New research reveals damage caused by the catastrophic 2019-2020 Australian bushfires could lead to a dramatic jump in the number of native species at risk of extinction.
Led by the University of Queensland, the collaborative study – involving researchers from La Trobe University – is the first comprehensive, continental-scale assessment of the impact of the 2019-2020 bushfires on native wildlife.
The researchers found 21 threatened species – including several species found in Victoria such as the long-footed potoroo and eastern bristlebird – are among 70 animals which have had more than 30 per cent of their habitat affected by the blazes.
They also found 49 species not currently listed as threatened now warrant assessment for listing under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, including the Kate’s leaf-tailed gecko, superb lyrebird and the long-nosed bandicoot.
La Trobe ecologist Dr Jim Radford said protecting unburnt habitats was critical to species recovery.
“The single most important recovery action we can take is to protect unburnt refuges that may be supporting threatened species and species that have been heavily impacted by the fires,” Dr Radford said.
“We urgently need on-ground surveys to assess where species are hanging on, and then proactive management of threats such as feral predators, feral herbivores and weeds.
“It is also critical to reduce disturbances, such as logging and further fires, in both unburnt and burnt habitat to increase the chances of survival for species hit hard by these fires.”
Lead author, UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences PhD candidate, Michelle Ward, said about 97,000 square kilometres of vegetation in southern and eastern Australia burned, with that land considered habitat for at least 832 native animal species.
“Many of the species impacted by these fires were already declining in numbers because of drought, disease, habitat destruction and invasive species,” Ms Ward said.
“Our research shows these mega-fires may have made the situation much worse by reducing population sizes, reducing food sources and rendering habitat unsuitable for many years.”
“If these EPBC assessments find that all 49 animals meet listing criteria, the number of threatened Australian terrestrial and freshwater animals would increase by 14 per cent,” she said.
“We need to learn from these events as they are likely to happen again.”
The research team included 24 scientists from UQ, Wildlife Conservation Society, University of Sydney, La Trobe University, James Cook University, The Nature Conservancy, BirdLife Australia, Charles Darwin University, Australian National University, CSIRO, Charles Sturt University and Macquarie University.
The research has been published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
PHOTO: Long-footed Potoroo, credit to George Bayliss