Fire inflames other threats to native animals

29 September 2014

Ecologists are meeting in Alice Springs today to share findings on native mammal decline and how northern Australian landscapes can be better managed to reverse it.

Australia’s tropical savannas are one of the most fire-prone environments in the world, due to the region’s long dry season. These savannas make up around 20 per cent of the country’s landmass and 75 per cent of the total area burnt each year.

Recent research has implicated predation by feral cats as a major driver of mammal decline, but cat predation may be influenced by other factors such as fire, which may also have direct impacts on mammal numbers.

Mammals can survive during and after some fires, but their ability to find cover and food, and to reproduce or retain their numbers can be drastically reduced.

Northern Australia Hub theme leader Graeme Gillespie is chairing a special session on mammal decline, as part of the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference.

“The session presents an excellent opportunity to compare notes on research findings. The plight of native mammals is a complex problem, and we need evidence to deliver a solution to that problem,” Dr Gillespie said.

“Many people start fires without it being part of an overall plan to manage the landscape. We could increase the survival chances of native mammals by managing fire to reduce its frequency, extent and intensity.”

Dr Gillespie’s research team is part of the National Environmental Research Program, supported by the Australian Government. It draws together more than 100 researchers and a variety of partners.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is one such partner, and has been leading the way in improved fire research and management. Working with several partners, AWC’s EcoFire project has halved the area burnt in wildfires and doubled the area of old growth vegetation across a four million hectare area in the Kimberley.

Research undertaken at AWC’s Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary has shown that fire is one threat which allows other factors like predation by feral cats to have a much bigger impact on native mammal populations.

“Mammal mortality is likely to be higher after more intense fires because after an intense fire, extensive burnt ground offers few refuges and mammals are easily picked off by cats,” Dr Sarah Legge, AWC Chief Scientist said.

“A key success of EcoFire is its collaboration with Indigenous communities and pastoralists. By involving land managers in the research it helps them to see and manage the problem.

“Fire management protocols need to be evidence-based. They should also include targets that leave large areas unburnt for between three and ten years, and ongoing monitoring.”


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