North West fire threat to wildlife

Perth Now – Narelle Towie

FIRES are pushing native mammals to the brink of extinction in WA’s North-West, according to the WA Department of Environment and Conservation.

The number of smaller animals, such as bandicoots, wallabies and possums, has drastically dropped over the past 15 years and experts warn they will be wiped out if action isn’t taken.

“Fires are increasing in the middle of the dry season and they have become very intense and large-scale,” said the department’s Kimberley region fire ecologist Ian Radford.

“In some areas in the north of Australia small and medium animal numbers have gone down to such low levels that some species are considered to be locally extinct.”

The decline has stemmed from a change in landscape management, ecologists say.

“The Aboriginal people were managing the country much more. They were on the ground burning small patches and because they had more small fires the big fires didn’t happen,” Dr Radford said.

In the past, patch burning used by Aborigines to attract kangaroos — because burnt areas sprout fresh grass — created a mosaic of burnt and overgrown country. It was a habitat perfect for smaller animals, which also keep fires naturally contained.

When settlers arrived 150 years ago, not only did they add arson and accidental fire to a delicate ecosystem, they also shifted the Aborigines from the land, changing the landscape.

Over time the mosaic has been replaced by broad plains of long grass areas, perfect for fuelling large fires.

“Over the last 15 years, it’s been like watching a car crash,” the University of Tasmania’s forest and ecology professor, David Bowman, said.

“Small animals have suffered massive decline. The north used to be a premier site for mammal diversity, one of the places where there has been very little extinction.”

Though Australia has one of the world’s highest extinction rates, the north Kimberley and Northern Territory are the only places where there have been no known extinctions since European settlement.

This is now likely to change.

A report in Austral Ecology showed that of all the animals caught for research in northern Australia, small mammals had dwindled from 30 per cent in 1986 to 1 per cent in 1999.

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Filed under australia, biodiversity, wildlife, zoology

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