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Murray-Darling systems not assessed for endangered listing after officials warned Coalition would not support it | Environment

Struggling river and wetland systems in the Murray-Darling Basin were not assessed for listing as critically endangered after officials warned the Morrison government would not support protecting them.

Environment department staff said the two ecological communities were “clear candidates” for assessment for a critically endangered listing, documents released under freedom of information show. But the environment minister, Sussan Ley, was “unlikely to support” their inclusion on the 2019 list of species and habitats under consideration for protection, they told the threatened species scientific committee.

The department also told the committee the work required to do the assessment would have “significant resource implications”.

The two communities are known as the “wetland and inner floodplain of the Macquarie Marshes”, and the “Lower Murray River and associated wetlands, floodplains and groundwater systems from the junction of the Darling River to the sea”.

Waterbirds breeding at Macquarie Marshes.
The Macquarie Marshes. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Both were listed as critically endangered by then environment minister Mark Butler in the final days of the Labor government in 2013.

After the Coalition won government, both listings were disallowed under the new environment minister, Greg Hunt. It followed a campaign against the critically endangered listings by the National Irrigators Council.

Humane Society International, the organisation behind the nomination that led to the 2013 listings, renominated the river and wetlands systems for assessment for a critically endangered listing last year.

In a briefing to the threatened species scientific committee, officials said a tool the department used for conservation assessments had ranked the two communities as the highest priorities from a conservation perspective among a group of five ecological communities nominated for listing in 2019.

But neither made it on to the proposed priority assessment list, which is given to the environment minister to consider before they determine the nominations that will make it on to the final list.

The briefing to the committee is the same document that led to Guardian Australia last week revealing the government had stopped listing major threats to species under national environmental laws.

An environment department spokesman said assessments of new species and ecological communities “were prioritised over revisiting past decisions”. He said the minister had included two ecological communities and 31 species on the 2019 finalised priority assessment list as a result of recommendations from the scientific committee.

A spokesman for Ley said the department made decisions after considering “competing merit and priority”.

“In this case the matter has been previously considered and determined by parliament,” he said.

The spokesman said Ley had launched “one of the most comprehensive assessments of threatened species impacts” since last summer’s bushfire crisis .

In reasons published on its website, the department said “several scientific reports relevant to the assessment of the river and wetland systems would be released during 2019, which will greatly assist the automatic reconsideration of this nomination in 2020”.

Evan Quartermain, Humane Society International’s head of programs, said there was already more than enough scientific evidence to support listing of the two communities.

“By allowing overwhelming evidence to be disregarded for basically any reason during the listing process, our current environmental protection framework allows politics to influence something that should be purely scientific,” he said.

“It’s discretion that has the potential to send species extinct and collapse entire ecosystems.”

Quartermain said the organisation should not have had to renominate the communities given both had been protected in 2013 after thorough assessments.

He said disallowance of listings was frustrating and “highly inappropriate”. He hoped it would be addressed through the review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that is under way.

“Science, not politics, should be the only basis for listings but it’s clear that as it stands this isn’t always the case,” he said.

Labor’s environment spokeswoman, Terri Butler, said it was “outrageous” the Morrison government had not followed scientific advice. She said the government was attempting “to influence the outcomes of scientific processes designed to protect our environment”.

Richard Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, said the scientific research on the two communities showed both had high levels of biodiversity and were degrading significantly as a result of reduced flooding.

“The question would be: why were they ruled out at that first step?” he said.

“Ideally you want an objective process for assessing these things and then you can decide what your options are [to manage areas needing protection] after that. That’s a fundamental issue here.”

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