Offsets entrench the decline of Carnaby’s black-cockatoo

Carnaby’s black-cockatoo is one of Western Australia’s most loved and recognised threatened species. This charismatic cockatoo, voted as Western Australia’s favorite bird in BirdLife Australia’s 2013 poll, lives across the south-west and has lost substantial tracts of its foraging and breeding habitat to land clearing for urban and industrial development, mining, forestry and agriculture. The species is long-lived and the population is ageing. It also suffers from an ‘extinction debt’, meaning the amount of habitat currently available is not sufficient to support the current population into the future.

The national recovery plan for this species contains a clear warning to decision makers. In relation to the future clearing of Carnaby’s black-cockatoo habitat, it states unequivocally that: “If additional clearing of large areas of habitat critical to survival continues and if there is not significant success in replacing important habitat approved for development it is likely there will be further reductions in the population of Carnaby’s Cockatoo.”

Despite this warning and the stated aim to improve or maintain Carnaby’s black-cockatoo habitat, our analysis of approvals under the EPBC Act over an 18-month period shows the Australian Government continues to approve projects that are destroying Carnaby’s habitat.

From January 2013 to June 2014 eleven projects were approved under the EPBC Act that allowed companies to clear 3,340 hectares of important Carnaby’s habitat. To compensate for this loss, 1,100 hectares of habitat was required to be planted or rehabilitated as offsets, leaving an overall loss of 2,240 hectares during this period.

While these approvals also required 8,612 hectares to be placed under covenant or gazetted as protected areas, protection of existing habitat does not increase the total amount of habitat available.

In addition to these approvals, more than 1000 ha of foraging habitat is currently being cleared every year and has not been referred to the Australian Government for assessment.

This means that in spite of the clear advice of the species recovery plan, Carnaby’s downward trajectory has been allowed to continue. Crucially, the focus on providing offsets through the protection of existing habitat has entrenched, if not exacerbated, this decline. If the recovery plan had specified limits to the loss of critical habitat the substantial net loss of habitat may have been avoided.

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