24 March 2020

Full impact of devastating Namadgi fire damage is still difficult to assess

| Dominic Giannini
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National Parks employees search for fresh signs of Koalas after fire. Photo: Dave Gallan.

National Parks employees search for fresh signs of koalas after fire. Photo: Dave Gallan.

Proposals for recovery projects in the Namadgi National Park are starting to flow, three weeks after the rapid risk assessment report found 23 extreme and high-risk areas that needed priority attention.

Over 80 per cent of Namadgi and 22 per cent of the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve were burned during the Orroral Valley fire. Around 20 per cent of these areas burned at a high to very high severity level.

Senior ecologist and conservation researcher at the Environment, Planning, and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) Dr Renee Brawata told Region Media that it is incredibly difficult to assess the full effect the fires had on the ecosystems.

“We do not have enough data or knowledge on a lot of the species that are impacted,” she said.

“You have the complexity of things such as migratory species that might not have been there when the fire came through but they rely on the habitat for migration.

“They might not be present during the fire or survive the fire but their habitat is destroyed. They are impacted but not directly.”

Orroral Valley fire

The impact of the Orroral Valley fire. Image: EPSDD.

Earlier this year, Federal Labor called for an ecological audit to assess the full impact the fires had on local ecosystems amidst estimates from Professor Chris Dickman, a Professor in Terrestrial Ecology at the University of Sydney, that one billion animals had been killed because of the bushfires.

However, Dr Brawata said this would be incredibly difficult to conduct in places like Namadgi.

“It is funding and resources, but the key is having adequate methods for being able to detect [species]. Koalas, for example, are very difficult to detect by walking around and doing active searches because you can walk underneath one and not even see it,” she said.

“The most up-to-date method we have is using detection dogs because they have a much better success rate.”

But what the recovery assessment does show is the scarcity of ecological data.

“What is does highlight is the paucity of data that we have for some of the more cryptic and vulnerable species; we do not have a good handle on the numbers or distribution of some of these animals,” she said.

“They are in very low numbers and they are very hard to detect. Maybe that is something that has been highlighted by these fires, that we really do not have a good grip on what we have and where they are.

“It is very hard to make robust management decisions when you do not have the numbers of distribution over different species.”

But the immediate concern for conservationists at Namadgi and Tidbinbilla is not on a species audit, but rather on protecting vulnerable fauna from predators and habitat loss.

Orroral Valley fire. Namadgi National Park Photo: Michael Weaver, Region Media

Feral animals are returning to Namadgi, putting more pressure on species recovery. Photo: Michael Weaver.

As the first signs of recovery are beginning to sprout from recent rains, threats to the fauna remain long after the fire stopped burning. Feral animals are putting more pressure on species recovery, from hunting vulnerable animals to destroying regenerating habitats.

Species like the Reiks crayfish (which had 95 per cent of its habitat in the ACT burnt) and the broad-toothed rat (where 10 of 13 surveyed locations were impacted by fire) need a quick response from conservationists for the species’ longevity.

“The important point to make is that the ecosystems are quite resilient and they are already recovering,” Dr Brawata said. “We are just giving them a helping hand in those early phases where it is needed.

“We are working towards a recovery plan that will assess and appropriately address the threats to native fauna populations, with a focus on populations of threatened species that are of national concern.”

Plans like targeted predator control, providing habitats like nest boxes for vulnerable animals and minimising the impact of sediment runoff after the recent rain by removing debris from streams to improve water quality and protect native fish species are all being utilised to help the recovery effort.

“A wildlife response plan is being drafted to address immediate and long-term actions,” Dr Brawata said.

“This includes the establishment of a triage area, the appointment of a wildlife vet to oversee animal care and a wildlife assessment team to assess wildlife health in fire impacted areas.”

Restoring areas impacted by fire will also require help from the Canberra community. Those who wish to help can register their interest via the ParkCare Hub.

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rationalobserver10:48 pm 22 Mar 20

This is just tinkering around the edges. What’s going to change so that fires can be managed inside our National Parks?

Capital Retro9:44 pm 21 Mar 20

I don’t know why there needs to be any assessment after this fire, after all the same areas have been burnt out many times before.

And I don’t think one needs to be an academic to work out that feral animals will eventually wipe out native fauna, not bushfires.

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