The department tasked with protecting Victoria’s endangered wildlife cannot prove it’s meeting biodiversity benchmarks and may be missing species at risk of extinction, a damning report has found.
The Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) determined the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) could not demonstrate if, or how well, it is halting further decline of threatened species.
The cost-effective measures used by DELWP to benefit the greatest number of threatened species was based on “old and likely outdated” models and there are “some critical gaps”, the audit found.
“This raises questions about the reliability of the modelled outputs and the decisions they support,” says the report tabled in state parliament on Wednesday.
With a third of Victoria’s terrestrial plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, invertebrates and ecological communities considered to be at threat of extinction, the report says DEWLP’s approach can miss species at extreme risk.
“DELWP has no transparent, risk-based process to prioritise these species for management,” it says.
The report acknowledges funding to DELWP to protect species falls “significantly short of what it predicts is needed” but says the department has not provided “detailed, evidence-based advice” to government to do its job.
VAGO says DELWP’s “Biodiversity 2037” strategy is not fully aligned with the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, which guarantees all of Victoria’s wildlife “can persist and improve in the wild”.
DELWP responded by suggesting it could not guarantee the protection of all threatened species because of current funding levels after receiving less than half of what it requested in government funding over four years to implement its biodiversity plan.
Other reasons cited included constraints around how species respond to threats and actions, and the long-term lag effects on biodiversity from more than 200 years of colonisation.
While accepting its argument, VAGO says the department has not clearly communicated to the government or public the gap in objectives between the two documents.
“The act creates an expectation among stakeholders that all species will be protected and there will be no further decline in threatened species status,” it says.
VAGO made nine recommendations to improve DELWP’s monitoring and reporting of the impacts of its prioritised management actions, the currency and comprehensiveness of data and knowledge underpinning its decision-support tools, and its advice to government about funding needs and species prioritisation.
All have been accepted by DELWP and will be implemented by at least November 30, 2023.
A department spokeswoman said many of the recommended actions are already underway and the rest in its forward plan, and noted the report did not acknowledge its programs benefit more than 80 per cent of Victoria’s nearly 2000 threatened species.
“The report did, however, recognise that the department has developed better practice tools to identify and prioritise actions to protect threatened species,” the DELWP statement said.
But Matt Ruchel, executive director of the Victorian National Parks Association, said the “damning report” showed the government was presiding over the demise of threatened native plants and wildlife.
“Victoria has let at least 81 species go extinct, and more will go unless we take decisive action,” he said.
Additional material www.audit.vic.gov.au/report/protecting-victorias-biodiversity