The black-throated finch is a refugee. For decades, progress has forced the small, rotund, patchwork finch to retreat to a few pockets of grassland in central and north Queensland. Now the largest colony will be forcibly moved from the best remaining habitat to make way for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine.
Since it was listed as endangered and protected under Australian law, 775 development applications have proposed removing or damaging potential finch habitat. One has been rejected.
The extinction threat has not been created by Adani. It is the result of decades of weak government protections and decision-making weighted in favour of development. Habitat has been lost to agriculture, housing, roads and roundabouts.
But ecologists say Adani’s plan to relocate the finch from its final stronghold at the Carmichael mine site could represent a coup de grace for the southern subspecies. Adani’s finch management plan was approved by the federal and Queensland governments despite firm advice from ecologists there was no scientific evidence that setting aside new land for conservation would work.
“We are allowing an action that any ecologist would say is significantly increasing the risk of extinction to the species,” said Brendan Wintle, a professor of conservation ecology at the University of Melbourne and a member of the panel of experts that reviewed Adani’s black-throated finch management plan for the Queensland government.
The formal advice of the panel – which included six experts in endangered species management and three experts in finch biology – has not been released by the state.
Wintle said the panel found Adani’s plan was “deficient in a number of areas” and there was “insufficient scientific evidence that offset actions proposed will compensate for the loss of habitat”.
“More specifically, there’s no evidence to convince us that the species will suddenly get up and move from the habitat it currently occupies on the mine site and move to the offset site and live happily ever after,” Wintel said.
“In the 10 years of the development of the mine proposal and the impact assessments, they’ve never actually once tried translocating the bird to the offset site to see if it survived.”
Wintle said other concerns include the plan’s lack of “triggers to act” in the event the offset conditions do not work, or finch numbers suffer a sharp decline.
He said Adani had not undertaken surveys to reliably determine the number of birds at the site, and that any drawdown in groundwater would put the black-throated finch under threat.
“The bird relies critically on water for its existence – it must drink every day,” Wintle said. “There is a strong chance that the mine will cause massive drawdown in the region around the mine; this will make water less available for any finches that remain in the area, including in the offset site.
“We’re going to lose 9,500ha of habitat and that significantly increases the risk that the species will become extinct locally and, ultimately, globally extinct. We know what we need to do to stop it going extinct – that is to stop destroying its habitat.”
Ruffling political feathers
The Queensland government commissioned the expert review early this year, angering Adani and partly spurring an advertising campaign prior to the federal election that claimed the state was “moving the goalposts” for approval.
The scientific review process was tainted by commentary from Adani that sought to label ecologists as activists seeking to stop the coalmine.
The criticism appeared to be premised on the fact that, because the ecologists were of the view the mine would be fundamentally damaging to the black-throated finch, this made them biased against the project. There were calls for the panel to appoint someone who was “pro-coal”.
The Queensland Department of Environment and Science initially took into account the panel’s recommendations and demanded Adani perform significant surveying and other work before it would allow mine construction to begin.
But after Labor was thrashed at the federal election in central and north Queensland, the winds shifted. The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, demanded a deadline be set for a decision. The department has told Guardian Australia that it “works with proponents” to meet conditions and they can “resubmit their plans until they satisfy the requirements”. In other words, they had no power to reject Adani’s plans outright, only to insist on changes.
A department staffer with knowledge of the approval process has told Guardian Australia that in these circumstances the deadline acted to ensure approval, and that claims the process was independent and “at arm’s length” from government were questionable.
“We weren’t instructed one way or the other [by the government], but practically working to a firm deadline meant finding a way to approve the plan by the deadline. We had a choice between rolling over on things we’d already demanded, or not meeting that deadline. And not meeting the deadline was clearly not an option.”
For April Reside, an ecologist and member of the black-throated finch recovery team, the process has been an abject failure, but the latest in a succession of failures to protect the species.
Reside authored a study last year that described how poor development approval processes had continually viewed threatened species in isolation; essentially looking at one project at a time, forever putting finch colonies under pressure to the extent its populations had coalesced in a few remaining sites.
The study found the finch was no longer found across 88% of its historical range, which once stretched from near Tenterfield in New South Wales, where it was last seen in 1994. The southern subspecies has retreated to two enclaves, one south of Townsville and the other in the Galilee Basin.
Reside said the Queensland approvals process in particular is problematic. Adani’s environmental conditions demanded it author a conservation management plan for the finch, rather than requiring specific actions that would result in ecological outcomes.
Reside said that sort of process can work only if approval authorities insist plans do protect species.
“This is a particularly bad example. The original conditions that were set out [for the Carmichael mine], they were just amazingly poor,” Reside said.
“If you want to achieve something, like to halt the decline of a native species, you set out clearly what is required. Adani is required to make a plan. Just making a plan doesn’t really solve anything.
“It’s like me having a career plan of winning the lottery – there’s no way of making my plan likely to succeed.
“It’s certainly not a robust process. In other [Australian jurisdictions], they set conditions to make sure the population doesn’t decline.”
Adani’s conservation management plan will set aside 33,000ha of protected land for the black-throated finch and other species. It has said its plan was developed by ecologists and that clearing of finch habitat will occur gradually to transition the species to the offset site.
Part of that conservation area sits on land earmarked for the Clive Palmer-backed Alpha North coalmine. The black-throated finch is also known to exist at the site of Palmer’s other proposed Galilee Basin coalmine, the Galilee Coal project.
The concern of ecologists is clear. Development has always been given precedent to the welfare of the black-throated finch. It has happened 775 times before. It will happen again, until we draw a line in the north Queensland dirt.
Remarkably, the black-throated finch did not feature in the 2017 Guardian Australia Bird of the Year poll, though it did receive several write-in votes. It has been the runaway leader in both rounds this year, as the Carmichael coalmine reaches a critical stage of its construction.