The forgotten flora

How the Baillieu Government has turned its back on threatened speciesPublished 13/07/12

We pulled off the dusty track and parked the car under a gnarly young stringybark tree. Before us was a diverse heathy woodland, alive with the colour of wildflowers in full spring bloom. In the distance I could see rugged sandstone escarpments, lined with dark stunted trees and ancient boulders.

I was on a day trip in the Black Ranges, a westerly extension of the Grampians near Cherrypool. My travelling companions were David Pitts, a biodiversity officer for the DSE and Roger, one of DSE’s natural resource managers. Dave and I had spent the week searching and monitoring threatened plant species as part of Dave’s role with the DSE. Today we had headed out from our base at Horsham to meet Roger, an expert in the local country and its environment. Roger had seen some orchids out this way that he thought might interest us.

‘This is the spot’, said Roger, and we headed into the bush. We immediately came across a large patch of beautiful white spider-orchids. These were the Large White Spider-orchid (Caladenia venusta), a species listed as vulnerable in Victoria. At most places this species has declined substantially, but here they seemed to be thriving. We found over a hundred, all in slightly different shades of colours and scattered throughout the bush. But then we saw an orchid that looked very different. We stooped down low to have a closer look, and became increasingly excited as we compared it to the Large White’s nearby. It was certainly different and looked suspiciously like the Candy Spider-orchid (Caladenia versicolor) a species only known from one other site in the world over at Lake Fyans. We stayed at the site for well over an hour, taking an abundance of photos and checking out other wildflowers and birds in the area, before heading for another site. Later in the day we were to discover several new populations of the nationally rare Elegant Spider-orchid (Caladenia formosa) before heading back to camp.

The photos of our unusual orchid were sent to several experts and quickly confirmed as the Candy Spider-orchid, which is listed as threatened under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, and considered endangered by DSE. It is listed as vulnerable under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. This population was the second disjunct population of only two. Over the next twelve months Dave worked busily on this population and managed to collect enough seed to send to the DSE laboratory in Horsham. There, Dr Noushka Reiter and her team managed to successfully propagate the species, a huge break-through in the recovery work. A back-up population of the plants was now available and the species could be reintroduced into another suitable site if considered appropriate by the orchid advisory committee.

Sounds inspiring doesn’t it? Well this is where the Baillieu Government steps in. Several months ago David Pitts, Noushka Reiter and nine other DSE biodiversity officers in the south-west Victoria region were told to get ready to pack their bags, as their contracts would not be renewed. The recovery programs that these dedicated and highly trained staff had been working on for years would now grind to a halt. What of the seven thousand rare orchids sitting in the Horsham laboratory waiting to be re-introduced to the wild? ‘Who cares?’ seems to be the Baillieu government’s response. Orchids weren’t the only plants the DSE officers had been working on either. A large assemblage of nationally endangered plants had been under their close management, from salt lake shrubs, wetland herbs to annual grasses. No one is now available to look after these species in the south-west region, other than the already over-worked remaining staff.

What of the seven thousand rare orchids sitting in the Horsham laboratory waiting to be re-introduced to the wild? ‘Who cares?’ seems to be the Baillieu government’s response.

The Victorian Government has strong legal obligations to manage our threatened species under global agreements (the United Nations ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’, of which Australia is a signatory), National legislation (the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) and State legislation (the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act). Just like the cattle grazing in the alpine national parks, which was effectively a breach of several acts of parliament, the Baillieu Government seems to have no worries disregarding the law when pursuing its hollow agenda.

IFFA has been actively campaigning against this issue, with letters written to the Liberals and visits to the Shadow Minister for the Environment. The response to our letter was shamefully inadequate, and failed to answer any of our concerns.

Predicted global climate change is going to create a tough time for our natural ecosystems to say the least. It is imperative that now more than ever our leaders should be assisting land managers to build the ecological resilience of our landscapes, so that they are as able as possible to adapt to the coming changes. The failure of leadership shown by the Baillieu Government is shameful, with over $130 million cut from the environment department in the recent budget. I can only hope that more voices will continue to join in the fight against such irresponsible government, and help to protect our precious and highly stressed environment.

Editors Note: Since this article was written, and partly due to community pressure, the Wimmera Catchment Management Authority (CMA) has stepped in to save the orchid lab and to take over many of the orchid recovery plans. With union help a handful of DSE staff have managed to save their jobs. However things are still looking grim. Many front-line workers in DSE, the CMA and the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) across Victoria have lost their jobs in the cost-cutting blitz, and many budgets cut. This will have massive implications for environmental management. DSE has announced that it will be moving to rely on volunteers for much of their work, a ridiculous scenario considering the huge level of time and experience required.