As the effects of our species’ extinction crisis and ecosystem collapse become more apparent with each year, the environmental challenges can start to feel like a cruel joke. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is doing everything in its power to tackle these challenges head-on as a global leader in conservation. Read on to learn about the science-informed measures we’re taking to ensure nature gets the last laugh.
There are now more foreign plant species in Australia than native ones.
Weeds affect the structure and function of land-based and aquatic ecosystems, and negatively impact native fauna and flora. Weeds can displace native plant species and harbor pests and diseases. Invasive weeds can also increase the biomass of ecosystems, leading to more intense bushfires, changing the composition and structure of native vegetation.
AWC implements a variety of weed control strategies to restore and protect ecosystems across Australia. These strategies range from landscape-scale approaches using fire to address weeds such as lantana and rubber vine, through to intensive, site-specific programs for local invasive weed species. In 2013-14, AWC’s expertise in weed management was recognized by the Federal Government, who funded AWC to deliver an almost $1.5 million program to reduce the extent of invasive grasses and riparian weeds across several sites in three different states across Northern Australia.
Feral cats and foxes kill over 2.6 billion native mammals, birds, and reptiles every year in Australia.
The capacity of these two predators to flourish in a variety of habitats and target different prey means they are putting immense pressure on the survival of native animals across a large portion of the country. Where their diets and range overlap, they’re delivering a one-two punch to some of our most vulnerable species.
AWC is taking significant measures to prevent further native wildlife extinctions. A key strategy for limiting predation pressure is building a network of feral predator-free fenced areas. AWC manages more cat-and fox-free land than any other organisation on mainland Australia, including five of the six largest fenced areas.
Outside of fenced areas, AWC is helping develop and implement best practice feral predator control. Direct control includes a range of techniques such as trapping, shooting, and Indigenous tracking. Indirect control includes managing ground cover (for example through de-stocking and prescribed burning) to promote shelter for wildlife and reduce the impact of predation.
We are also using our extensive research into feral predator ecology and genetic technologies to develop and implement best practices in feral predator control. Our research in Northern Australia has revealed the complex interactions between feral cats and fire patterns, with implications for fire management across the north.
Ultimately, AWC aims to establish whether it is possible to suppress populations of feral predators to a level where threatened mammals can survive without a fence. However, this is a significant, multi-year project that requires intensive, ongoing efforts to control cats and foxes. Nonetheless, this crucial research will help improve the effectiveness of control strategies.
An estimated 1 to 3 billion native animals were killed or displaced by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20.
These bushfires burned more than eight million hectares of native vegetation, including large tracts of World Heritage properties and National Heritage places. They weren’t a freak event, global warming has boosted the risk of hot, dry weather that’s likely to cause bushfires by at least 30%.
AWC’s approach to fire management varies between regions and ecosystems, as Australia’s many varied ecological niches have specific demands. Generally, burns are implemented in such a way to create a pattern of fire breaks and to reduce the fuel load across the landscape. The effect is to limit the spread of destructive late dry season and summer wildfires, while still allowing fuel dense areas to be safely managed through controlled burns. Firebreaks and cool burns maintain patches of fire-sensitive and precious old-growth vegetation in the landscape, which provide shelter and food for some of our most precariously positioned wildlife.
Climate change will affect nearly every aspect of AWC’s efforts to achieve its mission.
Incremental changes to climate variables will cause shifts in species distributions, which will have flow on effects for species interactions, such as food and shelter requirements. Extreme heat, more frequent droughts and variable and intense rainfall can all cause individual mortality and sharp population declines which threaten already small and fragmented populations. Fire, weeds, and feral animals will all be affected by these ranging impacts to climate change.
But there is hope.
AWC plans to use a range of scientific tools, and our expertise in conservation, to protect as many species as we can. On the science side, predictive models continue to fine-tune the range of potential future climate scenarios that may exist. These models incorporate weather patterns, global emissions scenarios, and past warming trends to spatially project future climate variables and extreme weather. Species distribution models use past and current information combined with climate models to project where climate may be suitable for species in the future. And AWC ecologists are working to develop strategic frameworks to apply this knowledge, prioritising and planning for an uncertain future.
AWC’s conservation and land management programs are focused on delivering practical threat management where it is needed the most. The framework we are developing must take into account how climate change will affect threat management, such as the risk of wildfire and the distribution of introduced plants and animals. Effective management of threats may increase the resilience of ecosystems to climate change impacts.
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