What are ecological communities and why are they important?
An ecological community (EC) is a group of native plants, animals and other organisms that naturally occur together and interact in a unique habitat. Its structure, composition and distribution are determined by environmental factors such as soil type, position within the landscape/seascape (e.g. altitude/depth), climate, and water availability, chemistry and movement (e.g. oceanic currents). Species within each ecological community interact with and depend on each other—for example, for food or shelter. Listed ecological communities include grasslands, woodlands, shrublands, forests, wetlands, marine, ground springs and cave communities.
Examples already listed under Australia's national environment law—the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)—include the Natural Temperate Grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain, Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens, Littoral Rainforest and the Weeping Myall Woodlands, to name a few.
Ecological communities are important because of their unique combination of native biodiversity, distinctive landscape/seascape values, vital habitat qualities and for the ecosystem services they provide. These include the natural management of air, water and soil nutrients; the reduction or control of erosion and salinity; provision of breeding/feeding habitat for species (e.g. for fish species) and carbon storage. Their natural values also contribute to the tourism and recreation industries and the productivity of farmlands and fisheries. In addition, ecological communities have strong cultural significance for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
What is a threatened ecological community (TEC)?
Australia's unique bush, wetlands and other habitats have been placed under enormous strain since European settlement. Many of these pressures are increasing. An ecological community becomes threatened when it is at risk of extinction. That is, the natural composition and function of the ecological community have been significantly depleted across its full range. This can occur for a number of reasons including clearing of native vegetation, inappropriate fire regimes, non–native or invasive species, climate change, water diversion, pollution and urban development. Because of these threats, many ecological communities in Australia have undergone, and continue to be affected by a rapid and significant reduction in geographic distribution and/or ecological function.
In Australia three categories exist for listing threatened ecological communities (TECs) under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act): critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable. For more information on these categories see ‘How does an ecological community become listed as threatened?’
Why does the Australian Government list threatened ecological communities?
The Australian Government is responsible for identifying and protecting matters of national environmental significance (NES) through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). These include world heritage properties, national heritage places, internationally important wetlands (Ramsar wetlands), listed migratory species, Commonwealth marine areas, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, nuclear actions and nationally threatened species and ecological communities.
Listing threatened ecological communities is a form of landscape or systems level protection. These communities provide vital wildlife corridors and habitat refuges for many plant and animal species, including threatened species and other Australian plants and animals that are in decline.
Protection through the EPBC Act complements other conservation measures, and is particularly vital for species and ecological communities that occur outside conservation reserves.
The national listing of ecological communities follows a rigorous and transparent assessment process that involves workshops and discussions with scientific experts, and consultation with stakeholders and the public, culminating in advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC). This committee is an independent scientific body that advises the Australian Government environment minister on the conservation of native species and ecological communities. Listing ecological communities recognises that their long–term survival is under threat. The aim of listing is to prevent further decline and to promote recovery through landholder and community efforts.
How does an ecological community become listed as threatened?
Nominated threatened ecological communities are listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) after a rigorous and transparent scientific assessment. Once a nomination has been prioritised for assessment by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) there is extensive consultation with experts and also a public consultation period of at least 30 business days.
Anyone may nominate a native species, ecological community or threatening process for listing under any of the categories specified in the EPBC Act. There are three categories under which ecological communities can be listed:
- Critically endangered:
If, at that time, an ecological community is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future (indicative timeframe being the next 10 years).
If, at that time, an ecological community is not critically endangered but is facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future (indicative timeframe being the next 20 years).
If, at that time, an ecological community is not critically endangered or endangered, but is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium–term future (indicative timeframe being the next 50 years).
- Nomination process
- Listing assessment process (including currently prioritised assessments)
What does listing a threatened ecological community achieve?
Listing of threatened ecological communities (TECs) recognises that key natural assets are under tremendous pressure and a 'whole of system' or landscape approach to environmental protection is necessary. This means that extra protection is given to the threatened species which live within the community. In addition, protection is also granted to species that are not yet listed themselves as threatened (yet are often in decline).
Listing is also an important conservation tool because TECs often represent native bush and other habitats for a large and diverse range of species that are least represented in conservation–related tenure (for example, national parks and nature reserves). Therefore, not only do listed ecological communities represent some of the native vegetation types, aquatic systems and other unique wildlife habitats that are the most depleted and threatened, they also often receive the least protection through other conservation mechanisms.
In cases where there is overlap with conservation–related tenure, the threats often still apply. Therefore, listing complements other conservation and threat management measures for these TECs and for the wildlife that rely on them for survival.
In addition, listing is valuable for increasing awareness of nationally significant ecosystems, habitats and native species that are under pressure. It provides a significant starting point from which other management decisions can be made to arrest, minimise or reverse the decline of threatened native plants, animals and ecosystems.
Conservation advices are prepared at the time of the listing. This document presents a description of the TEC, usually with condition thresholds that identify when a patch remains in good condition, and outlines priorities for conservation, research and recovery. Additionally, a recommendation on whether a recovery plan should be prepared is made at the time of listing.
What does the listing of an ecological community mean for land managers or potential developers?
In areas where TECs occur, adequate protection and appropriate land use practices are important to ensure the ecological community persists to benefit future generations.
A listing under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) does not prevent land managers from continuing land practices which were started before the EPBC Act came into effect, providing that the activity is lawful and not significantly intensified.
National protection means new or intensified activities that may have a significant impact on the listed ecological community should be referred to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment for assessment.
The EPBC Act allows for some exemptions to the requirement for assessment and approval. This means that some activities may not need to be referred for an assessment or approval under certain circumstances. However, failure by proponents to refer an action that has a significant impact on the listed ecological community may have legal consequences such as financial penalties and/or remediation orders.
Those activities that may require referral under the EPBC Act include, but are not restricted to:
- changes to natural drainage regimes, such as the diversion of water, affecting the ecological community
- clearing of the ecological community, dumping of spoil, construction of structures fragmenting the community or impeding natural water balances (e.g. causeways, raised fence lines)
- clearing of native vegetation adjacent to the listed community or in the immediate upstream catchment such that drainage regimes supporting the ecological community are affected
- land reclamation and/or dredging in areas where a listed ecological community occurs, or in the vicinity of the ecological community such that parameters critical to the survival of the ecological community are affected
- significant and adverse changes in management regimes affecting the community, including too frequent or too infrequent fire
- new weed management regimes that pose significant risk to the listed community (e.g. aerial spraying), and
- allowing new access for domestic stock and other grazing animals (e.g. where there has previously been no access) or significant intensification in the numbers of animals with access to the ecological community.
It is also important to note that some plant or animals species occurring within remnants may also be protected individually under the EPBC Act. Therefore, any activity which may significantly impact on these listed species may also require approval. In addition, some occurrences of a TEC fall partially within places included on the National Heritage List or within Ramsar sites (internationally recognised wetlands).
Is funding available to protect ecological communities?
Land managers or community groups may be eligible for funding to help preserve or restore remnants of ecological communities. Funding through Australian Government initiatives such as the Green Army, National Landcare and 20 Million Trees programmes may be available for activities undertaken which have an environmental benefit.
How do nationally listed ecological communities relate to State & Territory listed ecological communities?
In addition to the Australian government identifying and listing threatened ecological communities (TECs), some states and territories also have processes for listing ecological communities. Some of these processes are formal i.e. ecological communities are protected under relevant state/territory legislation, however, several jurisdictions do not have specific legal protection in place. Listing on a national level under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) ensures that a legal framework is in place for the conservation and sustainable use of TECs across all states and territories.
Where TECs are identified at both the national and state/territory level, national TEC listings endeavour to align with state/territory listings as much as practicable. Alignment reduces the risk of conflicting information and potential inconsistencies. However, different approaches to listing (including differences in scale of listings and listing criteria) mean that there may be some differences between nationally–listed and state/territory–listed TECs. For example, nationally listed ecological communities often identify ecological communities in terms of their national significance, and therefore definitions of these TECs may be more broad and extensive than state/territory listings (although state/territory listings are often incorporated within these broader national listings).
Also, some national TEC listings since 2005 specify 'condition classes' and/or 'condition thresholds', which determine which occurrences of a TEC are of highest conservation significance under the EPBC Act. Condition thresholds are intended to focus national legal protection on patches or occurrences of a TEC that are functional, relatively natural and in relatively good condition. Some patches of TECs may be in a heavily degraded or modified state and therefore would not meet the condition thresholds. These patches do not currently receive legal protection but they may be restored to meet the condition thresholds and thus receive full national protection in the future.
What threatened ecological communities are listed nationally?
For further information on which TECs are listed nationally, refer to:
- the full list of national TECs protected under the EPBC Act
- the map of national TECs by state and territory, or
- SPRAT to search for a particular TEC.