Silver headed Antechinus Antechinus argentus at Bulburin National Park; Photo: Harry Hines.
An unexpected change of scenery
The Australian bushfire season of 2019/20 was unprecedented in terms of its scale and intensity. In Queensland, over 7 million hectares was burnt, including important habitats for more than 600 threatened plant and animal species. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. In southern Queensland, the preceding extensive drought exacerbated the impact of these bushfires on our native biota, which was already experiencing limited water availability, habitat cover and food resources.
The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) rangers had to close many parks, clear fallen burnt trees, and ensure safe access for the on-ground post-fire assessments. Control of specific weeds and pest animals was initiated to help protect key biodiversity values. QPWS and other staff from across the Department of Environment and Science established a process to map fire extent and severity within protected areas. By comparing satellite imagery before and after a fire, an area was allocated to one of five severity classes (unburnt to extreme) which was field checked to ensure accuracy. The level of fire scorch or consumption of the canopy (e.g. trees in a forest; shrubs in a heathland) was a key part of the assessment. The spatial patterns of fire severity were then overlaid with regional ecosystems, as well as the locality records and predicted habitats for native species, to assess ecological impacts and provide recommendations for QPWS park management. The lessons learnt, and the assessment methodology created, will facilitate a faster approach to post-fire evaluation in the future.
Planning the journey
To prioritise recovery efforts for flora and fauna classified as threatened under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992, QPWS considered the overlap of their known and potential distribution with fire extent. Scientific experts then reviewed the maps and identified important on-ground actions that could ensure their persistence in the landscape and support their recovery. The outcomes were checked against a broader scale analysis undertaken by the Australian Government for species listed as threatened under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. QPWS then established a program dedicated to the recovery of fire impacted threatened species with funding from the Australian Government’s Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery program, guided by their Expert Panel. Researchers, non-government organisations and community groups also received Commonwealth funding for threatened species recovery on both public and private lands across southern Queensland.
The QPWS-led Bushfire Recovery Program has projects focussed on the recovery of 52 priority threatened plant and animal species across four locations: Gondwana World Heritage Area; Great Sandy and Noosa National Parks; Oakview and Nangur National Parks, and; Bulburin National Park. In addition, experts at the Queensland Museum considered which invertebrate species had restricted distributions and other attributes that made them vulnerable to the impacts of severe fires across these areas. A total of 47 spider, insect and crayfish species were identified for initial survey, with other groups, like snails, yet to be assessed. They include moss dependant bugs, rainforest dwelling king crickets, wetland reliant dragonflies and leaf-litter dependant spiders. The tiny pelican spiders (genus Austarchaea) are especially of conservation concern, being an ancient lineage with multiple short-range species endemic to different localities across the Gondwana World Heritage Area and which are little changed from their fossilised relatives of 150 million years ago.
Sharing the challenge
In collaboration with the Queensland Herbarium, each QPWS Bushfire Recovery project is being led by a highly qualified scientist to plan and deliver priority recovery actions. These include: protecting any critical unburnt refugia from fire in the short term; undertaking surveys to establish the state of priority threatened species’ populations; targeting weed and pest animal control to protect habitat and reduce predation, and; supporting programs to augment populations that are in significant decline or genetically isolated. The QPWS fire severity mapping has steered project efforts to fire sensitive communities that were burnt, as well as to more fire-tolerant vegetation types that were subject to very extensive or severe fires. The 2019/20 fires burnt significant areas of fire-sensitive ecosystems, such as remnant semi-evergreen vine thickets at Oakview National Park, and rainforests – including the high-altitude temperate rainforests (over 1300 metres above sea level) of Mount Superbus in Main Range National Park.
The conservation status of the priority species in the QPWS projects vary from ‘Near Threatened’ in Queensland (such as the Albert’s lyrebird) to ‘Critically Endangered’ at the national level (the Nangur skink). The Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area contains the most biota for post-fire evaluation with 22 threatened plant species, and 13 vertebrate species including: the eastern bristlebird, rufous scrub-bird, Coxen’s fig-parrot, Fleay’s barred frog, spotted-tailed quoll, brush-tailed rock-wallaby, Hastings River mouse, New Holland mouse and long-nosed potoroo. By working closely with QPWS, other Commonwealth grant recipients are delivering complimentary activities to those underway on national parks to contribute to a more effective landscape-wide approach to wildlife recovery. For example, the natural resource management group Healthy Land and Water have been undertaking urgent weed control projects in Lamington National Park and adjoining areas to help QPWS manage this immediate threat to the regeneration of native plant species.
In the coastal wallum and heath of Noosa National Park and the Cooloola section of the Great Sandy National Park, the recovery needs of species such as the wallum sedge frog, southern emu-wren and oxleyan pygmy perch are being assessed. At Bulburin National Park, the nationally endangered Bulburin nut is being surveyed in collaboration with university students and to ensure the conservation of genetic variability for this species, the Macadamia Conservation Trust is establishing populations of Bulburin nut outside of the park. QPWS will continue to collaborate with organisations that can help the recovery of threatened species and protect them from the risk of future bushfires. The proactive management of fire hazards or complimentary pest control programs on properties adjoining protected areas, such as by private landholders and First Nations people will be an essential part of ongoing efforts to protect our unique biodiversity, especially those most at risk from the impacts of a changing climate.