The federal environment department has not finalised a single recovery plan for threatened Australian species in nearly 18 months despite 172 remaining outstanding.
A Senate committee has heard the department last completed a recovery plan for a threatened species in June 2019 and has no timeframe for addressing the backlog, which includes critically endangered animals such as the Leadbeater’s possum.
Greens senators said the revelation was “appalling” and accused the Morrison government of prioritising the fast-tracking of development over environmental protection.
The Australian Conservation Foundation said the figures were “exceptionally troubling”, particularly when considered in light of the 2019-20 bushfire crisis.
Recovery plans are documents that outline key facts about endangered animals and plants, threats to their survival, and what should be done to prevent their extinction.
Under national laws it is the environment minister who decides whether a species requires a recovery plan and once a plan is adopted the minister cannot make a decision that is inconsistent with it.
Australia has previously reported that less than 40% of listed threatened species have a recovery plan. A further 10% of all those listed have been identified as requiring a recovery plan but those plans haven’t been developed or are unfinished.
One of the key criticisms of recovery plans is that having a plan is optional under national environmental law and at the discretion of the minister. Conservation groups say this is something that the final report of an ongoing review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act should address.
Environment officials told a Senate estimates hearing on Monday that there were 172 species and habitats that required a plan and most of those plans were overdue.
“The fact that iconic species like the Leadbeater’s possum still don’t have a recovery plan, despite a draft one being prepared years ago, highlights how broken the system is,” James Trezise, a policy analyst at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said.
“These plans should be developed, as required by law, and their implementation should be funded. That the development and implementation of these plans seems to be optional is a critical issue that needs to be grappled with by the independent review.”
Trezise said the significant delay in developing the plans stood “in stark contrast” to the government’s rush to hand responsibility for environmental approvals for major developments to state and territory governments.
The Morrison government has committed millions in extra funding to speeding up environmental assessments for major projects, which it has argued is necessary as part of the economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to address delays for developers.
It also has a bill before the parliament that will clear the way for the establishment of bilateral agreements to allow state and territory governments to take responsibility for project approvals under national laws.
But officials could not tell senators on Monday when the delays in finalising recovery plans would be addressed. The hearing was told it would “take a very long time” to work through the backlog.
Emma Campbell, a senior official, told senators the department was instead working with the government and the independent threatened species scientific committee to “reevaluate ” which species should have a recovery plan.
Campbell said for some of the outstanding species conservation advice – which is a weaker document that is not binding on the minister – may suffice. Almost all listed Australian species have conservation advice.
The Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the delays would push more species closer to extinction.
“The Morrison government’s priorities are all wrong,” she said. “The government can bring legislation before the parliament to green-light approvals for mining projects and big developments that harm the environment, but the minister can’t get one recovery plan for a threatened species completed.”
She called on the government to urgently address the backlog and commit more resources to recovery planning.
“It is quite clear from answers given today, that the environment department has become co-opted to delivering outcomes for mining companies like Rio Tinto first, and the koala last,” she said.
Originally published at guardian