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Bushfires Devastate Australian Biodiversity, with Species Extinction Likely

kangaroo wildfire Australia

Melbourne-based John Englart describes himself as a “reluctant climate warrior” and convenor of Climate Action Moreland. This post is adapted by permission from his blog.

With six million hectares burnt and counting, Australia’s bushfire disaster is a climate emergency that also reveals the country facing a major extinction crisis.

The latest statistics on the fires, according to France 24: 10.3 million hectares burnt, more than one billion wildlife affected, with extinction likely for some species, 400 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, more than 2,000 homes and many more sheds and structures destroyed, 26 dead, 129 fires in New South Wales and 40 in Victoria still burning, air pollution choking major cities and many regional towns, and A$700 million in insurance claims so far.

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“We estimate most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt,” writes a group of six Australian conservation biologists and one fire scientist that includes the University of Sydney ecologist Chris Dickman. “Such species include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo, and the spring midge orchid.”

Probably about 80% (my very rough estimate) of the total area burnt is in New South Wales (NSW), with five million hectares so far. Many of the forests and national parks in the Great Dividing Range from the far north coast to the Victorian border have burnt or are burning.

Another million hectares are now burnt in Victoria, in East Gippsland and northeast Victoria.

Smaller areas have burnt in South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania.

Bushfires are also threatening our alpine areas in Victoria and NSW, a very special ecosystem. The fires in all states include sensitive ecosystem areas such as wet rainforests in Queensland and northern NSW that were never expected to burn, Kangaroo Island in South Australia, cool temperate rainforests in Tasmania, and Eucalypt rainforests in East Gippsland in Victoria, all with a wealth of threatened species.

A Billion Wildlife Killed

In a January 3 media release, Dickman reported that an estimated 480 million wildlife had been affected by the bushfires in NSW alone.

“The figure includes mammals, birds, and reptiles and does not include insects, bats or frogs,” the release said. “The true loss of animal life is likely to be much higher than 480 million” with all species counted.

The release adds that Australia has had one of the world’s highest regional extinction rates over the last two centuries since European settlement. “Some 34 species and subspecies of native mammals have become extinct in Australia over the last 200 years, the highest rate of loss for any region in the world.”

Days later, The Huffington Post reported that “the number of wildlife estimated to have died in Australia’s bushfire catastrophe has skyrocketed to more than one billion.” Dickman told HuffPost his original estimate “was not only conservative, it was also exclusive to the state of New South Wales and excluded significant groups of wildlife for which they had no population data.”

Species Impacts in New South Wales National Parks

The Gospers Mountain bushfire has had a large impact on the Blue Mountains, Wollemi, and Dharug National Parks west of Sydney. The Newcastle Herald lists the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, turtles, tiger quoll, and local populations of platypus, citing Australian Reptile Park’s Tim Faulkner.

Other threatened species known to live in the national parks include the squirrel glider, grey-headed flying fox, grey-crowned babbler, speckled warbler, brown treecreeper, broad-headed snake, black-chinned honeyeater, masked owl, barking owl, turquoise parrot, east coast freetail bat, black bittern, and brush-tailed phascogale.

The Blue Mountains are also the “final stronghold” of a critically endangered bird, the regent honeyeater, states the Australian Association and New Zealand for the Advancement of Science website. Just 250 to 400 of these striking black and yellow nectar feeders remain, and an estimated 80% of breeding pairs nest in the Greater Blue Mountains.

Researcher Kellie Leigh, executive director of the non-profit conservation organization Science for Wildlife, estimated two-thirds of the Wollemi-Hawkesbury koala population has been lost in the bushfires, reports The Age. Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley estimated up to 8,400 koalas, up to 30% of the local population, may have perished in the bushfires on the mid-north coast of New South Wales from November through late December.

(Details as of September 2019: Greater Blue Mountains list of threatened animals [PDF] and list of threatened plants [PDF].)

A 90-Million-Year Genetic Inheritance at Risk

There are fewer than 100 plants of the Wollemi Pine in the wild, in four small patches at a secret location in the World Heritage-listed Wollemi National Park, in NSW’s northern Blue Mountains. The species was only discovered in 1994. The tree has since been propagated and can be bought at selected nurseries. But the bushfire threatens its existence as part of an ecological habitat. At least three patches of the tree were thought to have been burnt in the Gospers Mountain Fire. The state of the fourth patch was unknown as of December 26.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation says the species has a genetic inheritance going back 90 million years.

In the Wollemi National Park, 37 species are currently listed as endangered (15) or vulnerable (22), with another 50 species considered nationally rare. In a 2008, study [PDF], Stephen A.J. Bell outlined the park’s rare or threatened vascular plant species.

Victoria Bushfires Hit New Protected Areas

Threatened species in East Gippsland affected by the Victorian fires include the greater glider, the long-footed potoroo, the brush-tailed rock wallaby, the spotted-tail quoll, the yellow-bellied glider, and the diamond python, The Age reports.

New protected areas in the East Gippsland forests were only announced by the Labor state government in November. Most of them have since been substantially burnt out in the fires that ravaged the area in late December and early January.

The Statewide Integrated Flora and Fauna Teams website lists 91 species of threatened birds, 31 species of threatened mammals, 18 species of threatened fish, 12 species of threatened reptiles, 12 species of threatened amphibians, and nine  species of threatened invertebrates in the 31,740-square-kilometre East Gippsland shire. Many of these populations would be heavily impacted by the bushfires, especially those located in burnt forest areas.

A ‘Fiery Inferno’ on Kangaroo Island

In South Australia, a third of Kangaroo Island has been subsumed in a fiery inferno wiping out much of its sensitive ecosystems. The habitat of the endangered southern brown bandicoot has been obliterated by fire. It is also feared the Kangaroo Island dunnart habitat was totally destroyed and the species may very well have been incinerated, such was its limited range.

The nests of glossy black cockatoo were also destroyed, but even more alarming is that their primary food source has been substantially destroyed. These birds have a highly specialized diet, the seeds of the drooping sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata). These trees once covered the hills of the Fleurieu Peninsula, the southern Mount Lofty Ranges, and Eyre Peninsula, but are now found mainly on Kangaroo Island. The birds that escaped the fire through flight may suffer starvation with the destruction of many of these trees.

The green carpenter bee, now found primarily on King Island and thought to be extinct on the South Australian mainland and in Victoria, is at heavy risk of having its nesting sites substantially obliterated by the fires on Kangaroo Island’s western end.

The island’s population of 50,000 koalas is thought to have been halved by the fires, The Guardian reports. This population of koalas, which was introduced to the island from the mainland, is one of the few which are chlamydia-free.

Kosciuszko National Park

There are fears of bushfires destroying the habitat of endangered mountain pygmy possum and the southern corroboree frog in the 6,900-square-kilometre Kosciusko National Park and Victorian alpine areas. This endangered possum is already under threat due to the dramatic drop in Bogong moths, an important food source, migrating to alpine areas in summer months.

The Kosciuszko National Park is home to at least 23 threatened native plant species, 11 native animal species, and five ecological communities, according to the Reclaim Kosci campaign to reduce feral horses in the park and stop the damage they do to alpine ecosystems.

Western Australia – Cape Arid and Stirling Range

The western ground parrot continues to dodge extinction for the moment, but unless relocation and breeding funds are found the species is at high risk. Some lucky weather spared important habitat in Cape Arid National Park near Israelite Bay from burning in the Cape Arid bushfire in December, reports the Kalgoolie Miner.

Between Boxing Day and the new year, bushfires also destroyed 40,000 hectares in the Stirling Ranges National Park, 400 kilometres southeast of Perth. The Stirling ranges is renowned for the threatened montane heath and thicket ecosystem, with 1,500 species of flora and at least 87 plant species found nowhere else on Earth. Half of the park was burnt.

The Approved Conservation Advice for Eastern Stirling Range Montane Heath and Thicket [PDF] lists the threatened species in detail.

Keith Bradby, CEO of private conservation enterprise Gondwana Link, described the park as “one of the most precious jewels of the region,” adding that frequent fires have put species under a lot of stress.

The Stirling Ranges host one of the few remaining mainland colonies of quokkas. “It’s one of the few mainland populations of quokkas left, and they were in that part of the park,” said Bradby. “Whether they’re going to rebound, I can’t tell.

“And the Montaigne thickets are already damaged because of dieback,” he added. “Whether they’re on a downhill trajectory or whether we’ve terminated it—we don’t know.” But back-to-back, short interval fire seasons do not augur well for the biodiversity of the area.

Department of Biodiversity and Conservation (DBCA) south coast regional manager Greg Mair said fires had burned in the park on a similar scale in 1991, 2000 and 2018, but the interval between fires is key for many species survival.

“Some of these species require really long intervals before they can produce viable seed, and if you have too frequent a fire, that starts to reduce the seeding capacity and the reproductive capacity of the plant,” he explained.

Fire Where It ‘Wasn’t Meant to Go’

The Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science reports that much of the known range in Queensland of the silver-headed antechinus “has been obliterated by fires” in the Bulburin National Park. It is estimated just a few hundred individuals remain of this carnivorous marsupial mouse-like species, and the park has the largest of the three known populations. Individuals might take refuge in rock crevices to survive the fire, only to emerge to habitat without shelter or food, according to Diana Fisher, a mammal ecologist at the University of New England in Armidale.

“If they lose all of their leaf litter and ground cover, then they’re not going to persist,” Fisher said, adding that in the past antechinus from other areas might have repopulated vacated territories but habitat fragmentation now makes that nearly impossible.

The Bulburin National Park also harbours an endangered native macadamia species reduced to fewer than 150 remaining trees. According to Fisher, satellite images suggest fire may have reached all three parts of the park that have the trees. There are 14 rare or threatened animals of Bulburin National Park.

In early news, ABC News reported that bushfires devastated rare and enchanting wildlife in “permanently wet” forests that burned for first time along the spine of the Great Dividing Range, between the Hunter River and southern Queensland. These forests very rarely see bushfire, are normally considered far too wet to burn. They harbour a wealth of flora and fauna, some of which is found nowhere else. Species include the Albert’s lyre bird, rufous scrub bird, the log runner, the tree creeper, the cat bird, and the pouched frog.

In particular, the northern long-nosed potoroos plays a unique role in these ecosystems. Australia has the world’s greatest diversity of truffles found in the roots of our eucalypts. The fungi that produce the truffles keep the eucalypts healthy. The potoroos eat the truffles, and spread the fungi through their feces. “They are a keystone species, keeping the whole landscape together and healthy,” said Nature Conservation Council fire specialist Mark Graham.

“We are seeing fire going into these areas where fire is simply not meant to go,” he added. “The fauna in these landscapes requires permanently wet conditions, and many of the fauna species in these landscapes simply have no tolerance to fire.”

He elaborated on the bushfire threat to the two-centimetre-long pouched frog in this blog post of an audio interview in November 2019.

The World Heritage Centre raised questions in November about the bushfire damage to the Gondwana rainforests along the Great Dividing Range. These forests, part of Australia’s world heritage listing, date back 180 million years to the separation of the Gondwana supercontinent.

The Antarctic Beech forests are a notable feature of the cool temperate rainforests. The World Heritage listing includes the largest areas of subtropical rainforest on the planet, some warm temperate rainforest, and nearly all the world’s Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest. There are about 40 separate reserves between Newcastle and Brisbane, with the rainforest reserves surrounded by fire-prone eucalypt forest and farms, reports The Guardian.

In October 2018, the Australian World Heritage Advisory Committee warned the then environment minister, Melissa Price, that climate change had significant implications for world heritage properties.

 “Many of these forests are supposed to be too wet to burn, but local and global inaction on climate change is supercharging the length, intensity and range of bushfire seasons,” said Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy. “Australia must take stronger domestic action and leverage that into pushing for stronger global action so we do not lose our world heritage sites forever,”

In late September, bushfires destroyed Binna Burra lodge in the Lamington National Park rainforest in southern Queensland, just west of the Gold Coast. The area is home to more than 200 rare and threatened plant and animal species.

 “Rainforest is fire retardant,” said Queensland herbarium ecologist Dr. Rod Fensham. “It has this shady canopy that supresses all the ground fuel, it has a cool moist microclimate, it breaks the wind, it has every trick in the book to supress fire. But in extreme conditions, it can burn.”

The bushfires in this national park started on private land in drier eucalypt forest. They were exacerbated by unusually hot, dry winds that swept across much of Queensland and New South Wales.

“We’ve never experienced fire conditions like that in September, let alone in the first week of September,” said retired NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins. “The weather conditions that we experienced were off the scale.”

The list of rare and threatened species for Lamington National Park includes nine species of mammal, 11 birds, three reptiles, four amphibians, one fish, and one insect.

Visit Englart’s blog for more detail.