Australia has not updated a register of habitat critical for the protection of threatened species for 15 years, prompting experts to call for it to be strengthened to protect more types of land.
An independent scientific body that advises the government on threatened species also says the environment minister should be given emergency powers to protect habitat after natural disasters.
It comes as the release of the interim report into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which had been due this week, was delayed.
The review’s chair, former competition watchdog head Graeme Samuel, delivered his report to the environment minister, Sussan Ley, early this week.
A spokesman for Ley said on Friday the report “will be released in due course”.
Under the laws, the government can identify land important to the survival of a species and list it on the national critical habitat register.
The register makes it an offence to knowingly damage habitat on the list but it has rarely been used since the EPBC Act was introduced, with only five places registered, the most recent of which was in 2005.
The strict protections it grants also only apply to commonwealth land, which severely reduces the power of the register for the many species found on state or privately-owned land.
“The key thing that we’re looking for from the EPBC review are reforms that ring-fence critical habitat from ongoing destruction,” Nicola Beynon, of Humane Society International, said.
Tim Beshara, the federal policy director at The Wilderness Society, said the register was one of a range of tools the government had at its disposal to protect species.
“However, when a government repeatedly chooses to leave that tool in the tool belt, all Australians should be asking their government why it is that they refuse to use it,” he said.
The independent threatened species scientific committee, which advises the government on threatened species protection, is recommending reforms including an agreement between federal, state and territory governments that would extend the powers of the critical habitat register to all jurisdictions.
They also want the environment minister to have an emergency power to list habitat for protection in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters such as the 2019-20 bushfires.
The committee’s chair, Helene Marsh, said the potential power of the register in its current form was limited because penalties could only apply to land registered on the commonwealth estate, which covered less than 0.5% of Australia’s land area.
“It’s just minute,” she said.
“The register could perhaps be extended to include areas in all jurisdictions. This would require an agreement between the commonwealth and the states and territories.”
In its submission to the review, the committee labelled Australia’s approach to critical habitat “confusing” and “unsatisfactory”.
This was partly because the term “critical habitat” was used to define land recorded on the register, while a similar term – “habitat critical to the survival of a species” – was used in recovery plans for individual species.
The committee said the two mechanisms had different effects under the law, which created confusion for proponents and communities.
They added Australia had not made wide use of either provision and other countries, including the United States, had stronger laws for habitat protection, which was important to prevent extinctions.
Beynon, HSI Australia’s head of campaigns, said the organisation had argued for 20 years that habitat identified in recovery plans should be put on the critical habitat register and be searchable to assist proponents when they developed environmental impact statements.
“Unless we protect critical habitat, we’re not going to be saving species from extinction,” she said.
“The register needs to include and protect critical habitat in state and territory jurisdictions.”
April Reside is a research fellow at the University of Queensland who has studied the endangered black throated finch, which is found on the site of the Adani Carmichael mine project.
She said the most recent analysis showed the bird had lost 90% of its original distribution.
“It’s a clear example of threatened species that need habitat to be protected in perpetuity,” she said.
Reside said the critical habitat register was good in theory and, if used more widely, could create more certainty for both developers and conservationists.
“It’s such a good concept. If it was used, implemented and enforced it could be a really good tool for threatened species security,” she said.
Ley’s spokesman said critical habitat did not need to be recorded on the register to trigger an assessment under the act.
“Identification of ‘habitat critical to the survival of the species’ in a recovery plan or a conservation advice ensures those particular areas are taken into account in the environmental approval process, regardless of tenure,” he said.
The spokesman said the register only provided protection for commonwealth land. He did not say whether the government was open to proposals that would expand the register, but said the minister welcomed submissions to the review.