The Victorian Government stands accused of all but guaranteeing the extinction of threatened Mallee birds as a consequence of its bushfire prevention policy. The Mallee emu-wren, in particular, is just one fire away from being wiped from the planet.
The claim is made in a new report from Birdlife Australia, being tabled this weekend at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, that names five “Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas” in Australia that are in danger of permanent destruction.
The areas are defined by strict global criteria by Birdlife International, and represent the most important sites for birds in the world. There are 314 in Australia – and five of them, including the Victorian Murray Mallee, are in danger of losing the species for which they were nominated.
The report – written by Samantha Vine, Birdlife Australia’s head of conservation, and Guy Dutson, a world authority on birds of the south-west Pacific region – says the Victorian government’s target of prescribed burning 5per cent of public land each year “represents a significant extinction risk for threatened Mallee birds”.
It says vegetation in the Mallee “recovers slowly after fire” and, to be suitable for threatened Mallee species, “cannot be reburnt for at least 15 to 20 years”.
“If the policy continues modelling shows that within the next 20 years virtually all Mallee vegetation will be less than 20 years old, making it uninhabitable for threatened Mallee birds,” Ms Vine said.
BirdLife Australia’s position is in line with that of Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission implementation monitor Neil Comrie, who has repeatedly recommended that the government reconsider its area-based planned burning program and replace it with a more strategic risk-based approach.
Ms Vine said Birdlife Australia had repeatedly written to the government to call for change. “There’s been a lot of buck-passing and talk about future mechanisms, including a possible strategic assessment. But the burning is happening right now,” she said.
Victoria is yet to meet the 5 per cent annual target, with firefighters hamstrung by unsuitable weather.
Victorian Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the Coalition was already adopting a risk-based strategic approach to planned burning, using local knowledge, the latest science, community consultation and bushfire simulation technology.
“A re-elected Napthine Coalition Government will continue to deliver a planned burning program that is focused on reducing the risk of bushfire to lives, property and biodiversity, in addition to implementing a hectare-based target recommended by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.”
Labor also supports the 5 per cent prescribed burning target.
In May, Birdlife Australia hosted an emergency summit on the mallee situation attended by fire experts, ecologists and representatives of the federal and state governments.
Other species in the Mallee at risk include the endangered black-eared miner, vulnerable Malleefowl, the red-lored whistler, and the eastern sub-species of the western whipbird and regent parrot.
The Birds Australia report named areas in the Lower Hunter Valley in NSW, Norfolk Island, Budjamoola in north-west Queensland, and the Patho Plains and Riverina Plains as in danger of losing species that make them internationally significant.
Senior Reporter for The Sunday Age