Bushfires could trigger 14 per cent rise in threatened native species

  Last updated July 21, 2020 at 4:13 pm


The impact of last summer’s catastrophic bushfires is continuing to be felt with burnt  habitat being rendered ‘useless’ for native species.

threatened species habitat_fire affected species_bushfire impacts

At least 250 threatened species have had their habitat hit by fires. Credit: Gena Dray

Why This Matters: Bushfires continue to affect wildlife long after the flames are extinguished.

The damage caused by the catastrophic 2019-2020 Australian bushfires could lead to a dramatic jump in the number of native species at risk, according to new research.

The University of Queensland-led research identified 21 threatened species – including the Kangaroo Island dunnart and Long-footed potoroo which are among 70 animals which have had much of their habitat affected by the blazes.

UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences PhD candidate Michelle Ward says 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,” Ward says.

Also: What happens to wildlife after bushfires?

“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.”

The research has been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Climate change is exacerbating fires in Australia

The team found 49 species not currently listed as threatened, including Kate’s leaf-tailed gecko (Saltuarius kateae) and the short-eared possum, now warrant assessment for listing under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

Vertebrate fauna habitat burned during 2019–2020 mega-fires. Burnt area is shown in red and the study region is shown in dark grey. Species impacted by the recent bushfires (clockwise from top left): Kate’s leaf-tailed gecko, , Long-footed potoroo, Northern corroboree frog, Short-eared brushtail possum, Littlejohn’s tree frog, and Brush-tailed rock-wallaby. Credit: Anders Zimny, George Bayliss, Ben Scheele, Mark Sanders, Mark Sanders, Mark Sanders.

“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 says.

UQ’s Professor James Watson says anthropogenic climate change was exacerbating fires in Australia.

Also: If now is not the time to talk about climate change, when is?

“While fire is a crucial aspect of many ecosystems, we’re witnessing climate change-induced drought combined with land use management practices that make forests more fire prone,” Watson says.

“We need to learn from these events as they are likely to happen again.”

Australia must work hard to help species recover

Ward says Australia needs to urgently re-assess the extinction risk of fire-impacted species to better protect unburnt habitats.

“We must assist the recovery of populations in both burnt and unburnt areas,” she says.

“This means strictly protecting important habitats, like unburnt refuges.”

The Federal Government has launched a Royal Commission to find ways to improve Australia’s preparedness, resilience and response to natural disasters.

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