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Priority threat management of invasive plant species in the Lake Eyre Basin

CSIRO, 2013

Jennifer Firn (QUT), Tara Martin, Belinda Walters, John Hayes (QUT), Sam Nicol, Iadine Chades, and Josie Carwardine (CSIRO)

Executive summary

This project is led by scientists in conservation decision appraisal and brings together a group of experts working across the Lake Eyre Basin (LEB). The LEB covers a sixth of Australia, with an array of globally significant natural values that are threatened by invasive plants, among other things. Managers at various levels are investing in attempts to control, contain and eradicate these invasive plant species, under severe time and resources limitations. To date there has been no basin-wide assessment of which weed management strategies and locations provide the best investments for maximising outcomes for biodiversity per unit cost. Further, there has been no assessment of the extent of ecosystem intactness that may be lost without effective invasive plant species management strategies. Given that there are insufficient resources to manage all invasive plants species everywhere, this information has the potential to improve current investment decisions.

Here, we provide a prioritisation of invasive plant management strategies in the LEB. Prioritisation was based on cost-effectiveness for biodiversity benefits. We identify the key invasive plants species to target to protect ecosystem intactness across the bioregions of the LEB, the level of investment required and the likely reduction in invasive species dominance gained per dollar spent on each strategy. Our focus is on strategies that are technically and socially feasible and reduce the likelihood that high impact invasive plant species will dominate native ecosystems, and therefore change their form and function. The outputs of this work are designed to help guide decision-making and further planning and investment in weed management for the Basin.

Experts in weed management, policy-making, community engagement, biodiversity and natural values of the Basin, attended a workshop and agreed upon 12 strategies to manage invasive plants. The strategies focused primarily on 10 weeds which were considered to have a high potential for broad, significant impacts on natural ecosystems in the next 50 years and for which feasible management strategies could be defined. Each strategy consisted of one or more supporting actions, many of which were spatially linked to IBRA (Interim Biogeographical Regionalisation of Australia) bioregions. The first strategy was an over-arching recommendation for improved mapping, information sharing, education and extension efforts in order to facilitate the more specific weed management strategies. The 10 more specific weed management strategies targeted the controlling and/or eradicating the following high-impact exotic plants: mesquite, parkinsonia, rubber vine, bellyache bush, cacti, mother of millions, chinee apple, athel pine and prickly acacia, as well as a separate strategy for eradicating all invasive plants from the threatened ecological community, the GAB (Great Artesian Basin dependant) mound springs.

Experts estimated the expected biodiversity benefit of each strategy as the reduction in area that an invasive plant species is likely to dominate in over a 50-year period, where dominance was defined as more than 30% coverage at a site. Costs were estimated in present day terms over 50 years largely during follow up discussions post workshop. Cost-effectiveness was then calculated for each strategy in each bioregion by dividing the average expected benefit by the average annual costs.

Overall, the total cost of managing 12 invasive plant strategies over the next 50 years was estimated at $1.7 billion. It was estimated that implementation of these strategies would result in a reduction of invasive plant dominance by 17 million ha (a potential 32% reduction), roughly 14% of the LEB. If only targeting Weeds of National Significance (WONS), the total cost was estimated to be $113 million over the next 50 years. Over the next 50 years, $2.3 million was estimated to eradicate all invasive plant species from the threatened ecological community, the Great Artesian Basin Mound Springs. Prevention and awareness programs were another key strategy targeted across the Basin and estimated at $17.5 million in total over 50 years.

The cost of controlling, eradicating and containing buffel grass were the most expensive, over $1.5 billion over 50 years, and was estimated to result in a reduction in buffel grass dominance of a million ha in areas where this species is identified as an environmental problem. Buffel grass has been deliberately planted across the Basin for pasture production and is by far the most widely distributed exotic species. Its management is contentious, having economic value to many graziers while posing serious threats to biodiversity and sites of high cultural and conservation interest. The strategy for containing and locally eradicating buffel grass was a challenge to cost based on expert knowledge, possibly because of the dual nature of this species as a valued pastoral grass and environmental weed. Based on our conversations with experts, it appears that control and eradication programs for this species, in conservation areas, are growing rapidly and that information on the most cost-effective strategies for this species will continue to develop over time.

The top five most cost-effective strategies for the entire LEB were for the management of: 1) parkinsonia, 2) chinee apple, 3) mesquite, 4) rubber vine and 5) bellyache bush. Chinee apple and mother of millions are not WONS and have comparatively small populations within the semi-arid bioregions of Queensland. Experts felt that there was an opportunity to eradicate these species before they had the chance to develop into high-impact species within the LEB. Prickly acacia was estimated to have one of the highest benefits, but the costs of this strategy were high, therefore it was ranked 7th overall. The buffel grass strategy was ranked the lowest (10th) in terms of cost effectiveness. The top five most cost-effective strategies within and across the bioregions were the management of: 1) parkinsonia in the Channel Country, 2) parkinsonia in the Desert Uplands, 3) mesquite in the Mitchell Grass Downs, 4) parkinsonia in the Mitchell Grass Downs, and 5) mother of millions in the Desert Uplands. Although actions for several invasive plant species like parkinsonia and prickly acacia were concentrated in the Queensland part of the LEB, the actions involved investing in containment zones to prevent the spread of these species into other states. In the NT and SA bioregions of the LEB, the management of athel pine, parkinsonia and cacti were the main strategies.

While outside the scientific research goals of study, this work highlighted a number of important incidental findings that led us to make the following recommendations for future research and implementation of weed management in the Basin:

  • Ongoing stakeholder engagement, extension and participation is required to ensure this prioritisation effort has a positive impact in affecting on-ground decision making and planning.
  • Short term funding for weed management was identified as a major reason for failure of current efforts, hence future funding needs to be secure and ongoing.
  • Improved mapping and information sharing is essential to implement effective weed management
  • Due to uncertainties in the outcomes and impacts of management options, strategies should be implemented as part of an adaptive management program.

The information provided in this report can be used to guide investment for controlling high-impact invasive plant species for the benefits of biodiversity conservation. We do not present a final prioritisation of invasive plant strategies for the LEB, and we have not addressed the cultural, socio-economic or spatial components necessary for an implementation plan. Cost-effectiveness depends on the objectives used; in our case we used the intactness of ecosystems as a surrogate for expected biodiversity benefits, measured by the extent that each invasive plant species is likely to dominate in a bioregion. When other relevant factors for implementation are considered the priorities may change and some actions may not be appropriate in some locations. We present the costs, ecological benefits and cost-effectiveness of preventing, containing, reducing and eradicating the dominance of high impact invasive plants through realistic management actions over the next 50 years. In doing so, we are able to estimate the size of the weed management problem in the LEB and provide expert-based estimates of the likely outcomes and benefits of implementing weed management strategies. The priorities resulting from this work provide a prospectus for guiding further investment in management and in improving information availability.