Saving Australia’s biodiversity

By John Pickrell 29 June 2011
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Rather than rushing to rescue individual species, scientists are using broad-scale solutions to save our wildlife.

ILLUMINATED BY A RED spotlight, a pair of small eyes peers down at us from 25m above in an aged and stately red box tree. “Surely that’s not a greater glider?” exclaims one of our small party. It’s a cold, wet winter’s night in Woomargama, in southern NSW, and we’re looking for squirrel gliders along a ‘green road’ – a patch of old-growth woodland – on Bruce Lynch’s farm. Our group includes Bruce’s son Mark, and Nigel Jones, a conservation manager with the Nature Conservation Trust of NSW (NCT).

We’re excited; greater gliders are normally found in the high country of Woomargama National Park, several kilometres to the south-east – not down here towards the Hume Highway. The excitement doesn’t last long, though; a few camera flashes reveal the eyes belong to a common ringtail possum. We see squirrel gliders the next day, but they have been trapped for an RTA-funded project monitoring highway populations and fitting poles to help the marsupials glide the 70 m needed to cross an otherwise insurmountable road barrier.

Bruce and Mark share a passion for squirrel gliders that has brought them closer together. It’s also revolutionised the way they manage their 356ha pastoral property, located in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Twenty-five kilometres north-west of the Murray River, the farm is near Albury, NSW. A key part of their approach has been to plant silver wattles and other trees that provide important habitat for gliders and threatened species such as migratory swift parrots, known to visit a neighbouring property.

“They have a right to live here just as much as we do. We have an obligation to look after them and the land looks after us,” Bruce says. “When I’m gone the land will look after Mark, and his kids’ll say, ‘Grandfather put all these trees in’ and there’s a bit of me in them. You develop ownership of these little gliders. It’s a legacy.”

Saving the environment: how to make a difference

Mark lived overseas for five years and found his way from London and Paris to the base camp of Mt Everest. “It wasn’t always my plan to come back…;but it had a lot to do with these conservation projects,” the 26-year-old tells me. “People ask, ‘What difference can it make if you turn off a light switch?'” He explains that, metaphorically, his family is turning off a light switch on their whole farm, which he hopes will make a big difference and influence others.

Nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of the Australian landmass is pastoral or agricultural land. Bringing farmers like Bruce and Mark on board for conservation is a key step in halting biodiversity decline and an important way to link fragmented habitats. Such connections are a major focus of some new conservation approaches. Other, bolder, more aggressive ideas – such as relocating species outside their known ranges and co-opting alien species to help battle native declines – come from left field.

Yellow box grassy woodland regenerating from farmland on Bush Heritage Australia’s
ttsdale reserve, near Canberra – part of the Great Eastern Ranges conservation corridor.

Conservation and palaentology in partnership to protect Australia

AGRICULTURE IS THE big problem,” proclaims Professor Mike Archer of the University of NSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Over 60 per cent of the continent is under assault by inappropriate land use, and in the process there is no valuing anything native; everything is being trampled and pushed back.” Contrary to popular opinion, mining is a much smaller problem. “Mining is only 0.2 per cent of that land area,” says Mike.

A genial Aussie with an American accent, Mike gesticulates as he meanders from one fascinating topic to another. He is drawn to unusual projects, which he describes as “walking out on the edge…where a lot of the good science is”. Although much of his current work focuses on conservation, his background is in palaeontology and he brings this knowledge into other arenas.

By examining extinction rates in the fossil record and Australia’s relationship to the size of different islands, Mike has calculated that to give all Australian species a good chance of surviving – whatever the future throws at them – will require a minimum of about 1.5 million sq. km of ‘conservation-viable’ land. Others have come up with similar figures.

As part of its Caring for Country initiative – released in 2008 – the Federal Government allocated $180 million to buy land, aiming to increase the National Reserve System from 11 per cent (890,000 sq. km) to about 15 per cent (1,250,000sq. km) of Australia by 2013. Private conservation group Bush Heritage Australia set a goal for itself of purchasing and protecting a further 1 per cent of Australia by 2025.

Mike agrees 1.5 million sq. km sounds daunting. “But that’s only 20 per cent of Australia. If you look at what we currently have under protection…we only need to get another 9 per cent of Australia into conservation-capable form.” To pick up the shortfall, he argues, we must find ways of getting pastoralists to value the native wildlife on their properties. Allowing landholders to benefit from the harvest of kangaroos for meat and skins is one idea. Growing native trees for sustainable forestry or oil production is another.

There are other good reasons for bringing farmers on board for conservation. Iain Gordon, a biodiversity expert with the CSIRO in Townsville, says land quality is as important as quantity. Our conservation record has been poor so far and has typically focused on national parks, he says, suggesting there has been a problem with that strategy. “National parks tend to be…on marginal land. Those areas that are most productive for farming are also the most productive for biodiversity.”

“Many pastoral properties contain significant conservation values, both in the traditionally understood sense of biodiversity values but also [in the] ecosystem services they provide, such as being a source of fresh water,” says Doug Humann, CEO of Bush Heritage.

Another problem with Australia’s national parks is that the land they cover is not often intensively managed and this may not be the best way to protect native wildlife. “The worst thing we can do is the nonsense of ‘wilderness’…there are few places on the planet that haven’t had humans managing them in some way,” Mike says. “We missed [understanding] this here and that’s why small mammals have been going extinct in northern Australia. Aborigines aren’t managing the bush [with fire] as they have done for thousands of years.”

Nigel Jones, who advises Bruce and Mark on the sustainable management of their land, agrees on the importance of farmland for biodiversity. “National parks are the leftover bits,” he says. “Farms are often overlooked for biodiversity priority, but it’s these areas that birds are coming to because there’s a more reliable nectar source here…a lot of the threatened species live in these areas.”

Yellow-box grassy woodland, a threatened habitat type found on the Lynch’s farm, has been extensively cleared in the south-east because it occurs on fertile soils. “[It] also supports a lot of wildlife…and there are a lot of resources there,” says Nigel. “In the early days the settlers would have been targeting sections of the landscape that had yellow box to clear for pasture.”

Managing farmland for conservation also benefits agricultural productivity. To slow erosion, Bruce and Mark have planted eucalypts and silver wattles along creek lines and have built dams that capture sediment and stop soil being washed away. They also stock lightly and now rotate livestock between 35 small paddocks, instead of three large ones. “We choose in some areas to let natural regeneration take place.       

If we didn’t look after the erosion on this property, in 30 or 40 years time it would be disastrous – all our soil would be in the neighbour’s place,” Bruce says.

Environmentally sustainable farming makes Australian farms “more productive and, in fact, more profitable”, says Brett Heffernan, a spokesperson for the National Farmers Federation. He describes farmers as “frontline environmentalists” and argues that many of Australia’s 136,000 farms are already actively managed for conservation. Nigel agrees that “there are a whole lot of opportunities in the balance between sustainable resource use and conservation. Many farmers may be contributing to the landscape without even knowing it”.

In coming years, Bruce and Mark are likely to fare much better than farmers who have not been making these changes “We’ll still have to adapt to climate change to make a living,” Mark says. “But it’s going to really catch up to other farmers who have been flogging the land.”

Climate change a constant threat

CLIMATE CHANGE POSES a major threat to a biota already in decline. Species may find they have no escape routes as temperatures rise, pushing them out of their comfort zones. ‘Connectivity conservation’ aims to give them the opportunity to roam more widely across landscapes, by persuading landholders to provide protected links between existing parks and reserves. Three major conservation corridors are being developed in Australia. WA’s Gondwana Link takes in a major biodiversity hotspot in Australia’s far south-west, while the Trans-Australia Eco-Link covers 3500 km from Arnhem Land in the NT to Port Augusta in SA (see map, opposite).

The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative (GER) is another ambitious corridor that is planned to run down 2800 km of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, from the Atherton Tableland in far north Queensland all the way to southern Victoria (see map, opposite). It’s a biodiversity highway aimed at protecting a “great ribbon of life”, explains the NSW Department of Environment’s Ian Pulsford, a driving force behind the concept. “Our efforts to protect individual threatened species seem to be going backwards,” he says. “We’ve got to look at very large landscape scales…so that we don’t lose the species that are [still healthy].”

The GER will create opportunities for species to move as climate changes. It offers the biggest elevation range in Australia – from a few hundred metres above sea level to more than 2200 m. It covers an array of environments from slopes and plains to mountain peaks, has some of our richest communities of species and is home to two-thirds of NSW’s threatened plants and animals.

“In terms of bang for the buck, we get the most results for the least effort by conserving this corridor,” Ian says. “The mountains offer a huge diversity of refuges. When the environment changes down on the plains, it changes uniformly over a bigger area. On a mountain, you can move around the hill a bit. If the conditions are too hot there, you can spread your seeds or fly around the corner and it’s potentially a bit cooler.”

In NSW about 50 per cent of the corridor area is already on government-protected land, especially through the Australian Alps. While private conservation partners, such as Bush Heritage and the NCT, are buying up properties to fill some gaps, other gaps can be plugged by bringing communities of private landholders on board.

This can be done in a number of ways, and can be as simple as seeding native woodland along hill tops and fencing-off creek lines. A variety of grants are already available as incentives from public and private bodies. Other landholders are putting conservation covenants on special patches of their property to protect them in perpetuity.

So far, NSW is the only State to have committed cash for the conservation corridor – $6.7 million over four years from 2007 – enough to kick-start the project within State borders. That funding is now nearing an end, but a group of six private and public organisations – Bush Heritage Australia, the NCT, the NSW Government’s Environmental Trust, the NSW National Parks Association, Greening Australia and OzGreen – has agreed to take the project forward.

Working to leave a postivie environmental legacy

WE’RE SITTING ON a jumbled pile of cracked, moss- and lichen-covered granite boulders on top of a hill overlooking the NSW town of Tumbarumba. This steep and rocky 20 ha property of apple box and red stringybark woodland is on the western edge of the Snowy Mountains. The landholders are Wayne Stokes and his partner Marcia Macartney, former public servants who moved here from Canberra almost two decades ago. “When we go away, there’s such a beautiful feeling when we come back here…the smells and fragrances at different times of year, or when it’s wet – it helps you get grounded and get rid of some of the stress of the city,” Wayne says as we watch a horse cantering across a paddock far below.

Their property, which falls within the key ‘Slopes to Summit’ area of the GER corridor, supports species such as the gang gang cockatoo and agile antechinus.

The NCT has worked with Wayne and Marcia to have part of their land protected under a conservation covenant. This is a major commitment, because it is written into the deeds and protects the property in perpetuity from development, but was something both Wayne and Marcia felt was important. “We feel this real connection to the property. It’s a refuge where family and friends can come and connect with the environment,” says Marcia. “We hope that we are leading by example in the way that we are managing it.”

Landholder Ian Bell and wife Lise hold a combined sheep farm and vineyard south of Tumbarumba. They’ve fenced off a creek line and are encouraging native vegetation in order to protect the endangered booroolong frog. For them, the goal is to leave their land in a much better state than when they inherited it. The idea of a legacy seems to be a common theme: “Like an artist creating a painting…we wanted to leave something behind that we had made some contribution to,” says Wayne.

Bruce Lynch’s farm, 150km to the south-west, is also part of the Slopes to Summit region and offers a great example of how adjoining habitat patches can be combined for a better conservation result. Next door is the Blue Metal Travelling Stock Reserve, home to a colony of squirrel gliders and a population of an endangered bird – the grey-crowned babbler. This is also a property where there’s been sightings of swift parrots, a migratory species which breeds during summer in Tasmania and makes a perilous flight across Bass Strait to winter in Victoria and southern NSW. Fewer than 1300 breeding pairs are thought to survive.

Saving Australia’s species

ONE ALPINE SPECIES the GER may not be able to help is the mountain pygmy possum. Ian Pulsford explains that this animal already survives at the top of the region’s elevation range, so there simply isn’t anywhere for it to go. Using his palaeontology background, Mike has devised a bold and potentially controversial plan to save the species. “It needs funding, but it could be the most exciting project of this kind in the world in terms of an innovative way to counter the unquestioned threat to the survival of a species through climate change,” he says.

This possum – with the taxonomic name Burramys parvus – is the only hibernating marsupial and inhabits the high alpine boulder fields of NSW and Victoria. It is already threatened by feral cats, foxes, development and shrinking supplies of bogong moths – one of its major food sources. But it now faces a new threat as the snow cover it needs for insulation during hibernation is reduced annually. “We estimate there are less than 2000 adults left,” says Linda Broome, an alpine ecologist with the NSW Department of Environment (DECCW).

“The impact of current threats…is predicted to increase with loss of snow cover from global warming.”

In what Mike describes as a “delicious irony”, the species was only known in fossil form until 1966, when visitors to a Mount Hotham ski lodge spied a weird little animal running around a kitchen. “Then, almost immediately after we discover it’s alive, in comes climate change,” says Mike. “That’s going to put the temperature up at least one degree…[enough] to destroy the habitat. It’s a very beautiful and wonderful animal that’s going to get knocked by the slightest shift.”

The situation seems desperate, but by taking clues from the fossil record into account, Mike’s team offers hope. During the past 24 million years, close relatives of the mountain pygmy possum have been common throughout Australia’s lowland rainforests. “Everywhere we’ve found fossils of these species of miniature possums it’s always been in lowland rainforest – in Central Australia and the Simpson Desert it was there in scrubby lowland rainforest. In Riversleigh [fossil fields in Queensland], spanning between 24 million and 12 million years ago, Burramys is found all through lowland rainforests in rocky limestone habitat.”

Mike is convinced the pygmy possum tracked rainforest up the mountain in a previous bout of climate change and became trapped up there in the boulder fields when the rainforests disappeared. His idea is to try to re-establish a colony in an area of lowland rainforest, abundant in NSW and Victoria. Mike thinks that because of its evolutionary heritage in lowland rainforests, the pygmy possum already has the capacity to thrive in warmer conditions, and this is what he wants to test. “We really have to aggressively get over our conservatism, because it’s at the tremendous expense of the survival of species,” he says. “It’s clear that conventional conservation is not working and not lasting.”

He has been working with an existing captive-breeding program that uses artificially cooled enclosures at Vict
+oria’s Healesville Sanctuary. But his plan is to try breeding the animals at ambient temperatures and then release them into a large outdoor enclosure at Secret Creek Sanctuary in Lithgow, NSW. Further down the line, if the breeding program is successful, the idea is to release them into lowland rainforests.

“My guess is that Burramys will find any number of things to eat because they’ve always been in lowland rainforest. It’s filled with resources that evolutionarily they are suited to eat,” says Mike. “They are not going to damage other species in those rainforests because they’ve always been there. They are missing – a poltergeist, if you like; they were there and they should be there.” Remaining obstacles include getting legislative approval from parks authorities and finding sponsors to cover the costs of the breeding facilities and enclosures.

“Mike’s proposal is certainly a bold and innovative idea and DECCW is exploring it with him,” says Linda Broome. “The prerequisites will be to establish an effective captive-breeding program [at cold temperatures] for the Kosciuszko population. This is needed not only to provide the animals for the experiment but also to provide an insurance policy against sudden catastrophic wild declines; they’ll also need to demonstrate that Burramys can breed in lowland rainforest conditions.”

Trevor Evans, of Secret Creek Sanctuary, says that current systems of saving endangered species need to be addressed, and thinks that Mike’s left-field suggestion is a step in the right direction. The sanctuary is a private wildlife haven. “More and more of Australia’s wildlife is disappearing and we seem to have a sad habit of changing laws and management practices after a species has gone,” Trevor says. “It’s better that we try [Mike’s] method now, than wish we had in 10 years time. Like the Tasmanian tiger, we will not fully appreciate the species until we lose it, which is a real possibility.”

Clearly, too many of our existing management practices for endangered species aren’t working. Bold, new interventionist ideas are needed to save Australia’s biodiversity. “We need new strategies,” Mike says. “No single discipline like ecology or conservation biology has all the answers. All of these groups need to be around the table because they all have something important to contribute. [The] challenge is not to prognosticate about the height of the piles of dead species that will litter the wayside of the future if we stick with current strategies.

“I don’t want Australians, particularly the younger generation, to feel so depressed about our current path that they can’t be motivated to do things that have the capacity to result in a far brighter future.

“I think it would be better to pool our diverse strengths…to envision and trial strategies that could turn it all around long before we reach that precipice,” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we can do this if we’re not fettered by pessimism…innovative approaches are popping up all over Australia.”