholm—a point he would acknowledge, but Louise Sales has a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation and there is evidence that both were relying on experts: to wit, Professor Kirkpatrick and, to a lesser extent, Mr Andrew North’s own previous work in the area in question that informed the Natural Values Atlas. I am told that the HCC now has far more detailed species distribution maps and these are about to be made public—and could probably be examined now.

    I agree that “concerns should not be invented” but the noble response to even the smallest uncertainty in the matter of life or extinction is surely to err on the side of caution: the precautionary principle.

  6. It is one thing to rely on the work of experts and another to take the time to understand it, and still another to communicate it through media correctly and without resulting in a sensationalised story.

    I have checked the HCC website and not seen anything new in the documents for tonight's meeting. After all the motion on the agenda is now a general one, not one specific to a certain proposal. There may be something up there I haven't seen yet.

    I am not a fan of the precautionary principle in general. For instance, there are cases in which its use causes harm by obstructing desirable employment and other outcomes, to the detriment of human health which is supposed to be one of the things that many versions of it seek to protect. In other words, it is self-contradictory. There will always be many things there is the "smallest uncertainty" about. I am interested in more significant uncertainties.