‘Grossly underfunded’ RBGs face ‘impossible job’ controlling WA’s pest species

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenCountryman
Warren Biosecurity Inc. project leader Josephine Mead.
Camera IconWarren Biosecurity Inc. project leader Josephine Mead. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

The spokeswoman of a defunct biosecurity task force in WA’s south has laid bare the “impossible” job facing “grossly underfunded” landowner groups responsible for supporting control of declared pest species.

Warren Biosecurity Inc. was on the cusp of becoming an official Recognised Biosecurity Group when, at the 11th hour, it folded amid ongoing frustration from Warren and Southern Forests landowners.

Under the Biosecurity and Agriculture Act 2007, RBGs are funded by rates levied from property holders by the Office of State Revenue, with the WA Government equally matching all funding collected under the declared pest rate.

But critics of the rating system say the onus is increasingly falling on landowners to fund activities the State should pay for.

Former WBI project officer project officer Josephine Mead said funding for Landcare and natural resource management was becoming “scarcer and scarcer”, leading to grant applications becoming more competitive.

“We’re grossly underfunded for this kind of work,” she said.

RBGs support the control by land managers of category three (widespread and established) pests, while the State manages categories one (newly arrived at the borders) and two (present, but in a small, eradicable population).

“Putting the management of pests in the hands of landowners is the right thing to do, because no one knows their land and their need better than does the landowner,” Ms Mead said.

“A farmer knows what declared pests he’s got on his property, how much he has to spend, and how to go about controlling them.

“The intent was for WBI to be managed by the community, but that community is complex.”

She said the financial model for releasing funds to the RBG was also “complex and restrictive”.

“That generated a lot of uncertainty within the community group, and without reliable funds from a declared pest rate, it would be extremely difficult to forward plan.”

Warren Biosecurity Inc. project leader Josephine Mead.
Camera IconWarren Biosecurity Inc. project leader Josephine Mead. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

RBGs are responsible for raising awareness and providing support, resources and expertise for pest management.

They are also responsible, particularly in the Southern Forests area, for co-ordination of activities across tenures.

“For example, a patch of blackberry which affects a farmer, DBCA (Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions), Shire and a couple of lifestyle properties needs all parties to collaborate on effective control work,” Ms Mead said.

Efforts to establish a Warren RBG began in 2016 under the guidance of Southern Forests Community Landcare, a not-for-profit also known as Warren Catchments Council.

Years of canvassing for community support followed, with a steering committee formed in March 2019 after grants were secured from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

When WBI held its first annual general meeting last October, the final vote was taken.

“In all of the public events that were held to that point, 70 per cent of the population supported not only the biosecurity group, but also paying a declared pest rate for that work,” Ms Mead said.

“When we took one last vote. . . almost unanimously people said ‘yes, let’s have a biosecurity group’, but when it came to support for the declared pest rate, emphatically they said, ‘no, we don’t want to pay for it’.

“Many members of the committee felt tarred and feathered, and just thought they couldn’t go on promoting this with the kind of backlash they’d had from their neighbours.”

WBI would have serviced the entire Shire of Manjimup — a 7000sqkm area including vast tracts of State forest and five major river systems.

About 80 per cent of land tenure within the Shire is Crown or State-owned, yet the private landowners who make up the remaining 20 per cent would have been responsible for funding RBG activities over the entire area.

Ms Mead said this was a major sticking point.

“There’s a huge disparity there, where such a small population (fewer than 5000 ratepayers) is required to pay the levy,” she said.

“That levy is matched by the Government dollar for dollar, which is fine, but it’s not nearly enough to cover the cost of what needs to be done on State-owned land.

“If every landowner is expected to do pest control for the declared pests on their property — and that includes Crown and State Government ownership — why isn’t their funding commitment to this area proportionate to that landownership?”

WA shadow treasurer Steve Thomas expressed a similar opinion, saying the State Government was “not doing its job”.

WA shadow treasurer Steve Thomas said State Government-owned lands were "the greatest sources of infestation for everybody else".
Camera IconWA shadow treasurer Steve Thomas said State Government-owned lands were "the greatest sources of infestation for everybody else". Credit: Ross Swanborough/The West Australian

“The biggest recalcitrant landowner — the landowner who is doing the least, proportionally, to control these pests — is government,” he said.

“The lands owned by government are the greatest sources of infestation for everybody else.

“Then landowners are paying a levy for a group of effectively volunteers, for the most part, to go out and do the job — often on government land — that government refuses to do.

“It’s no wonder landowners are furious.”

RBGs are usually governed by a board of volunteers and staffed part time, according to their budget.

Ms Mead said finding the right people to do the job was a challenge in itself.

“The work requires a distinctive level of professionalism, expertise and experience,” she said.

“In order to co-ordinate landowners, you need skilled project managers — those people are not going to do that as volunteers for long.”

Ms Mead is also a project officer for Southern Forests Community Landcare, working on small projects part-time in the Warren region while working on a mine site near Leonora.

SFCL is a not-for-profit community group affiliated to South West Catchments Council and WA Landcare Network, which are partially funded by the WA Natural Resources Management Program.

SFCL gets all its funding by a competitive grants application process, accessing a range of sources across Australia, and is supported with resources from the Shire of Manjimup.

A $34,166 State NRM Community Stewardship Grant secured by WBI last year is now being used by SFCL to set up a blackberry control demonstration site on the Upper Warren River.

Blackberry is one of the most widespread pests in the region and ranked number one in a survey of landholders about pests causing negative impacts.

A follow-up event is planned in September.

Other major pest species in Manjimup Shire include feral foxes, rabbits, pigs, cats and fruit fly.

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