By Dr Viyanna Leo, Wildlife Ecologist, and Dr Hannah Sheppard-Brennand, Science Communicator
Nearly three billion animals were displaced or perished in the devastating megafires that swept across south-eastern Australia last summer (2019-2020). The fires were unprecedented in extent and intensity, burning through approximately 12.6 million hectares of the landscape (larger than the size of Tasmania). The damage is sobering, particularly when viewed in the context of the worsening effects of climate change. But the fires have also compelled conservationists to come together with renewed focus, working to improve our land management practices and develop methods to assist ecosystems to recover after intense wildfire.
To support native wildlife and habitats on the road to recovery, Australian Wildlife Conservancy is working in partnership with governments, private landholders, conservation organisations, scientists and supporters, and continuing to assess the environmental impacts of the megafires.
Progress on Kangaroo Island spells new hope
The wildfires blazed across nearly half of Kangaroo Island (KI) – around 200,000 hectares – razing up to 95 per cent of the known range of the KI Dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni) and catapulting this little marsupial to the top of Australia’s most endangered mammal list. To urgently protect the dunnart and other fire-affected species, AWC, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife and local landholders, the Doube family, with the assistance of the Australian Army, established a 13.8-hectare feral predator-free critical refuge in just 10 days in February 2020.
Now, construction of the conservation fence to protect a further 370 hectares – the Western River Refuge (Stage 2) – has commenced. This important project is not only supporting post-fire recovery but also building a secure, long-term refuge for the island’s threatened wildlife.
AWC’s feral predator ecology research has demonstrated that cats pose a particularly significant threat to wildlife after large fires, preferentially hunting in fire scars where shelter is scarce. To reduce this threat, daily feral predator control is being undertaken in Stage 2, on private land and within the newly-formed North West Conservation Alliance. A camera trap grid has also been established across Stage 2, allowing for targeted control of individual cats. More than 40 cats have been removed to date, and more are being removed every week.
Ongoing wildlife monitoring is underway across the project area. Encouragingly, a suite of threatened species – including the KI Dunnart, Southern Brown Bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus), Southern Emu-wren (Stipiturus malachurus halmaturinus), Western Whipbird (Psophodes nigrogularis lashamri), Bassian Thrush (Zoothera lunulata), Heath Goanna (Varanus rosenbergi) and KI Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus multiaculeatus) – are regularly detected at monitoring sites. Fauna surveys are planned within the Stage 2 refuge area in Spring 2020.
Conserving the Koala
The megafires are estimated to have destroyed or impacted 24 per cent of Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) habitat on public land across New South Wales. In June 2020, a parliamentary inquiry into Koala populations found that the species is on track to become extinct in NSW within the next 30 years and highlighted the urgent need to prioritise the protection of Koala habitat. In response, AWC is actively investigating acquisition of one or more properties to contribute to the conservation of the Koala.
AWC is seeking to acquire land in strategic locations that can have a significant positive impact on the future of the species as a whole, so stay tuned. AWC is also participating in workshops on Koala conservation across the State and looking to contribute to projects that might restore Koala habitat to cleared land.
Ecological assessments crucial for recovery planning: Wollombi Valley
Prior to the megafires, Wollombi Valley – a gateway to the Hunter Valley in NSW – was home to a variety of threatened species, including the Koala, Glossy Black- Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami), Spotted-tailed Quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), Squirrel Glider (Petaurus norfolcensis) and the Regent Honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia). During the 2019-2020 fire season, multiple fires scorched large swathes of Hunter Valley habitat leaving surviving wildlife with limited available refuge and an increased risk of extinction.
In collaboration with Wollombi Landcare and with generous support from WIRES, the Commonwealth Bank and others, AWC is assessing the impacts of the bushfires across at least 17 private properties in the Wollombi Valley. Equipment acquisition and initial surveys have already been completed, and a second round of surveys (including call playback for owls and spotlighting for arboreal mammals, diurnal bird surveys, amphibian surveys and camera trap surveys for small mammals and feral predators) kicked off in September.
These ecological surveys will provide crucial information on the impacts of the fires. Importantly, they will also provide post-fire baseline data on the presence, relative abundance and species richness of mammals, birds and amphibians across a range of vegetation communities. These data will inform restoration planning and enable the success of future land management actions to be measured, including the deployment of artificial refuges, ground cover, nest boxes and watering stations to assist the surviving wildlife while habitat and resources replenish. In collaboration with the University of Sydney, AWC will investigate the use of artificial refuges in the post-fire recovery of small mammal populations.
Promising results: Kewilpa Reserve
South Endeavour Trust’s Kewilpa conservation reserve in northern NSW was severely impacted by the bushfires. In the immediate aftermath, AWC was invited to conduct post-fire surveys to assess the state of surviving wildlife. The results are promising, confirming the survival of three locally threatened species: Barking Owl (Ninox connivens), Brown Treecreeper (Climacteris picumnus victoriae) and Little Lorikeet (Parvipsitta pusilla). Eight bird surveys, four spotlight surveys and 3,335 camera trap nights recorded a total of 17 mammals, 46 birds, 12 amphibians and five reptiles, providing crucial baseline data for the reserve and a template for future surveys on the property.
AWC is committed to effective conservation and supporting Australia’s ecosystems on the road to recovery. Bushfire recovery priorities identified by the government – protecting refuge habitat, controlling feral animals and reintroducing threatened species – are already integral components of AWC’s innovative conservation model being implemented across our 30 sanctuaries and partnership sites. Australia’s wildlife needs effective conservation action and AWC’s practical, collaborative approach is helping to restore the country’s native species and natural assets.
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