Pastoral leases in the Pilbara cover 10.6 million hectares, about 60% of the region. About a quarter of that area is leased by mining companies and an eighth by Indigenous interests. The remaining two-thirds of the estate is mainly leased by individuals or Australian companies.
Twenty-two of these ecological communities have more than 20% of their total extent on pastoral leases.
Almost 1 million hectares of pastoral leasehold land (9.2% of the estate) have been identified as investment hotspots for the Pilbara Environmental Offsets Fund. The Land Administration Act 1997 requires pastoral lessees to manage their lease ‘to its best advantage as a pastoral property’ and ‘use methods of best pastoral and environmental management practice’, and the Pastoral Lands Board must ensure that ‘pastoral leases are managed on an ecologically sustainable basis’. However, a 2017 audit by Western Australia’s auditor general found there was no agreed understanding of what ecological sustainability required and that administration of leases was inadequate to achieve it. Noting there had been at least 8 reports since 1940 highlighting systemic problems with pastoral land management, the auditor general said progress to halt a decline in pastoral land condition had been limited.
Pastoralists manage some threats that impact both biodiversity and productivity – particularly feral herbivores such as donkeys and camels and weeds such as mesquite. Other threats to biodiversity such as feral cats and buffel grass are mostly not managed because they are either not a threat to production or, in the case of buffel grass, they are valued for production.
As for other land managers, the primary banes for pastoralists are feral animals, weeds, and fire. Controlling these threats mostly makes economic sense and is legally required. The draft pastoral management guidelines suggest that Traditional Owners, ‘if engaged appropriately’, could provide significant insights and assistance – for example, by applying Aboriginal fire regimes. Once Indigenous ranger teams have sufficient capacity, they may be available for mutually beneficial arrangements with pastoralists that enable Traditional Owners to reconnect to their country and provide pastoralists with skilled management services.
A stewardship scheme could be coupled with a covenanting program to enable long-term protection for significant sites. In Queensland covenants cover 4.5 million hectares (equivalent to 26% of the Pilbara), most of it on pastoral leases.
One source of potential funding for conservation work on pastoral properties is the Pilbara Environmental Offsets Fund. About 1 million hectares of pastoral lands have been classed as investment hotspots.
Stewardship – protection of significant sites and species
The high conservation values of the pastoral estate are compelling reason for the Western Australian Government to develop a rangelands stewardship scheme. This was recommended in a 2009 review by the Department of Primary Industries, and the lack of such a scheme was noted in the 2017 audit of pastoral land management. Stewardship schemes often provide both pastoral and environmental benefits – for example, waterpoint management to protect springs and rivers can achieve higher quality drinking water for cattle and better stock control. They also contribute to creating a social licence for pastoralism, an increasing focus of the industry. There is an emerging national commitment by industry associations to strengthen support for stewardship, exemplified by the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework  and the National Farmers Federation’s call for an environmental stewardship fund to help farmers achieve a 2030 vision of being recognised as ‘trusted and proactive stewards’. The Australian Government recently announced a $30 million agriculture biodiversity stewardship pilot program.
There are currently few opportunities in the Pilbara for carbon farming by the conservation methods accepted under the federal government’s Climate Solutions Fund. But this may change soon with the likely expansion of the carbon industry into the Pilbara.