16 Aug Know thy challenges
Due diligence would demand that “you do your homework” before you take your first step in the field. This blog just hints at the concepts and challenges that you may face as you go through the planning process to set up a survey.
So where do we start?
We should always refer to the guidance statements released by the EPA to help us through this process. The big BUT is that we really do need to see these as outlining minimal requirements, and the intent should always be to build upon these guidance statements and NEVER work down to them.
The previous blog discusses the development of a robust set of questions that will define your approach to the projects. In this blog we consider how the background research (i.e., “the homework”) will help in refining these questions by:
- Define the project area boundaries and adjacent local and regional context;
- Identify high risk issues (e.g., threatened species, ecosystems, long and medium term impacts);
- Undertake a literature and data search; and
- Consider potential logistic issues that may impact on data collection (i.e., the type of survey).
It’s all very reasonable and it would be expected to be done as a matter of course. But it is surprising how sometimes they just get only a passing look or are just not undertaken at all.
Being remiss on this “homework” will be very evident in the final reports. They tend to lack substance and read like attempts at producing a species list (and sometime, incredibly, in alphabetical order). There is little context and little in the way of critical analysis. From such reports it is often difficult to develop management recommendations, determine risk assessments and suggest alternatives and options to project designs.
Our role as consultants is to mostly to undertake Impact Assessments. Without an understanding of what we are faced with it is unlikely that we can satisfy the implied requirements of the Impact Assessment process.
Analysis of impacts requires knowledge of what is there (and if possible, a historical perspective on what may have been there), the current status of the fauna and ecosystems and then we can consider what impacts our proponent’s development may have.
We have a number of avenues for our literature and database searches. There is quite a good deal of data out there and publicly available. There is also substantial “secret squirrel” data that is often not released without pleading prostrations at the feet of regulatory authorities (given that much of that data was provided by consultants in the first place, the difficulty in accessing it is somewhat mystifying – but that is another discussion).
While looking through the data, be aware that quite a lot of it is now getting a little long in the tooth. This is just a little example using the broad-scale vegetation community data included in the WA Biodiversity Audit that seems to be a ubiquitous inclusion in so many reports. The figures are often used to describe the likely impact of a particular project as a fraction of the available area for each habitat within that region. The fact that much of that regional vegetation community area data is now at least 10 years old, and most is much older, doesn’t seem to be taken into account or mentioned as a caveat/limitation on these assessments. A lot of things can happen in 10 years including the cumulative impact of other projects (e.g., loss in connectivity, changes in landscapes), other anthropogenic impacts (e.g., fire regimes, introduced pasture grasses) and climatic conditions (e.g., drought, changes in long-term weather conditions).
Don’t limit your literature and database searches to the immediate area of the project. The potential is always for anthropogenic disturbances to bleed well beyond those administrative boundaries that we see drawn on maps. For example, a corridor such as a pipeline or road can have substantial impacts on the immediate surrounding for quite a distance along its route (e.g., surface water drainage, physical barrier, road kills); upstream developments can have significant and catastrophic impacts on downstream areas (e.g., Ok Tedi, Ranger Uranium Mine).
Getting back to the nitty-gritty of designing a survey, all of this background reading should give you quite a good indication of what could be the major environmental concerns (i.e., risks) for your project.
They could include general ecosystems and landscapes, specific habitats and particular species. The likelihood of such risks will refine your questions and shape the design of the survey. You may need to consider a combination of survey techniques that will provide good broad scale baseline data but also target certain species. You may find that the requirement is simply for a site inspection. It may involve the use of passive survey techniques over a much longer period as would be prudent for rare species (rare species are generally described as rare because they are infrequently encountered). Or for greenfield sites in less well researched regions, a multi-season, multi-year study would be more appropriate.
It is very important to schedule trapping surveys at the most ecologically effective and relevant times of the year. The fauna and ecosystems do not, in any way, comply with the time scales contrived by humans. To ensure maximum efficacy the survey program must be designed to take full advantage of seasonal variations. No matter of wordsmithery will ever justify badly scheduled surveys and their results.
And let’s not forget to make sure you have the right mix of expertise in your survey teams to adequately cover all aspects of you survey. Using surveys to improve the knowledge of less experienced field ecologists is very important, but so is ensuring that the maximum (and relevant) amount of information is garnered from the survey. So if you send out less experienced staff, always make sure they are being closely mentored in the field by an “old head”.
The “homework” process is dynamic and will differ from project to project. But what it should always do is to give a clearer picture of an effective, ecologically relevant and efficient survey plan.