Conservation status and legal situation

The Commonwealth and each state or territory have a specific suite of legislation, which is further divided into government agency responsibilities that cover specific purposes such as animal welfare, biosecurity, conservation, recreation activities or sustainable resource management.

Australia’s Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 and the subsequent Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 added conservation measures for threatened species at a national level.  (Nally and Adams, 2015)

In Western Australia all native wildlife is protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950.
However, this outdated law has now been superseded by the Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2015 - Bill Number 166. After amendments agreed to by the Legislative Assembly on 13/09/2016 the bill passed through the Parliament of Western Australia and was assented to on 21/09/2016.
However, only some sections came into operation and the link that is supposed to provide further information about this is not particularly helpful.

As the Western Ringtail Possum Recovery Plan No 58 (as correct in February 2017) does not even mention this new law, we can only assume that those parts relevant to the protection of fauna and their habitat have not come into operation yet.
The ‘Native Vegetation Clearing Regulations’ have a major impact on fauna and will complicate the implementation of any protective measure through the new law.

As long as the mature or older-growth peppermint stands on which most populations of this species now depend have no adequate level of conservation protection and habitat destruction stays acceptable practice, the decline will be unstoppable.
For the assessment of a proposed development the species’ conservation status listing would also most likely only make a difference regarding the level of offsets under the EBPC Act.
Most of the remaining habitat is outside the conservation estate on private land. Planning controls might have a larger influence than biodiversity legislation. (Burbidge, 2016)

The Biodiversity Conservation Bill is in many regards a lost opportunity to provide true protection and in its current state gives the minister almost ‘god like’ powers. The new Labor government might therefore – hopefully – send it back to the drawing board.

Since 1983 the western ringtail possum has been listed as specially protected fauna that is rare or likely to become extinct under the WA Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 as there was already a concerning decline in the range of the possums. (Ellis and Jones, 1992, EPBC Nomination summary, 2016)
A listing as ‘specially protected’ provides additional protection and guides recovery planning and actions.

Wildlife Conservation Notices such as the 2006 ‘Specially protected fauna notice’ would add to the level of protection and deal with problems when they occur as implementation of these notices is a far less bureaucratic procedure than amending a law. However, I was told that regarding western ringtail possums this Notice has never come into operation.

Already in 2014 the Action Plan (Woinarski et al, 2014) identified a ranking of ‘Critically Endangered’ using IUCN criteria as adequate for our ringtail due to the continuing dramatic decline in their number and range. This triggered an upgrade of the conservation ranking in November 2015 to ‘endangered’ in WA under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 and finally on 6 January 2017 the western ringtail possum was gazetted as ‘critically endangered’.

WRP were first listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List in 1994. The latest reference and update (The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. <>. Downloaded on 11 December 2017) acknowledges the steep decline and lists western ringtail possums as critically endangered.

Following a recent enquiry into the conservation rating (public consultation closed 31/07/17) western ringtail possums have finally also been upgraded to ‘critically endangered’ under the EPBC Act on 11 May 2018.

The time lag between observations of a trend and the official change in status can be excessive and in this case it would have taken about 10 years from the time when field observations warranted an upgrade and the actual status change – if it should be changed.

There are currently 136 mammals listed as threatened under the EPBC Act: extinct 27, critically endangered 5, endangered 37 and vulnerable 67. Interestingly the federal Threatened Species Strategy (2015) lists 29 mammal species as extinct – I wonder in anticipation of whose demise this might be.

So far only 4 conservation category downgrading changes have ever occurred, however with the subsequent upgrading of 2 of these – in at least 1 case to a higher level than prior to the downgrading. (Morris et al, 2015)

Listing a species not only frequently fails to deliver conservation status improvement but western ringtail possums suffered a significant decline while listed at least as vulnerable. 

The EPBC Act Policy Statement 3.10 – significant impact guidelines for the vulnerable western ringtail possum in the southern Swan Coastal Plain, WA – is meant to assist developers in determining whether their project is likely to have a significant impact on the species.

3 habitat categories have been identified and mapped - core habitat, primary corridors, supporting habitat – and clearing thresholds for these areas developed.
There are however inconsistencies in the mapping as for instance Dunsborough town site is not included as a core habitat area even though the number of possums in town is high. (Thompson and Thompson, 2009)

The southern Swan Coastal Plain has the highest numbers and densities of ringtails and is therefore critical for their survival. Significant impacts on the species need to be avoided.

If a potentially significant impact is expected, the proposal is deemed a ‘controlled action’ and its approval subject to conditions. Unfortunately, without compliance monitoring and prosecution in case of breaches, ‘controlled actions’ only mean more paperwork. 

Approvals and the placing of conditions have so far mostly been based on information supplied by environmental consultants employed by the development proponent. The information provided is rarely derived from employment of scientific methodologies and mitigation measures proposed are not based on scientific evidence of their effectiveness.  (P. de Tores, personal correspondence)

Interim Recovery Plan No 17 was developed due to ‘the urgent need to work with town planning authorities to limit habitat destruction’ and adopted in February 1998.
However, the last 2 decades of western ringtail possum conservation efforts seem still to have been based on ad hoc management decisions with a focus on a translocation program that was abandoned intermittently due to a lack of funding so that failures could only be noticed in hindsight and not even be adequately explained. 

According to the EPBC webpage a proper Recovery Plan was required and as early as 1/11/2009 it had been included on the list of commenced plans.
Five years later in February 2014 it was finally approved in WA without any community consultation. As this recovery plan was meant to be a federal recovery plan, we were at least able to comment on the draft dated October 14. Federal plans have to go out for public comment, while state plans do not. It will always keep puzzling me why state departments show no interest in getting comments and expertise for free.

The recovery plan is now finally in effect under the EPBC Act as it was approved on 16/8/17.
In those last 3 years the recovery plan has been subject to various modifications and the information is said to have been accurate in February 2017.

The Threatened Species Strategy (2015) was an attempt to prioritise effort and work for threatened species in cooperation between state and territory governments and the community over a five year time frame.
20 ‘priority mammals’ were listed for improved trajectories and our ringtail has been included.