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Lizzie Springs

25 August 2015

Dear Ebb,

Regarding the Roberts’ family and their recent disappointing trip to Elizabeth Springs, in Queensland’s arid west, unfortunately I can only concur: the place is a disgrace.

That a nationally endangered community of species – they that inhabit the unique Great Artesian Basin springs – are basically left abandoned and invaded by the neighbour’s cattle should be of concern to everyone: not just fish people. There are plants and inverts out there too that are also getting knocked around.

The plight of Lizzie Springs, as mused about by Dave as he trekked around the forlorn puddles, is definitely uncertain, and it raises several broader issues that touch on everything from endangered species management to the role of agencies, our role as concerned fish people and – even more broadly – our role as citizens.

Elizabeth Springs is managed by the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service. ‘Managed’ here is an enthusiastic term. Every now and again a posse of rangers head out there – once every few years. I’m sure they do a few things, but then they go away again, and the only visitors in the interim are people like the Roberts mob: most grey nomads whizz on by. However, Dave’s is not the first critique I’ve heard. Quite a few travellers have raised the same concerns – some fishy, some less so.

At a local level the problem is that QNPWS has been absolutely gutted – and not just by the slash-and-burn Newman governmental experiment. It actually started before that. Over the last ten years I’ve watched their office in Longreach go from a staff of about ten down to three. On any given day, if you call in there now, it’s like a ghost town: all locked up, with a sign saying ‘please ring this number’ stuck on the door. QNPWS have zero capacity to do anything about Elizabeth Springs: it’s just a bit of dirt they inherited. And even if they wanted to, they have no expertise in spring ecology. They’d have to buy that in, but they can’t do that because they haven’t got any money.

At a national level, everything that lives in the cow-shit-infested puddles at Lizzie Springs is just as endangered as any other spring greebly, but the Feds don’t have any capacity either. They shuffle the paperwork with ‘endangered ecological community’ written across the top, but they can’t award a contract to remove and exclude the livestock, monitor the endangered species and keep an eye on the place. They haven’t got any money either. This is one of the biggest flaws in our main piece of environmental legislation – the EPBC Act. They rely on the goodwill of others to manage our endangered species, so it’s a bit like a tightrope walker at a circus. Most will probably fall off – eventually.

As biologists and ecologists it should be our role – and Dave’s having a red-hot go – to highlight these issues: to try and improve the situation. But it’s not easy. My suggestion would be to raise the issue at fora like the ASFB Threatened Species Committee. At least that way the Feds get a letter from an organisation rather than a guy on holiday. But even so, it’s questionable whether it’d raise too many eyelids in Canberra. Unfortunately, most people don’t give a rat’s about fish. Or snails. Or weird plants. This is where we come in again. It should also be part of our job – all of us – to bang on about this stuff as much as possible. Every little bit helps. Elizabeth Springs goby are just as endangered as blue whales and night parrots. The fact that they’re small and live in puddles in the desert shouldn’t make a difference.

To answer Dave’s overriding question, I’m not sure what the future of Elizabeth Springs is. There are three GAB spring complexes in western Queensland that I’m acquainted with. At Edgbaston there are still intact ecological communities and there’s a chance they’ll persist, but it requires a lot of on-going effort. In the Mulligan group, out on the edge of the Simpson Desert, the show’s already over. There’s still water, but not much else. Generations of cattle, camels and pigs have likely caused plenty of local extirpations. There’s every chance endemic fish used to be there, but if they were they’re long gone now. Elizabeth Springs is right in the middle, both geographically and in terms of ecological condition. It could go either way, so I guess it’s up to us to awaken the citizenry and get them to become a little more interested in their endangered species, and maybe a little less interested in their new house or car.

Unfortunately, listing species or communities as ‘endangered’ doesn’t mean much until the wider population start caring.

Yours sincerely,

Adam Kerezsy