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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
National
Adrian Rollins

New urgency for species in fight for survival

As much-needed rain drenches parched farmland and charred bush across much of the ACT and NSW this weekend, this summer's extraordinary bushfire crisis is entering a new phase.

Rescued baby wombat Essie with Majors Creek-based orphaned wildlife carer Bill Waterhouse after the fires. Picture: Karleen Minney

Waterbombers and fire tankers are being replaced by air drops of carrots and potatoes and utes laden with traps for cats, foxes and other feral animals, as attention turns to helping devastated wildlife populations and plants begin the slow process of recovery.

The scale of destruction is difficult to comprehend.

More than 11 million hectares and 3000 homes have gone up in flames, including around 5 million hectares and 2439 homes in NSW. Thirty-three people have lost their lives.

Australia's Threatened Species Commissioner, Dr Sally Box, admits we will never really know how many animals also perished, but sees no reason to quibble with Professor Chris Dickman's estimate that it is likely to be around 1 billion creatures.

Pictures of badly injured, traumatised and dead wildlife, particularly koalas and kangaroos, have circled the globe via social media, attracting the attention of celebrities and helping spur massive fundraising efforts.

Comedian Celeste Barber elicited almost $34.4 million in donations, while actors and artists including Pink, Nicole Kidman, Chris Hemsworth, Selena Gomez and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have all urged followers to support firefighters and the bushfire recovery effort.

An expert panel chaired by Dr Box has been mapping the fires against the known habitats of threatened species, and its initial conclusions are worrying.

It has found that more than 300 threatened species had at least a tenth of their range affected by fire, and 49 species had 80 per cent of the areas they live in burnt.

"There is a big hit to our threatened species," Dr Box said.

A burnt possum in the aftermath of the Clear Range fire earlier this month. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"This fire has obviously been a very acute incident which is a very sharp threat that propagated very quickly for species, so it's certainly really concerning."

The fear for ecologists is that as the bushfire threat eases and surviving wildlife begin the slow process of recovery, they will become easy prey for predators like cats and foxes, while hungry feral animals like deer, horses and goats will consume the green shoots of recovering plants or trample them underfoot.

Native vegetation may also find itself in competition with weeds like serrated tussock, molasses grass, gorse, blackberry and lantana, which thrive in disturbed landscapes.

These concerns have fuelled calls for urgent action to control pests.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy chief executive officer Tim Allard warns that "we don't have weeks to get this started; we've got days to get this started".

He says feral cats, in particular, deliberately go into burnt-out areas to hunt because prey have few hiding places.

Almost a month ago the federal government announced $50 million in funding to support "immediate work" to protect wildlife and habitat recovery.

Dr Box says $2.6 million of that has already been allocated to 17 natural resource management regions for emergency feral predator, pest animal and weed control, with a further $4.4 million to come.

"That can help getting on top of those foxes, cats, weeds straight away to give those surviving native animals and plants the best chance of survival over the coming weeks and months," she says.

We have members in the Department of Agriculture Water and Environment whose job it is to identify endangered and critical species, just to watch them perish because the government does not plan to act or to manage this crisis.

CPSU deputy national president Brooke Muscat-Bentley

In addition, up to $7.5 million is being provided to support wildlife rescue and protection services and $1 million is going to each of Taronga Zoo, Zoos South Australia and Zoos Victoria to rescue wildlife and establish insurance populations.

With an eye on longer-term recovery, Greening Australia will receive up to $5 million to build up stocks of seeds and seedlings for revegetation work, and Conservation Volunteers Australia will get up to $2.5 million to recruit and train more volunteers.

Andrew Cox, chief executive officer of the Invasive Species Council, a not-for-profit environmental group, commends the response of federal and state governments so far, but cautions much more is needed.

"There are some efforts getting in on the ground, but it is nowhere near enough," Mr Cox says. "We need to scale it up. We need more fox and cat traps, aerial shooting of feral deer and horses, control of pigs and goats."

The situation underlines long-standing concerns about the ability of successive governments to stem rates of habitat degradation and species extinction.

Mr Allard says Australia has one of the world's worst records for animal extinction, accounting for more than a third of all global mammal species extinctions since 1500, and warns a further 50 species are heading that way, including the Kangaroo Island dunnart, Gilbert's potoroo and the bilby.

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"That illustrates that not enough is being done," he says. "Governments have made various promises and commitments and yet we are still on that negative trend."

Many federal Environment Department staff complain that a succession of budget cuts has meant that they lack the resources to do their job, according to a survey conducted by the Community and Public Service Union between March and May last year.

Funding for conservation programs has shrunk by more than $10 million since 2014, while spending on environmental regulation has contracted by $14 million over the same period.

More than 80 per cent of staff surveyed by the CPSU thought the staffing cap and efficiency dividend were undermining their work.

CPSU deputy national president Brooke Muscat-Bentley says this is concerning because these are people who are at the forefront of the nation's response to environmental challenges.

"We have members in the Department of Agriculture Water and Environment whose job it is to identify endangered and critical species, just to watch them perish because the government does not plan to act or to manage this crisis," Ms Muscat-Bentley says. "There is so much more to do to protect our endangered species, but what can be done is being held back because of cuts and resourcing pressures."

The CPSU has been calling for a $200 million fund for threatened and endangered species since 2018, Ms Muscat-Bentley says.

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