Councils shouldn't be forced by law, but rather encouraged, to map and protect biodiversity hot-spots in their districts, Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) argues.
Under draft recommendations just proposed by the cross-sector working group, now being reviewed by the Government, councils would be directed to map in their plans "significant natural areas" for biodiversity.
Further, the Biodiversity Collaborative Group (BCG) recommended councils be made to ensure that any subdivision or development within one of these areas avoid harming or disrupting species living within them.
It also encouraged councils to protecting wetlands, restore natural cover in areas where it had been depleted, carry out surveys of species that moved between habitats and consider the impacts of climate change.
If progressed, councils would be required to work with tangata whenua, landowners and the wider community to set local targets and strategies.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council chair and head of LGNZ's regional group, Doug Leeder, welcomed the recommendations.
But he questioned whether councils should be regulated to undertake the work.
Leeder said protecting biodiversity involved working with private landowners who were voluntarily contributing, and bringing in new regulation could compromise that.
Further, he said, councils varied in size and some rural councils covered large areas but didn't have the resources of urban councils with bigger rates bases.
The BCG – made up of organisations including Federated Farmers, Forest & Bird, the Environmental Defence Society and the Iwi Chairs Forum – however recommended that smaller councils be assisted with central Government resourcing where it was required.
The recommendations comprised a proposed new National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity (NPS-IB).
National policy statements act as rulebooks that set out bottom lines for councils making plans under the Resource Management Act.
While statements have already been put in place for freshwater management, urban development and renewable electricity, this was the first time one had been drafted to save New Zealand's declining native biodiversity.
BGC trustee and Forest & Bird lawyer Sally Gepp described the 18-month process as a "breakthrough" - there had been several unsuccessful attempts under previous governments to write bottom-line rules for biodiversity.
"Just as importantly, the group has collaborated to identify measures beyond the NPS-IB that should make a real difference for our native species and ecosystems."
Federated Farmers board member Chris Allen said the group had agreed a "step-change" was needed to conserve the country's declining species for future generations.
"With a significant proportion of New Zealand's remaining indigenous biodiversity on private land, we want to enable local communities and landowners to continue their great conservation work on the ground, while also giving them certainty and clarity through more effective RMA plans."
Gepp said New Zealand continued to lose its unique flora and fauna, largely due to habitat loss and introduced pests.
Of our native species, 81 per cent of birds, 72 per cent of freshwater fish, 88 per cent of reptiles, 76 per cent of marine invertebrates and 39 per cent of vascular plants are either threatened or at risk of extinction.
It was already too late for 32 per cent of our land birds and 18 per cent of our seabirds, along with 12 invertebrates, possibly 11 plants, a fish, a bat and perhaps three known reptiles.
"Without clear, directive policy, it can be hard for decision-makers to see the cumulative impact of incremental habitat loss," Gepp said.
"The draft National Policy Statement is intended to help to provide a national perspective ensure native species, ecosystems and habitats are front of mind in decision-making about how people use, develop and protect natural resources."
The effort stood separate to work on a new national biodiversity strategy, announced by Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage last month.