The (bleak) future of mallee emu-wren

Subject: The (bleak) future of mallee emu-wren
From: "Simon Mustoe" <>
Date: Sun, 12 Dec 2004 06:28:40 +0000

I thought it about time to publish some information on birding-aus regarding
mallee emu-wren. Below is text is from an article that has just been written
by myself and Rohan Clarke. It discusses the possible implication of
proposals for a toxic waste facility at Nowingi/Hattah as well as management
burning in NW Victoria over 500 square kilometres. Neither proposals seem
yet to have considered this species in detail enough to satisfy requirements
for Cth EIA and combined, have the potential to pose very serious threats to
a species that may already be 'critically' endangered. The text as follows
can be cited as

Mustoe, S. and Clarke, R. (2004) Mallee Emu-wren; Management Burning and
Toxic Waste Dump Spark Concerns for a Listed Threatened Species. National
Environmental Law Review Number 3, September 2004 pp54-58.

Could I also encourage anyone who has ever visited, regularly visits, or
knows anyone who has visited (including overseas) the Nowingi mallee
emu-wren site, to request they submit an email to this effect. Context for
considering the ecological significance of a site includes 'social and
cultural'. Given that the Nowingi site, apart from being the last
stronghold, is also the only accessible place where birders worldwide travel
to see mallee emuwren, it would be useful to gather information. Please
forward emails to me. As part of a non-professional commitment, I am
gathering information on behalf of an alliance of conservation charities in


Simon Mustoe.

Mallee Emu-wren Stipiturus mallee is an enigmatic cousin of the fairy wrens
found almost exclusively in National Parks of northwest Victoria and eastern
South Australia (see Map, below). Its listing as vulnerable under Part 3 of
the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth)
[?EPBC Act?]  however belies its true status. It has a restricted range and
a heavily fragmented population.  In 1992 the Department of Environment and
Heritage (DEH) placed the population at ?less than 10,000? birds  over
2000km2 and decreasing.  Its status as ?vulnerable? under Schedule 8 of the
National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (SA) in South Australia is since under
review as it is thought to be in serious decline, even in previous
strongholds such as Ngarkat Conservation Park where it has been lost from
90% of sites in the last 15 years.  It is currently considered ?vulnerable?
in Victoria , which now holds most of the population, but the species has
become increasingly difficult to find. As in South Australia, it has been
seriously affected by habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation,
overgrazing and burning.  Ornithological experts such as Dave Paton at
University of Adelaide believes the species warrants re-listing in the
Critically Endangered category (see Appendix 1).

Mallee Emu-wren is a material constraint for a proposed toxic waste facility
at Nowingi/Hattah in the northwest Victorian mallee.  The site and adjacent
environs are widely recognised as one of the species? last strongholds. At
the same time management burning in Murray Sunset National Park, Wyperfeld
National Park and Hattah-Kulkyne National Park is set to destroy and / or
fragment significant habitat across most of the bird?s range. A program that
began in spring 2004 aims to burn over 500km2 of mallee vegetation in
northwest Victoria by 2006.  With these pressures it is feared that Mallee
Emu-wren could face a serious and irreversible decline to extinction like
other mallee birds such as the mallee form of the Western Whipbird Psophodes
nigrogularis leucogaster.

Mallee Emu-wrens principally occupy relict mature spinifex (Triodia sp.)
vegetation in the northern half of their range and older growth mallee
heathland communities in the southern portion of their range. Both habitats
are becoming increasingly uncommon and fragmented as a result of vegetation
clearance and widespread fires. Burning of mallee vegetation destroys Mallee
Emu-wren habitat in the short term and may result in extinction unless
remnant populations can survive while habitat recovers, which can take

A visit to Murray Sunset National Park in early October to search areas
where Mallee Emu-wren have occurred in the past found vast areas of spinifex
habitat senescing, possibly due to continued drought in the area. Over three
days of searching several known sites in the eastern and western portions of
the park no Mallee Emu-wrens were heard or seen. Like many small birds that
occupy semi-arid environments Mallee Emu-wrens populations are likely to
fluctuate widely, with population increases during a series of above average
seasons and substantial population reductions in periods of drought. While
these fluctuations are natural, when populations are down? as is likely at
present?the species is most sensitive to human induced impacts. Actions that
further reduce and fragment already stressed populations could be the
trigger for irreversible population decline.

In contrast to efforts in Murray Sunset National Park, Mallee Emu-wrens were
found easily in Hattah/Nowingi including the area proposed for the toxic
waste facility. A second visit to the site by concerned ornithologists in
mid-October recorded eight encounters including more birds within the
?footprint? of the proposed development (these were the first birds recorded
on site by any ornithologists since the toxic waste facility project
inception). The bird was also recorded and is known to occur in reasonable
density in spinifex on the opposite side of the Calder Highway in
Hattah-Kulkyne National Park. This habitat is within a stone throw east.

Despite the fact that burning is an essential component of mallee ecology,
fire is a potentially significant threat to Mallee Emu-wren. Anecdotal
information suggests that a close relative, the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, has
been recently lost from most traditional sites in the West Macdonnell Ranges
near Alice Springs following extensive ?ecological management? burns.
Uncontrolled burning is recognised as a major threat in the Draft Federal
Recovery Plan for various mallee species including Mallee Emu-wren.

Back-burning is proposed as a fire prevention measure for the perimeter of
the proposed toxic waste facility. If the whole buffer area out to 500m
around a 45 hectare facility is burnt, as is implied in the Referral
document, this would threaten over 2 square kilometres of prime habitat
whilst it is feared that prevailing winds from the west could drive fire
into Hattah Kulkyne National Park, posing a significant risk to most of the
Mallee Emu-wren stronghold. To add to this burden a significant proportion
of Hattah Kulkyne National Park is also marked for extensive fuel reduction
burning in 2006 as part of the State?s burning program.

Mallee Emu-wren is a matter of national environmental significance formally
protected under Part 3 section 18, 18A of the EPBC Act making it an offence
to take an action that would have a significant impact on the species.

The proposal for a toxic waste facility is subject to a section 75 notice
under the EPBC Act that has determined the action requires assessment under
Part 8.  The notification of decision specifically names Mallee Emu-wren as
a controlling provision  despite the proponent?s referral (EPBC 2004/1666)
stating that the action was not likely to have a significant impact on any
matter of national environmental significance. The referral however only
referenced Atlas of Victorian Wildlife data  and a three-day Stage 1 Flora
and Fauna Assessment in winter  saying that Mallee Emu-wren was ?[l]ikely
but no evidence [was] found during preliminary survey?. The Stage 1 report
more precisely cited states ?[t]he study area provides suitable mallee
woodland habitat [for Mallee Emu-wren]? and ?[t]he fauna survey was a
preliminary habitat assessment and reconnaissance inspection in preparation
for more detailed fauna survey at a more appropriate time of year.?  It was
not likely therefore that the information available could support any
assertion that the action was not controlled.

Breeding birds vary in detectability over relatively short time periods and
standard methods should ideally relate to the main breeding period of
individual species.  It is generally understood that Mallee Emu-wren are at
their most conspicuous ? as are most birds? just before the breeding season
in early spring (late September to late October). Outside the breeding
season and when the average daytime temperature begins to rise, they become
more secretive. If surveys are not done at an appropriate time of year then
the likelihood of detecting a species falls. As exemplified by the winter
2003 Stage 1 Assessment, fieldworkers may not be successful in finding
birds.  If the methodology fails to adequately determine their onsite status
then it would become impossible to develop precise management
recommendations or assess the significance of impacts in a formal ecological

The toxic waste facility proposal also requires an Environment Effects
Statement (EES) under the Victorian Environment Effects Act 1978 (Vic) which
has recently been named as the accredited process for assessment under the
EPBC Act. If as the Draft Assessment Guidelines  of the EES suggest there is
an assessment deadline of March 2005, this may be too soon to permit surveys
to be redone if the survey window for Mallee Emu-wren is missed.

Mallee Emu-wren is also listed on the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee
Act 1988 (Vic) and the Wildlife Act 1975 (Vic), section 43 of which makes it
a general offence to ?hunt, take or destroy protected wildlife? , without a
license or authorisation. Under section 22 however, the Secretary may grant
a wildlife license authorising a person to take or destroy wildlife. The
conditions under which licenses are given are largely at the discretion of
the Secretary although one of the purposes (section 1A) of the Wildlife Act
1975 (Vic) is ?the prevention of taxa of wildlife from becoming extinct?.
These provisions however do not seem to be commonly applied when it comes to
preventing the destruction of nests and eggs. Only after public opposition
to plans to use heavy plant to drill exploratory groundwater boreholes on
the site in late October for example, did the proponent consider imposing
management requirements to minimise potential risk of egg destruction on
ground-nesting Mallee Emu-wrens. What should have been a simple process of
careful management to avoid nests was prevented by a lack of assessment data
and has resulted in costly and unnecessary delays.

Unlike the toxic waste facility proposals, extensive management burning in
Victoria?s National Parks has not been referred to the Commonwealth Minister
for the Environment for a decision on whether the proposal is likely to have
a significant impact on any matter of national environmental significance,
whilst burning has already begun. There is a strong risk that burning large
areas in the northwest without first identifying sites important for
biodiversity and implementing appropriate management to ensure that there is
enough recovery potential could have serious and irreversible consequences
for fire sensitive threatened birds such as Mallee Emu-wren.

Between March and September 2004, 9 650 Hectares (1.5%) of Murray Sunset
National Park were burnt. This has created a 3km wide swathe across the
heart of the park and would have destroyed any vegetation critical for
protected species such as Mallee Emu-wren, Black-eared Miner Manorina
melanotis and Malleefowl Leipoa ocellata, all of which depend on old growth
mallee. Some burning proceeded under conditions that could be considered
high risk despite earlier concerns raised by the Recovery Team for the
Black-eared Miner and a lack of any assessment to determine the likely
impact of the action on threatened fauna. Planned burning for 2005 and 2006
may result in over 3% of Murray Sunset National Park and 7% of
Hattah-Kulkyne National Park vegetation being deliberately burnt in a short
period of time. The extent to which this may destroy or fragment remaining
populations of Mallee Emu-wren is currently unknown.

These proposals therefore have important connotations not only for bird
conservation but also for the fabric of ecological assessment and
administration of environmental law in Australia. There is already
considerable precedent for standards required in ecological assessment,
particularly under the EPBC Act, as well as a statutory duty to provide
accurate information to obtain approvals and permits under section 489 of
the Act. The objectives of management burning in Murray Sunset National Park
are apparently conservation driven but the EPBC Act process is still
material and without first doing a fauna survey and assessment it is
impossible to ensure that management will be beneficial. Similarly a lack of
reliable survey methodology indicating the numbers and location of birds at
the proposed Hattah/Nowingi toxic waste facility site could be tantamount to
a lack of assessment as it would be impossible to scientifically justify
siting of the facility to have minimum impact on the species.

Despite this, development of toxic waste facilities and ecological
management / fuel reduction burning need not necessarily be at the expense
of Mallee Emu-wren conservation. The problem, as all too often, is that
serious constraints have either (a) been identified too late in development
(with respect to seasonal constraints for assessment work); or (b) not been
identified at all. The existence of environmental law if nothing else is to
ensure that decisions that could have a significant impact are considered
carefully upfront; that all the facts are objectively assessed and that
decision-makers and the public can make an informed judgment, even if
environmental considerations ultimately give way to socio-economics. This
requires that someone with independent ecological authority provides the
right advice to the right people at the right time. Not least, the rigorous
design and application of appropriate survey methods at an appropriate time
of year is the cornerstone of any ecological assessment. Without timely and
robust research, decision-makers are put under undue pressure to make
uninformed decisions and there is inevitable public outcry. As is becoming
apparent already in the Nowingi/Hattah toxic waste dump proposals, failure
to predict these requirements and address them before it is too late can be
very costly in both financial and public relations terms. The message to
developers and regulatory authorities should be clear.

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