Climate Change, fires and logging – the deadly combination for Victoria’s species

Two hundred years ago the Sooty owl was abundant and fed on about 18 species of ground prey in Gippsland. Today they have only two or three to chose from. Other species are under similar pressure.

Many of our native animals have become sparser in numbers and their range has shrunk. Some, like the Southern Brown Bandicoot (Federally listed but not State listed), are now isolated in small “island” populations which are dangerously close to extinction mainly due to threats of fire and predation. Fires destroy understorey cover, making it easy for foxes and dogs to wipe out small populations of ground dwelling animals.

The 2003 fires and the recent December ’06 fires have destroyed the habitat and ground cover over about 2 million hectares of Victoria’s forested country. This has had a horrifying impact on ground mammals, birds and hollow dependent species.

Scientist and Quoll expert, Dr Chris Belcher, has calculated that this species’ Victorian numbers were reduced by 33 – 45% as a result of the ’03 fires. The December ’06 fires would have reduced this again to even more precarious numbers.

The isolated colony of Long Footed Potoroos discovered around Wonangatta (or Wongongara?) will most likely have been killed as a result of the recent fires.

The Helmeted Honeyeaters had five small and isolated populations left but the 1983 fires wiped out four of them. Yellingbo is still likely to burn and our faunal emblem will be extinct on this planet.

Bandicoots are very fire sensitive. There are small and vulnerable populations scattered in Gippsland. In 1994, fires burnt 97% of the Royal National Park and Bandicoots no longer survive in this area. The safety of thick ground cover does not return for years, meaning foxes and dogs heavily predate any survivors.

East Gippsland is the last stronghold for many of our rare and endangered fauna. It is a wetter environment and has much higher floristic diversity and therefore animals.

Climate change will now make fires more frequent and intense in SE Australia (CSIRO). Governments must adapt management of natural areas to account for this reality as it is for agriculture, water and energy.

The greatest pressure on Eastern Victorian species has been in the Critical Weight Range from 35 gms to 5 kg. Many ground dwelling animals are extremely susceptible to fire. Potoroos, Quolls, Bandicoots, native rodents (the rare New Holland Mouse, Smokey Mouse etc).

The predation rate after a fire is huge and patches of unburnt forest within the fire zones are absolutely essential to help populations survive predation, recover and disperse in time. These areas are critical to protect from further disturbance.

The recovery of species after a fire is now very different from 200 yrs ago. Populations are more isolated, salvage logging further destroys their chances, there is less diversity of prey species for the higher order predators like owls and quolls to turn to if gliders and possums are impacted by fires (or logging the hollow-rich forests).

Logging ecologically diverse forests favours the return of biologically poor tree communities such as silvertop and stringybark. The forests with mixed gum and box throughout can have 20-50 times higher animal densities. Significant vegetation changes due to massive landscape disturbance such as clearfelling, makes endangered species recovery from fire even more unlikely.

In the 1990s, East Gippsland supported seven times more threatened species than other areas in Victoria. This made the region seven times more important for our endangered species’ survival. Since the fires of 03 and 06, it is not unreasonable to suggest that East Gippsland is the last refuge and last chance for these species to survive extinction. Extinction can happen very quickly.

Species which are fairly general in their roosting, nesting and feeding needs can often survive (as they have in other areas of the state) but the many specialist species which rely on large areas of diverse and thick forest are highly likely to vanish forever.

This is why the hasty and unscientifically mapped areas of newly reserved forest require careful refinements. The needs of the state’s threatened species must be made the priority. Independent biologists and on-ground local knowledge (not VicForests) must be used to finalise the new reserve boundaries, with the long-term impact of the recent fires as a major guiding factor.

The Bracks Government suggested there be no net loss of resource as an adjunct to the mapped reserve areas. This is an impossible and irrational qualification as fires can take out large percent of the forest and therefore wood resources in one season. Commercial use of forest should be allocated only after biologically essential considerations have been adequately addressed.

Another point made in pre-election promises was to make sure the new areas are mapped and industry changes are resourced so as to adhere to the terms and spirit of the RFA. This then should see the government honour its long overdue commitment 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. None have been honoured in the last 10 years!

The recent court ruling regarding the EPBC Act should also give the state government substantial opportunity to begin to alter protection measures for Federally listed species in east Gippsland.

The conscience of this government cannot put the very limited future of several sawmills ahead of a large number of entire species. Continued logging of intact original forests must not be the overriding priority. The ability for species to cope with the escalating impacts of climate change and fires from 2007 onwards has to now be put ahead of politics and union threats. These species survived well in Australia for over 40,000 years. The clearfell logging industry has been around for less than 40 years. Political priorities have an even shorter lifespan.


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