The Morrison government has proposed scrapping recovery plans for almost 200 endangered species and habitats including the Tasmanian devil, the whale shark and the endangered glossy-black cockatoo populations on Kangaroo Island, one of the worst-affected areas in the 2019-20 bushfires.
Environment groups have decried the move as a backward step less than 12 months after a statutory review of Australia’s national environmental laws found successive governments had failed to protect the country’s unique wildlife.
Recovery plans are documents that set out actions needed to stop the extinction of species. Ministers are legally bound not to make decisions that are inconsistent with them.
Since changes were made to legislation in 2007 they have been increasingly replaced with what’s known as a conservation advice, a similar document but which does not have the same legal force under national law.
Guardian Australia has previously reported that fewer 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. Even more plans are out of date.
The federal environment department revealed last year it had not finalised a single recovery plan for threatened species in nearly 18 months and more than 170 were overdue. All listed species, including those requiring a recovery plan, have a conservation advice.
This year, the government asked the independent threatened species scientific committee (TSSC), which advises it on endangered wildlife, to review recovery plans for 914 threatened species and habitats to determine which should continue to have a recovery plan and which could just have a conservation advice.
The committee provided advice that 676 no longer required a recovery plan.
The government is responding to the committee’s recommendations in stages and on Friday published for public consultation the first tranche of 157 animals and plants and 28 ecological communities for which it proposes scrapping recovery plans.
They include the vulnerable green and golden bell frog and the spectacled flying-fox, which had its threat status upgraded to endangered after heatwaves in 2019.
Among the ecological communities is the critically endangered Cumberland plain woodland, one of the most under pressure woodlands in the country as a result of urban development in western Sydney.
It has been identified as requiring a recovery plan since 2009 but no plan has ever been finalised.
Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said on Friday “Scott Morrison has given up on saving iconic Australian species.”
“The 2019-20 bushfires killed or displaced 3 billion animals and his response now is to cut 157 recovery plans.”
The Greens’ environment spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young, said the government was seeking to rewrite its obligations and was “putting up the white flag on saving our wildlife and native plants”.
“Downgrading the level of obligation on the minister is downgrading the protection of our native animals and species,” she said.
“This is all about letting the minister off the hook – the Morrison government has dropped the ball on protecting our environment and wildlife and now they want to change the rules and responsibilities.”
Helene Marsh, the chair of the threatened species scientific committee, told Guardian Australia that the species and habitats the committee had assessed were those for which recovery plans had expired, were due to expire or were overdue.
She said the committee had carefully considered every plant, animal and habitat and determined that overall about 13% of the country’s wildlife required a recovery plan.
Marsh said recovery planning had been ineffective, with plans often unfunded and actions not implemented.
She said a conservation advice could be as detailed and useful a tool, could be developed more quickly, and rapidly updated after an emergency such as the bushfire disaster.
“We’ve looked at whether a recovery plan will make a difference or not and we’ve looked at every single one in great detail,” she said. “A conservation advice can be updated and in these times of fires and climate change is a much more nimble instrument.”
Marsh told Guardian Australia that the most important reforms the government could make for Australia’s wildlife would be to implement legally binding and detailed national environmental standards that were recommended by the former competition watchdog head, Graeme Samuel, in his review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
She said the committee’s recommendations on which species and habitats should not have recovery plans was based, in part, on whether they were regularly affected by development and therefore triggered the need for a development to be assessed under Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
She said the committee had recommended that species that regularly triggered the act retain a recovery plan.
However, the Cumberland Plain woodland, the golden sun moth and the striped legless lizard, which all regularly trigger the need for assessment under the act, all appear on the list of proposed habitats and animals that would no longer require a recovery plan.
Samantha Vine, of Birdlife Australia, said a conservation advice was a good foundational document but was not a robust plan to get species off the path to extinction.
The organisation is concerned about the 19 threatened birds that may no longer require a recovery plan, including the glossy black cockatoo populations of Kangaroo Island and South Australia, the northern masked owl and the Abbott’s Booby.
“We completely see where the threatened species scientific committee is coming from because they are overwhelmed,” Vine said. “But walking away from recovery plans because they’re not functioning as well as they should be is not the right approach in an extinction crisis.”
Brendan Sydes, a lawyer and policy adviser at the Australian Conservation Foundation, said recovery plans were not working as well as they should but the answer was not to abandon them all together.
“Conservation advices are not an adequate replacement for recovery plans, as they are much less rigorous in what they require and don’t have the same legal clout,” he said.
“To virtually give up on recovery planning would be a terrible admission that there is no political will to tackle Australia’s extinction crisis.”
A spokesperson for the environment department said the recommendations were based on “the best planning outcome for the individual threatened entity, and are subject to public consultation prior to any final decision being made”.
“This is the first tranche of public consultation which invites the public to provide feedback on proposed subsequent recovery plan decisions for 185 species and ecological communities,” the spokesperson said.
“Subsequent public consultation periods for lists of other species and ecological communities will be held.”
A spokesperson for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said: “The proposed changes have been recommended by the independent Threatened Species Scientific Committee and are now available for public consultation.”