Chapter 2

Threatened grassland ecological communities and faunal species

This chapter outlines the importance of Australia's grassland ecological communities and the critical role they play supporting threatened faunal species.
It first outlines the extent and decline of grasslands in Australia and sets out the value of grasslands for the health of our environment, our food and agricultural production sector, and our national culture. This includes a discussion of the grasslands considered to be protected as 'threatened ecological communities' (sometimes called TECs) under the EPBC Act.
This chapter then outlines the threats grassland ecologies face, before considering where evidence suggested that Commonwealth protections against these threats should be improved.
In looking at these matters, this chapter draws on some evidence received in this inquiry concerning the Natural Temperate Grasslands of the South-East Highlands of New South Wales (NTG-SEH). These grasslands are protected under the EPBC Act as a TEC, and so provide a good example of the threats faced by grassland ecologies and the species that depend on them.

Extent and decline of Australian native grasslands

Before European settlement, native grasslands covered much of Eastern Australia, from south-eastern Queensland, through New South Wales, and Victoria, and stretching across to South Australia and Tasmania. According to the department, since settlement, these native grasslands have come under 'enormous pressure'.1 Some pressures noted by Friends of Grasslands (FOG) include clearance or fertilisation for agricultural use in cropping and grazing systems, urban development, and the introduction of non-native pasture plants, and the spread of exotic weeds.2
FOG have outlined the decline in Australian grasslands:
After 200 years of European settlement, the vast majority of lowland grasslands and grassy woodlands in south-eastern Australia has been lost, either by complete removal or severe modification. Only a very small percentage of the original area remains in a largely undisturbed condition, where the vegetation structure and species composition is more or less intact.
Much of what remains is found in small isolated patches, fragmented and vulnerable to invasion by exotic weeds, accidental disturbance, unsympathetic land management and development. Many grasslands are found along railway lines, in travelling stock reserves, in cemeteries and in 'back paddocks' - they have survived mostly by default, rather than deliberate protection.3
The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) estimates that, from European settlement to the year 2000 when the EPBC Act came into effect, around 6 million hectares of native grasslands were destroyed Australia-wide.4
The rate of survival for grassland ecosystems varies between particular areas with varying estimates. For example, it has been stated that less than 10 per cent of grasslands across south-eastern Australia remain in 'high ecological condition' and that the Western Volcanic Plains Grasslands in Victoria have shrunk to under 1 per cent of their extent in the 1830s.5
It has also been noted that the condition of existing grasslands varies considerably and can be difficult to ascertain and quantify. For example, the 2002 guide, Managing Native Grassland, states:
Native grasslands today vary considerably in their condition. Some are highly species rich, almost free of weeds and probably closely resemble their original state. A much larger area of native grassland is more modified, often dominated by one species of native grass, with a much lower diversity of other native herb species and often including a significant population of weeds.6
This guide also recognises that it can be difficult to recognise the condition and value of grassland ecosystems, as they are 'dynamic and changeable' ecosystems:
The appearance of native grasslands can change dramatically during the course of a year. The herbage mass can fluctuate substantially as fluctuations in soil moisture and temperature, growth and grazing, reproduction and fire each take their course. The grassland can change colour and texture from the new green growth of spring, through the many colours of the flowering season, to the red-browns and straw colours of summer and autumn. Many of the smaller intertussock plants are obvious only during the growing season and while flowering; their above ground parts dying-off after flowering and re-appearing only in the next growing season. For these reasons it can be difficult to recognise or appreciate the quality or beauty of a native grassland.7

The importance of grassland ecologies

In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) International Grasslands Congress recognised the global environmental importance of grasslands in Article 1 of the Hohhot Declaration:
…temperate indigenous grasslands provide critical ecological goods and services essential for life on earth as a source of food, fibre, human livelihoods and well being [sic], cultural and biological diversity, the recharge of aquifers and the sequestration of carbon, particularly in the face of global climate change...8
Many of these considerations have been noted in the Australian context, including in evidence considered by the committee outlining the environmental, economic and cultural significance of grassland ecosystems.

Biodiversity and environmental health

Native grasslands are significant ecosystems in maintaining and conserving Australia's biodiversity and the health of our environment. The guide Managing Native Grasslands outlines a number of these benefits, including:
providing habitat for faunal species, some of which are threatened with extinction, vulnerable or have been displaced from other parts of the landscape;
encouraging healthy biodiversity of species in self-supporting ecological systems, with native grassland remnants harbouring 'many hundreds of species that have largely disappeared from agricultural grasslands'; and
as 'reservoirs' for plant and faunal species that have disappeared in other locations, and as 'corridors' for the movement of animals and plants through the landscape.9
The departmental guide to the NTG-SEH outlines the nature and importance of grassland ecosystems for supporting biodiversity, agricultural production, and for a number of other environmental benefits:
Native grasslands also provide other ecosystem services such as carbon storage, improving water infiltration, reducing soil erosion and suppressing weeds .10
More specifically, the departmental guide to the NTG-SEH ecological community notes it provides vital habitat for faunal species, including four protected by an EPBC Act listing:
The ecological community provides vital habitat for many threatened and rare species of plants and animals. For example, patches of the ecological community in the Monaro region contain some of the best remaining habitat for the grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla). By listing the ecological community, additional protection is given to these species. These include four nationally-listed animal species: the golden sun moth (Synemon plana), grassland earless dragon, pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella), and the striped legless lizard (Delma impar).11

Agriculture and food production

Native grasslands are a crucial element of some systems of agricultural and food production, particularly for grazing. The department summed up the broad value of grasslands for agricultural production in its guide to the
Native grasslands can provide a range of benefits to agriculture as they are drought and frost tolerant, provide year round forage (particularly green summer feed), and can form an important part of low input production systems. They are more resilient to extended periods of drought than many exotic pasture grasses. Native grasslands have been important in fine wool production in Australia...12
A 2014 study suggested grassland production systems are a large contributor to Australia's economy, accounting for 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural gross production value and using more than 50 per cent of its land area. This study noted a shift towards the use of grasslands for the farming of beef cattle or sheep meat, and a decline of their use for wool production. 13
Dr Colin Hocking, an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, commented at a public hearing that there has also been a shift in perception on the value of native grasslands for agriculture. He stated that, since the 1940s native grasslands have often been reported in the media as 'being in the way' of development or agricultural production. However, prior to this, he suggested, the same grasslands were seen as an important asset, particularly as they provided 'the pasture on which a lot of Australian agriculture, particularly grazing agriculture was based'.14

Recreation, tourism and community functions

The guide Managing Native Grasslands outlines a number ways in which native grasslands can be significant for recreational and community use:
The remaining native grassland areas provide examples of the landscape appearance, vegetation structure and composition prior to European settlement. They are a valuable feature for the enjoyment, satisfaction and education of local communities and visitors alike. Well managed native grassland areas offer real potential for tourism, just as the display of alpine wildflowers is enjoyed in the mountains each summer…
In addition to these biological and social imperatives for conserving native grasslands, land managers are now obliged under various state and federal laws, to manage native vegetation and plant and animal species responsibly and sustainably on behalf of the community.15

Defining, assessing and protecting grassland ecosystems

This section sets out some of the generally accepted qualities and types of grasslands, and notes some difficulties with recognising, defining and assessing native grassland landscapes.
Australia's grasslands are diverse ecosystems predominantly consisting of native grass species, with little or no tree and shrub cover. These ecosystems support a biodiverse range of flora and fauna, alongside native and introduced species of grass.16 Some grasslands are considered naturally occurring 'native' grasslands, ecosystems where native grasses are the dominant species. These are predominantly found in high or elevated landscapes with dry and cold climates, which are not conducive to tree growth, but where native grass species thrive.17
Other Australian grasslands are considered 'secondary' or 'derived' grasslands. These occur where original forest or woodland habitat has been cleared, leaving habitat chiefly consisting of species of grass.
Some natural and derived grasslands are described as 'grassy woodlands'. These occur where a predominantly grassy ecosystem has widely spaced trees, often of a particular species, or a sparse cover of shrubs.18
Regarding grassy woodlands, once more definitions are not rigid. WWF Australia have suggested that the threshold for an ecosystem being considered a 'grassy woodland' is where trees are more than 10 per cent of groundcover, stating:
The botanical composition of the grassy understorey in a grassy woodland is very similar to a native grassland because the majority of the non-woody plants (herbs) grow in both grassland and woodland. In practice, the distinction between grassland and woodland is somewhat arbitrary and these communities intergrade, forming a vegetation mosaic...19
The department has previously stated that derived native grasslands can be as important in the conservation of biodiversity as naturally occurring native grasslands:
Derived native grasslands are native grasslands that were formerly woodland, but the trees have been cleared and the native ground layer vegetation has remained largely intact. They have similar biodiversity value to patches of natural grassland and woodland, since most of the plant diversity occurs in the ground layer. Scientific experts recommended that derived grasslands be included in the protected ecological community [of grey box woodlands and grasslands] because of their inherent biodiversity value, and the likelihood that derived grasslands can be restored back to their former woodland state.20
Apart from sustaining a variety of grass species, grassland ecologies of all types support a diversity of flowering native herbs, broad-leaf forbs, and varieties of sedges, rushes, orchids and lillies. They also support a range of faunal species. Typically this includes mammals, reptiles, insects, spiders and frogs, as well as soil-based organisms such as worms, beetles, ants and soilbased microorganisms.21
Some of the faunal and floral species that can be found in grassland ecologies are listed on and protected by Commonwealth or jurisdictional environmental protection frameworks in their own right. Additionally, the EPBC Act framework also protects some 'threatened ecological communities', including some grassland ecosystems (discussed below).

Threatened Ecological Communities

Commonwealth environmental law provides a framework to list, protect and manage Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES). This includes not only individual species of flora and fauna, but also some ecological communities. The department states an 'ecological community' is:
…a group of native plants, animals and other organisms that naturally occur together and interact in a unique habitat. Its structure, composition and distribution are determined by environmental factors such as soil type, position within the landscape/seascape (e.g. altitude/depth), climate, and water availability, chemistry and movement (e.g. oceanic currents). Species within each ecological community interact with and depend on each other—for example, for food or shelter. Listed ecological communities include grasslands, woodlands, shrublands, forests, wetlands, marine, ground springs and cave communities.22
According to departmental information:
An ecological community becomes threatened when it is at risk of extinction. That is, the natural composition and function of the ecological community have been significantly depleted across its full range. This can occur for a number of reasons including clearing of native vegetation, inappropriate fire regimes, non–native or invasive species, climate change, water diversion, pollution and urban development.23
As with listed species of flora and fauna, there are three levels of protection: critically endangered; endangered; and vulnerable.
Critically endangered: If, at that time, an ecological community is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future (indicative timeframe being the next 10 years).
Endangered: If, at that time, an ecological community is not critically endangered but is facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future (indicative timeframe being the next 20 years). [and]
Vulnerable: If, at that time, an ecological community is not critically endangered or endangered, but is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium–term future (indicative timeframe being the next 50 years).24
Being categorised as a TEC affords protection to an ecological community, which is intended to complement other conservation measures. It is also intended to provide broad protection for potentially vulnerable species of flora and fauna that may not be protected as individual species or under state frameworks.25

The EPBC nomination and listings process

The EPBC Act provides that any person may nominate a native species, ecological community or threatening process for listing. States and territories can also make nominations through a 'common assessment method' process.26
Nominations that satisfy EPBC Regulations and are provided within an advertised period are considered by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC). The TSSC then provides a 'Proposed Priority Assessment List' (PPAL) to the Minister for consideration.27
The Minister considers the TSSC's advice in the PPAL, and may make changes before a Finalised Priority Assessment List (FPAL) is published on the departmental website, and nominators are informed of outcomes. 28
The TSSC then considers the FPAL, inviting public and expert comment on each nomination. Following this, advice is provided to the Minister, who decides on whether nominated species, ecological communities and threatening processes should be listed for protection under the EPBC Act.29

The Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands

The Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands (NTG-SEH) provides an instructive case study of both the importance of native grasslands to the environmental, economic and cultural health of Australia, as outlined already in this chapter. It also provides an example of the threats to grassland ecosystems, and where Australia's framework for environmental management could be improved—as is discussed in the remainder of this chapter.
The NTG-SEH is a nationally protected ecological community, listed as Critically Endangered under the EPBC Act from 5 April 2016.30 Before this time, this ecological community was considered as part of the now-superseded listed ecological community, the Natural Temperate Grassland of the Southern Tablelands of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory from 16 July 2000.
Departmental information states that the 2016 revision was 'based on newly available data' and:
…recognises a broader area of grasslands across the South Eastern Highlands and immediately adjacent areas in NSW, ACT and Victoria, and adds a 'minimum condition threshold', which identifies which areas of grassland are protected by the EPBC Act. Low quality grasslands that do not meet this threshold are not protected.31
The decision to revise the listing to Critically Endangered was made by the then-Minister for the Environment, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, on 31 March 2016. This decision was based on advice provided by the TSSC, which was subsequently adopted as the approved conservation advice for the NTG-SEH.32 Regarding the upgrading to Critically Endangered listing, the departmental guide to the NTG-SEH notes:
The national Threatened Species Scientific Committee classified the ecological community as Critically Endangered as its extent has declined by more than 90 per cent and it has a highly fragmented and restricted distribution. This has resulted in large reductions in the number and size of regional populations of many plants and animals, including local extinctions, and loss of ecosystem function.
National listing is an important step in securing the future of the Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands by:
requiring consideration of the impact of new developments on the grasslands;
encouraging priority support for conservation and recovery efforts, including opportunities through Australian Government funding initiatives;
raising awareness of the ecological community and priority actions to combat threats.33

Threats to grassland ecological communities

This section outlines the principal threats to grassland ecologies in evidence considered by the committee. This includes changing patterns of use, particularly the intensification of agricultural production and urban development, both of which fragment existing grassland habitat. Other threats discussed are altered fire regimes, and the broader effects of climate change.
All these factors not only threaten the health and viability of grassland landscapes, including those considered as threatened ecological communities, but also the faunal species dependent upon them.

Loss and fragmentation of habitat from agriculture and urban development

The guide to Managing Native Grasslands states broadly that:
Where native grasslands have not been completely removed, the principal mechanisms of change since European settlement have been alteration of the grazing regime, from sporadic grazing by native herbivores to more constant and selective grazing by domestic livestock, and the complete alteration or removal of the fire regime.34
This guide notes a number of more specific management factors that can damage grassland ecologies. This includes: grazing by feral animals, mowing and slashing; weeds; soil disturbance from cultivation or construction; soil fertility change; altered drainage; traffic and trampling; tree planting; herbicide use; stockpiling or dumping soil and gravel; and overharvesting or introduction of seeds on grassland sites.35
Some forms of grazing alter the ecology of grasslands significantly:
Livestock dramatically change the composition of grasslands, as animals remove palatable plants and compact the soil under their weight. Disturbed soil and the livestock also help to spread non-native weeds.36
The guide to Managing Native Grasslands commented that any use of fertilisers 'should be resisted', as increasing phosphate or nitrogen may give an advantage to introduced plant species.37 Professor Sue McIntyre, who has worked with a number of universities and CSIRO but gave evidence to the committee in a private capacity, drew out the reason why over-fertilisation was a common threat to grasslands:
What happens is that every time a piece of land changes hands the new owner decides that they want to do some new enterprise... They seek advice. They're told, 'You might want to improve the pastures and so on.' So there's a constant churn of landownership, where bright new people who don't really understand the system at all and what they're losing by doing these things are encouraged to do these things [including using fertilisers].38
Ms Sharp, a committee member of FOG, told the committee that weeds were a major threat to grassland ecologies, and were encouraged by over fertilisation and ploughing:
The grasslands have been particularly vulnerable to weed invasion through their use for agriculture and various elements of ploughing. One of the interesting things about grasslands is that they can, perhaps, handle a tiny bit of ploughing—maybe once—but nutrient addition, fertilisers and soil disturbance, is something that changes their structure, their diversity, enormously. The resultant weed invasion is a massive problem—more in these systems than in other ones but in all agricultural systems.39
Dr Damian Michael, a Senior Research Fellow at Charles Sturt University, noted that the removal of rocks from agricultural landscapes also destroyed critical habitat for fauna, including threatened species like the grassland earless dragon, the pink-tailed worm lizard, and the striped legless lizard.40
Professor McIntyre stated that the EPBC Act was not delivering protection for threatened species in rural landscapes: rural landscapes the causes of decline of all groups of native species—plants and animals—are the same.
The EPBC Act has some very important functions but has not been effective in delivering protection in rural areas. Intensification of agricultural land use is the root cause, and it is not being sufficiently addressed.41
Another threat to some grasslands comes from urban development, and its fragmentation of grassland habitat.42 Areas, including the outskirts of Melbourne and in the Australian Capital Territory, urbanisation and development has also been noted as a significant driver of loss of native grassland habitats, which also affects the faunal species dependent upon them.43
Evidence shows that the effects of agricultural and urban development can fragment formerly large grassland landscapes, into small, unconnected remnants. This, the Conservation Advice for the NTG-SEH, observes:
…has resulted in substantial changes to ecosystem function, with the result that there are increased edge effects, such as disturbance from fire and human interference and increased vulnerability to invasion by introduced plants and animals…Other effects of fragmentation include the restriction or prevention of the movement of native fauna species and dispersal of plant species between sites…Fragmentation also leads to increased chances of local extinctions and reductions in the chances of re-colonisation of grassland invertebrates with increasing distance between patches and as the amount of habitat containing potential colonisers decreases.44
The committee's Interim Report recognised that fragmentation was a significant driver of faunal extinction.45 Dr Megan O'Shea, an ecologist with decades of experience working in grassland ecologies, stated that:
It has been widely documented over decades that the greatest cause of extinction and threat to Australian wildlife is the destruction, fragmentation and degradation of habitat.46
Specifically on habitat loss and fragmentation of grasslands, Dr Melville told the committee that, even where populations of threatened species existed, fragmentation could lead to in-bred populations.47 Additionally, Ms Sharp, FOG, suggested that intense bushfires could potentially devastate small populations of threatened species restricted to one area.48

Changing patterns of fire

A further threat to grassland ecologies is changing patterns of fire. This can include changes in the pattern of naturally occurring bushfires due to climate change, as well as the alteration or removal of Aboriginal fire regimes that has occurred since European settlement. Altered fire regimes can change the seasonal timing, location, and intensity of burning, and so disrupt ecological communities. This can significantly affect threatened faunal species, including by damaging their habitat, as well as by encouraging a proliferation of other species, including feral predators such as cats and foxes.
The Australian Environment Foundation noted that changes in fire patterns could have a direct effect on some threatened species. The species the foundation provided as an example, the Grassland Earless Dragon, is dependent on grassland ecologies including the NTG-SEH:
Changes to the intensity and frequency of fires–caused by a combination of agricultural management, the loss of traditional indigenous burning practices and invasive weeds–are an additional threat to this species. Like many Australian species, the Grassland Earless Dragon is naturally adapted to the semi-natural wildfire patterns that were in place prior to European settlement.49

Climate change

Climate change is also recognised as a major threat to native grasslands, not only in Australia, but globally. A 2008 IUCN project on grasslands cast climate change as the most serious underlying threat to grassland habitats around the world:
The primary overarching threat was global climate change. The impact of climate change on the interactions amongst native and exotic species under different disturbance and grazing regimes is largely unknown, particularly at the local level where temperature and precipitation will be less stable. Climate change also leads to habitat reduction, especially in high elevation areas.50
Some evidence received by the committee supported this perspective. For instance, Dr Hocking, La Trobe University, commented that we are seeing changes to the health of grassland ecologies from new climate patterns, even if these were not yet fully understood. Regarding grasslands conservation over the long term, he said that 'the more of these patches [of grasslands] you have kept, the higher likelihood there is of actually some of these surviving into the future with the effects of climate change'.51
Professor Stephen Sarre, a professor of wildlife genetics and a conservation biologist who appeared in a private capacity, suggested that increasing temperatures coming from climate change was not, as yet, completely understood, but would possibly be a 'critical extinction factor' for grassland plants and animals in the future.52
Climate change is recognised as a threat to grassland ecologies in Conservation Advices provided to Environment Ministers on grassland TECs. For example, the NTG-SEH Conservation Advice states that climate change is predicted to 'exacerbate existing threats and put increasing pressure on the ecological community as a whole', through:
loss of resilience to degradation and fragmentation;
structural and compositional changes of the herbaceous ground layer:
Changed C3/C4 ratios e.g. summer-growing or C4 grasses, such as kangaroo grass, redgrass or the weed African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula), are likely to replace the winter-growing or year-long green or C3 grasses, such as speargrasses and wallaby grasses.
Replacement of perennial grasses with annual species.
The loss or depletion of the moisture-dependent associations, such as those found on the frost hollows and the beds of the large ephemeral wetlands, is also predicted.
Reduced pasture productions and increasing grazing pressure from from livestock, eastern grey kangaroos and other macropods and exotic herbivores.
predominance of exotic plant species and reduced native forb diversity;
altered fire frequency, increased intensity and spread;
high rainfall areas under increased pressure for cropping; and,
cascading changes in ecological interactions.53
Forecasts also suggest climate change will have an economic effect on Australia's agricultural producers, including those dependent on grassland landscapes. CSIRO research predicts climate change will cause a 'significant reduction in the productivity of grasslands and the livestock industry across southern Australia'.54

Concerns raised about the EPBC framework and grassland ecologies

The committee received evidence that argued Commonwealth protections were insufficient for grassland ecological communities and the threatened species dependent upon them.55 This includes evidence relating not only to the EPBC Act framework, but also its implementation and compliance regime.56
Regarding the listing process for faunal species, FOG argued they were 'cumbersome and slow and err on the side of non-listing when often there is clear anecdotal and other evidence that listing is required'.57 The submission also noted that there was insufficient understanding of threatened grassland faunal species. This included that current knowledge was 'somewhat fragmented'.58
A general theme of evidence received by the committee in the broad inquiry, was that recovery plans are no longer required under the EPBC Act, and Ministers may now opt for non-binding conservation advices.59 A number of grassland TECs do not have recovery plans, but do have conservation advices, as can be seen on the department's Species Profile and Threats Database (SPRAT).60
Regarding the NTG-SEH, the department's SPRAT states that there is currently no 'adopted or made' recovery plan, and no 'relevant Threat Abatement Plan identified as being relevant'. The SPRAT listing suggests that the plan made for the Southern Tablelands and ACT Grasslands in 2005 could be adopted.61
Dr Hocking commented that Commonwealth laws should integrate more sound agricultural practices to encourage more responsible land management:
…there isn't adequate protection, either through engagement and on-ground, sort of co-planning how you manage these things, or compliance, in terms of the enforcement of things like the EPBC Act. When you have, now, a situation where [threatened species and ecological communities] are on the edge of extinction…then taking away a small part of it has a very big impact. So on the one hand you have a lot of farmers who value biodiversity and are doing the right thing, and then you have a subset who aren't. And I think there's a very widespread concern that there isn't an adequate protection for those sorts of practices that are seriously eroding.62
Regarding the EPBC Act's provisions for biodiversity offsets, some evidence noted they were problematic when compensating for the loss of native grassland. Professor Hocking told the committee:
…we've had an experience now of about 15 or 20 years of offsets. That really hasn't been successful—the idea of allowing some grassland areas to be taken away and then trying to upgrade other areas of grassland as an offset compensation.63
Professor Hocking's submission outlined some failures of environmental offsets associated with the development of grasslands in Victoria, and argued:
There is a well supported view that the whole concept of offsetting is deeply flawed and at odds with a regulatory system that is supposed to protect biodiversity. If used at all, at the least, offsets need to be much more tightly managed than at present. The few nationally threatened species that are translocated to other sites often undergo significant mortality.64

Different levels of government

FOG suggested that 2015 amendments to the EPBC Act have weakened protections for threatened fauna by handing some responsibilities to states and territories. As an example, FOG cited the recent example of the NTG-SEH, where:
The Commonwealth in the past has invested significant resources into these. These grasslands are regarded as critically endangered by the Commonwealth. Many announcements have been made in the past by elements of the NSW government that they would be declared as an endangered community. However, attempts to do this within the NSW government appear to have been blocked by certain interests which promote clearing of natural temperate grasslands.65
FOG also suggested that the rigorous and enforceable implementation of the EPBC Act protections for grasslands was difficult. In particular, it highlighted that responsibilities often fell between different levels of government, and the difficulties of balancing environmental and economic concerns:
The Commonwealth government, in its administration of the EPBC Act, stands one step removed from many of the economic and other drivers of development impacting on our grassy ecosystems. Because of this, it is often more able to make the hard decisions needed to protect our endangered grassland communities, and to insist on adequate offsets where it proves impossible to avoid an impact. State and Territory governments are more likely to gain from particular projects impacting on high conservation value areas. Political and economic drivers can exert a strong pressure on State and Territory governments, leading to them being more likely to compromise at the expense of the environment.66

Resourcing and compliance issues

Evidence received in this inquiry generally stated that the Government did not dedicate sufficient resources to implement the EPBC Act effectively. Moreover, some evidence argued that compliance regimes were ineffective or not available for some activities that damaged habitat.
FOG stated that underfunding had a direct effect on the integrity of the EPBC Act compliance regimes, which it argued are inadequate. FOG also noted a distinct lack of audit of EPBC Act approvals, and suggested these tended to be done as 'desktop audits', rather than more stringent checks to confirm approval conditions were met.67
Difficulties in enforcing EPBC Act protections leading to poor outcomes for faunal species were also noted in other evidence. For example, the Northern Plains Conservation Management Network stated that the cumulative impacts of illegal small clearing activities had devastated the Northern Plains Grasslands in northern Victoria.68
Dr Hocking noted that the register of critical habitat for threatened fauna only applied to Commonwealth land. He observed:
The register makes it an offence to knowingly damage habitat on the list, but these penalty provisions only apply to habitat in or on [Commonwealth] land. State or private-owned land can still be listed on the register but penalties for knowingly damaging habitat found in these places do not apply, dramatically reducing the power of the register to protect habitat for the many species not found on [Commonwealth] land.69
Trust for Nature also noted that legal recourses were not available for some land clearing processes that damaged habitat of threatened species:
…our on-ground staff are aware of extensive clearing taking place on private land for cropping, without an avenue for legal recourse. This is having a devastating effect on, among others, the Plains-wanderer and the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.70
FOG noted that the Commonwealth's compliance regime has not been adequate for potential breaches of the EPBC Act on NTG-SEH:
The Commonwealth has remained silent on another issue, that of what appears to be deliberate clearing of areas of natural temperate grasslands (listed as critically endangered at the national level and in the ACT) on the Monaro.71
Ms Wendy Hawes, the principal ecologist for Envirofactor, has been quoted as saying in relation to the EPBC compliance regime in the NTG-SEH that:
A law is only as good as its compliance. If you have a law and you don't make people obey it, then you may as well not have the law.72
The issue of compliance and the NTG-SEH will be discussed in the following chapter of this report.

  • 1
    Department of the Environment and Energy, Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands: a nationally protected ecological community (2016) (NTG-SEH: a nationally protected ecological community), p. 3.
  • 2
    See: Friends of Grasslands, 'Grasslands' at (accessed 10 November 2019). See also the pressures noted in the department's.
  • 3
    Friends of Grasslands, 'Grasslands'.
  • 4
    Australian Conservation Foundation, Submission 137 (45th), Attachment 1 (Australian Conservation Foundation, Fast tracking extinction: Australia's national environmental law), p. 3.
  • 5
    See differing estimates in: ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate, 'Grasslands' at (accessed 11 October 2019); and Mr Jim Walker, Submission 333 (45th), p. 2.
  • 6
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), p. 4.
  • 7
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), p. 3.
  • 8
    IUCN Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative, Life in a Working Landscape: Towards a Conservation Strategy for the World's Temperate Grasslands (2009), p. II, (accessed 28 October 2019).
  • 9
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), pp. 4–5. See also evidence provided to the committee by Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th).
  • 10
    NTG-SEH: a nationally protected ecological community, p. 3.
  • 11
    NTG-SEH: a nationally protected ecological community, p. 9.
  • 12
    Department of the Environment and Energy, Answers to questions taken on notice, public hearing, Canberra, 23 August 2019 (received 6 September 2019), Question No. 9. This information can also be found in the department's NTG-SEH: a nationally protected ecological community, p. 9.
  • 13
    Lindsay W. Bell, Richard C. Hayes, Keith G. Pembleton, and Cathy M. Waters, 'Opportunities and challenges in Australian grasslands: pathways to achieve future sustainability and productivity imperatives', in Crop and Pasture Science, No. 65 (6) (2014), pp. 489–507.
  • 14
    Dr Colin Hocking, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Committee Hansard, 23 August 2019, p. 5.
  • 15
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), p. 5.
  • 16
    Friends of Grasslands, 'Grasslands'.
  • 17
    Mike Letnic, 'What are native grasslands, and why do they matter?', The Conversation, (accessed 10 November 2019).
  • 18
    Friends of Grasslands, 'Grasslands'.
  • 19
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), p. 3.
  • 20
    Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 'Farming and nationally protected grey box woodlands and grasslands' (2010), p. 2.
  • 21
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), p. 3.
  • 22
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Threatened ecological communities', (accessed 18 November 2019).
  • 23
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Threatened ecological communities'.
  • 24
    Note: emphasis in original. Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Threatened ecological communities'.
  • 25
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Threatened ecological communities'. See also Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th Parliament), p. 22.
  • 26
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Nominating a species, ecological community or key threatening process under the EPBC Act', (accessed 18 November 2019).
  • 27
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Nominating a species, ecological community or key threatening process under the EPBC Act'.
  • 28
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Nominating a species, ecological community or key threatening process under the EPBC Act'.
  • 29
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Nominating a species, ecological community or key threatening process under the EPBC Act'.
  • 30
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'SPRAT Database: Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands', (accessed 18 November 2019).
  • 31
    NTG-SEH: a nationally protected ecological community, p. 3.
  • 32
    Department of the Environment and Energy, Answers to questions taken on notice, public hearing, Canberra, 28 August 2019 (received 6 September 2019), Question No. 22. See also the Approved Conservation Advice (including listing advice) for the Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands (EC 152) (Approved Conservation Advice NTG-SEH (EC142)), p. 39, which can be found at (accessed 21 November 2019), p. 1.
  • 33
    NTG-SEH: a nationally protected ecological community, p. 3.
  • 34
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), p. 6.
  • 35
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), pp. 6–9.
  • 36
    Mike Letnic, 'What are native grasslands, and why do they matter?'
  • 37
    D.A. Eddy, Managing Native Grassland (2002), p. 16.
  • 38
    Dr Sue McIntyre, private capacity, Committee Hansard, 23 April 2019, p. 5.
  • 39
    Ms Sarah Sharp, Committee Member, Friends of Grasslands, Committee Hansard, 23 April 2019, p. 5.
  • 40
    Dr Damian Michael, Senior Research Fellow, Sturt University, Committee Hansard, 23 August 2019, p. 4.
  • 41
    Dr Sue McIntyre, private capacity, Committee Hansard, 23 April 2019, p. 2.
  • 42
    Friends of Grasslands, 'Grasslands'.
  • 43
    For example, see: Dr Megan O'Shea, Submission 420, pp. 1–2; and Professor Stephen Sarre, private capacity, and Dr Jane Melville, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria, 23 August 2019, Committee Hansard, pp. 2 and 6 respectively.
  • 44
    Approved Conservation Advice NTG-SEH (EC142), p. 35.
  • 45
    See Interim Report, p. 34.
  • 46
    Dr Megan O'Shea, Submission 422 (45th), p. 1.
  • 47
    Dr Jane Melville, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria, 23 August 2019, Committee Hansard, p. 4.
  • 48
    Ms Sarah Sharp, Committee Member, Friends of Grasslands, Committee Hansard, p. 5.
  • 49
    Australian Environment Foundation, Submission 163 (45th), p. 9.
  • 50
    IUCN Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative, Life in a Working Landscape: Towards a Conservation Strategy for the World's Temperate Grasslands (2009), p. 11. Note: this study was informed by a number of Australian participants with experience of the Lowland grasslands of south-eastern Australia (see p. 7).
  • 51
    Dr Colin Hocking, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Committee Hansard, 23 August 2019, p. 3.
  • 52
    Professor Stephen Sarre, private capacity, Committee Hansard, 23 August 2019, p. 2.
  • 53
    Approved Conservation Advice NTG-SEH (EC142), p. 39. Note: forbs or phorbs are herbaceous flowering plants that are not a grass, sedge, or rush (which are considered graminoids).
  • 54
    Afshin Ghahramani and Andrew D. Moore, 'Climate change and broadacre livestock production across southern Australia. 2. Adaptation options via grassland management', in Crop and Pasture Science, No. 64 (6) (2013), pp. 615–630.
  • 55
    This largely echoed more general concerns about the listing process and management of KTPs, which will be discussed in a future report of the committee.
  • 56
    Note: this section outlines evidence relating to the EPBC Act and grasslands. However, these concerns largely correspond with the broader evidence received by this inquiry in the 45th and 46th Parliament.
  • 57
    Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th), p. 4.
  • 58
    Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th), pp. 3–4.
  • 59
    See Interim report, pp. 48–49, and Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Recovery Plans', (accessed 20 November 2019).
  • 60
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'Ecological Communities for which Recovery Plans are required to be prepared as at 01/05/2013' and 'SPRAT, Conservation Advices and Recovery Plans by NRM Region', (both accessed 20 November 2019).
  • 61
    Department of the Environment and Energy, 'SPRAT Database: Natural Temperate Grassland of the South Eastern Highlands', (accessed 18 November 2019).
  • 62
    Dr Colin Hocking, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Committee Hansard, 23 August 2019, p. 10.
  • 63
    Dr Colin Hocking, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Committee Hansard, 23 August 2019, p. 3.
  • 64
    Dr Colin Hocking, Submission 289 (45th), p. 2.
  • 65
    Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th), p. 2.
  • 66
    Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th), Attachment 1 ('Submission: Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Standing) Bill 2015'), pp. 1–2.
  • 67
    Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th), p. 4. See also Professor Sue McIntyre, private capacity, Committee Hansard, p. 2.
  • 68
    Northern Plains Conservation Management Network, Submission 39 (45th), pp. 1–2.
  • 69
    Dr Colin Hocking, Submission 289 (45th), pp. 3–4.
  • 70
    Trust for Nature, Submission 122 (45th), p. 4–5.
  • 71
    Friends of Grasslands, Submission 22 (45th), p. 2.
  • 72
    Joshua Becker, 'Farmers near Delegate reject suggestion they damaged endangered grassland', ABC Rural Online, (accessed 4 November 2019).

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