Pollys and pollies collide in Tasmania’s trashed forests
Poorly managed logging of Tasmania’s old growth forests threatens to quickly push Australia’s critically endangered swift parrot over the edge into extinction
Note: This piece was a Forbes Editor’s Pick. Original title: “Parrots And Politics Collide In Tasmania’s Trashed Forests”
Recently, conservation biologists in Australia were “stunned” to discover that valuable forest habitat needed for nesting by the critically endangered swift parrot had been clear-cut. Swift parrots nest in old growth forests owned and managed by Sustainable Timber Tasmania, a government agency that regulates logging activities by corporations and private citizens. The scientists made their discovery whilst inspecting Tyler’s Hill, which is known swift parrot nesting habitat, on the island of Tasmania. They were planning to return shortly to install specially designed nest boxes for these charismatic parrots to use for raising their families.
The diminutive, mostly green, swift parrot, Lathamus discolor, is one of only three migratory parrot species in the world: in September, which is the beginning of the austral springtime, the entire population flies south across the Bass Strait to the island of Tasmania to breed in old growth forest. But thanks to Tasmania’s poorly managed logging practices, these parrots will find very few nest cavities to raise their families in.
“It’s actually inexcusable,” ornithologist Mark Holdsworth, a former department worker who now is part of the swift parrot recovery team, said in a radio interview with ABC News.
“People have to remember that a tree doesn’t produce hollows for at least 120 years,” Dr. Holdsworth said. “And the state’s rotation for timber harvesting is around 90 years, so these trees will never be replaced in that strategic plan. They won’t be replaced in our lifetime and many generations to come. So this is a net loss to this species and many other species across the state, and we’ll be much the poorer for it.”
This severe reduction of tree cavities drives intense competition amongst Tasmanian birds and other wildlife for the few hollows remaining — leaving the small swift parrot a big loser in this battle for precious real estate.
Worse, the swift parrot faces yet another problem: they are a popular meal for sugar gliders, Petaurus breviceps. Native to the Australian mainland, this small gliding possum lives in tree hollows. It is a popular pet, and predictably, it didn’t take long before people introduced it to Tasmania where it is now established as an alien invasive pest species (ref).
It has long been known that logging is the main reason that the swift parrot is endangered, but more recently, the research team has established that clear-cutting is strongly correlated with increased sugar glider predation on swift parrots (ref). In fact, every year, nighttime raids by these marsupials annihilates half or more of all nesting female swift parrots, along with their eggs and nestlings on Tasmania.
“In places where old growth has been reduced to as little as twenty percent of the available forest cover in an area, predation by gliders can reach one hundred percent,” said Dejan Stojanovic, a conservation biologist with the Australian National University. “Which means every bird, dead. Every nest, failed.”
This level of predation is so severe that Dr. Stojanovic and his colleagues at the Difficult Birds Research Group predict that swift parrots will go extinct in fewer than 16 years (ref) — a finding that was so distressing that it was the impetus for up-listing the swift parrot to “Critically Endangered”.
There are fewer than 2000 wild swift parrots alive today due to destruction of their forests, and forest destruction is under the control of Sustainable Timber Tasmania, a government agency. Although a framework for sustainable management of Tasmania’s forests was set up by the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) more than a decade ago, this legislation obviously is not working because known swift parrot habitat is still being clear-cut, and swift parrot numbers are currently in near collapse.
“We have repeatedly notified government and industry groups of the conservation values of areas (including the specific area in question) and have made our data on where swift parrot nests occur publicly available, as well as directly notifying relevant agencies,” Dr. Stojanovic said in email.
Much of the timber removed from these forests is destined for wood pulp or firewood.
Almost as if this wanton destruction was deliberately planned to inflict as much damage as possible, this valuable habitat was clear-cut during one of the most important times of the year — springtime, when migratory swift parrots are just arriving and starting to establish their nests.
“They need this habitat, we’ve just taken out a substantial area of their critical habitat at a critical time of year,” Dr. Stojanovic said in email, adding: “There are a few parrots in the coupe right now, looking for nests in what trees are left.” (A “coupe” is a parcel of land scheduled to be clear-cut.)
“We know where the parrots’ habitat occurs in the landscape, we know what nest trees look like, we know these birds nest in groups, so all of the warning signs were there that this coupe was prime parrot habitat,” Dr. Stojanovic elaborated in email, pointing out that they use GPS to tag swift parrot nest trees.
“These nesting areas are well-known,” Dr. Holdsworth agreed. “The forest industry, supported by the government, should be ashamed of what’s going on here.”
“It’s really just a heartbreaking and frustrating experience; it makes you kind of wonder why are we doing this?” Dr. Stojanovic said.
The Tasmanian government’s feeble leadership has other consequences, too.
“The Tasmanian Government logging company, Forestry Tasmania (now called Sustainable Timber Tasmania) was denied Forest Stewardship Certification a few years ago for failing to protect swift parrots, but clearly not much has changed despite the damage to their social license and brand,” Dr. Stojanovic explained in email. Forest Stewardship Certification is awarded by an independent international organization that ensures that forestry products come from sustainably-managed forests. Clearly, “Sustainable” Timber Tasmania’s new name is intended to mislead the public about this agency’s true mission.
“We argue that the regulations of the forest industry are ineffective at seriously protecting parrots because known habitat continues to be lost across the landscape,” Dr. Stojanovic said in email.
In perverse defiance of the old carpenter’s maxim, “measure twice, cut once”, the government is not consulting its own scientists regarding the sustainable management of swift parrot habitat before trashing it. Instead, it appears that the Tasmanian government is actually leading the stampede into oblivion for the critically endangered swift parrot. This raises the question: why are they investing millions of Australian taxpayer dollars into conserving the swift parrot, only to deliberately destroy important swift parrot breeding habitat?
Emails to Sustainable Timber Tasmania, and to Tasmanian Environment Minister Elise Archer, and Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, remain unanswered.
Dejan Stojanovic, Matthew H. Webb, Rachael Alderman, Luciana L. Porfirio and Robert Heinsohn (2014). Discovery of a novel predator reveals extreme but highly variable mortality for an endangered migratory bird, Diversity and Distributions, 20:1200–1207 | doi:10.1111/ddi.12214
Robert Heinsohn, Matthew Webb, Robert Lacy, Aleks Terauds, Rachael Alderman, and Dejan Stojanovic (2015). A severe predator-induced population decline predicted for endangered, migratory swift parrots (Lathamus discolor), Biological Conservation, 186:75–82 | doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2015.03.006
Dejan Stojanovic, Aleks Terauds, Martin J. Westgate, Matthew H. Webb, David A. Roshier, and Robert Heinsohn (2015). Exploiting the richest patch has a fitness pay-off for the migratory swift parrot, Journal of Animal Ecology, 84:1194–1201 | doi:10.1111/1365–2656.12375
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Originally published at Forbes on 17 November 2017.