Two hundred years ago the Sooty Owl was abundant and fed on 18 ground species of prey in Gippsland. Today they have two or three to choose from. Other wildlife’s ability to thrive is similarly threatened by decades of habitat change.
The conversion of habitat to farmland, decades of mining, logging and grazing, as well as altered fire patterns over the last 200 years has seen many species die out or become extremely rare. This means many once common native animals like forest owls and quolls are unable to recover from bushfires as they once would have. Our bettongs have disappeared and some, like the Southern Brown Bandicoot, are now isolated in small ‘island’ populations which are dangerously close to extinction mainly due to threats from fire and predation. Fires destroy understorey cover, making it easy for foxes and dogs to wipe out small populations of ground dwelling animals. In 1994, fires burnt 97% of the Royal National Park and bandicoots no longer survive in this area. Post bush fires, the situation in Eastern Victoria will be similar.
The 2003 and the more recent summer fires have destroyed habitat and ground cover in over 2 million hectares of Victoria’s forested country. This will have had a catastrophic impact on ground mammals, birds and hollow dependent species.
Quolls Gliders and Honey-eaters
Scientist and quoll expert, Dr Chris Belcher, has calculated that Victoria’s total Spot-tailed Quoll numbers were reduced by 33-45% as a result of the ’03 fires. The December ’06 fires will have reduced this again to even more precarious numbers. The fragmented nature of their preferred habitat now means they are less likely to recolonise from other areas, causing regional extinctions of this and other species.
Fires that burnt around Gippsland’s Mitchell River in 1965 wiped out the local population of Yellow Bellied Gliders; a species which requires large hollows for nesting. It’s taken 40 years for them to begin to recolonise after that fire. With more frequent fires predicted, every effort must now be made to consider wildlife in land management or it is likely that whole classes of animals will not return in our lifetime, or ever.
Another example closer to Melbourne is the Helmeted Honeyeater. The1983 fires wiped out four of their five small and isolated populations. With the impact of climate shift and more frequent and intense fires, their last sanctuary at Yellingbo is not guaranteed. A fire could wipe Victoria’s faunal bird emblem off this planet in a day.
Natural vs ‘managed’ fires
Wildfires have always taken out large old trees with hollows, ground cover that shelters and conceals small mammals, and leaf litter which provides invertebrate food for many species. A natural fire also leaves pockets of unburnt country, gullies and wetter slopes untouched which act as natural refuges for wildlife. From these sanctuaries they can recolonise the burnt forests when vegetation recovers.
The ability of our native species to recover from fire is even further diminished with added pressures of drought and intense weather patterns. Combine this with fire management practices which deliberately burn out any unburnt areas within a control line and back-burning thousands of hectares of forest to meet the fire front, and wildlife which is fleeing or taking refuge are trapped and burnt to death.
Salvaging – one too many injuries
To further add to this ecological tragedy, governments are under pressure from logging interests to allow post-fire clearfelling of forests. Native vegetation has evolved to recover from fire. Many trees resprout, tree ferns send out fronds quickly covering the fragile soils and landscapes begin to heal over. What forests can’t cope with is the additional severe disturbance of clearfelling and bulldozing while it is in its frail recovery stage. This is like subjecting a sever burns victim to brutal assault while in the recovery ward.
The word ‘salvage’ implies something is being saved or rescued. But the term ‘looting’, would be more appropriate to this type of post-fire activity. It is making convenient profit from a disaster .
Even without a fire, clearfelling ecologically diverse forests favours the regrowth of simplified tree crops such as silvertop and stringybark. Forests with gum and box mixed throughout can have 20-50 times higher animal densities. Vegetation changes due to clearfelling makes endangered species recovery from fire even more unlikely. Clearfell logging is the largest catchment disturbance that governments approved on public lands.
Tipping point for species
Just as climate change is at a tipping point so are many of our native species. As the recovery of wildlife after a fire is now very different from 200 yrs ago, it is critically important to protect as much of our original forest and ecosytems as possible if we are to avoid further extinctions. The government is bound to protect these endangered species under various Federal and State Acts.
Species which are fairly general in their roosting, nesting and feeding needs can often survive a regular bushfire but the many specialist species which rely on large areas of diverse and dense forest are highly likely to vanish forever. East Gippsland generally supports a wetter environment and has much higher plant and animal diversity. It is the last stronghold for many of our rare and endangered wildlife.
The Great South Eastern Ark
In the 1990s, East Gippsland supported seven times more threatened species than elsewhere in Victoria. This made the region seven times more important for endangered species protection. Since the ’03 and ’06 fires, it is not unreasonable to suggest that East Gippsland is now the last refuge for many animals. Extinction can happen very quickly.
This is why it is essential that the new forest reserves in East Gippsland that were hastily mapped out before last year’s state election be carefully reassessed and refined. The needs of the state’s threatened species must now take top priority. Independent biologists and ecologists, not foresters, must finalise the new reserve boundaries. The long-term impact of the recent fires are now the major consideration.
Commercial use of our forests should be weighed up against the biological consequences, including soils and water impacts. In 2007 this reality must be recognised.
Regional Forest Aggrievements
When the RFAs were drawn up, they bound the state government to carry out research into the impact of clearfelling on threatened species, to identify sustainability indicators, carry out five yearly reviews and ensure threatened species are protected. These commitments have never been honoured, yet the tenth anniversary of the signing of East Gippsland’s RFA fell on the 3rd February! The Bracks Government must urgently honour this long overdue obligation.
Species rescue is legislated
The recent Federal Court ruling regarding the powers of the Commonwealth EPBC Act should also give the state government the needed incentive to rescue the many Federally listed endangered species in Victoria.
This government must not put several sawmills ahead of a large suit of species. The ability for wildlife to cope with the escalating impacts of climate shift and fires are more important than ‘mates games’ within politics. These species have survived in Australia for hundreds of thousands of years. Clearfelling has been around for less than 40. Logging is much easier to limit than fires. This government has an obligation to the state’s native wildlife. An urgent decision is needed. Will Mr Bracks choose to preside over the extinction or the survival of our endangered species?