Australia — Australia needs to urgently identify land that can act as refuges for native wildlife and plants threatened by climate change and decide how to minimise the number of species that will face extinction, a disturbing report by the CSIRO has warned.
While saving species should be a priority, the report finds, “it is almost certain that some species will become extinct in the wild”.
The sweeping report highlights signs of climate change likely to impact on Australia’s wildlife, such as the threat in the alps to the pygmy possum as reduced snow cover exposes it to predators while feral horses, pigs and rabbits prosper in the warmer temperatures.
In a major challenge to state and federal governments, the sweeping report by Michael Dunlop and Peter Brown calls for a re-examination of Australia’s “core” conservation principles in the light of climate change. Instead of trying to prevent environmental change, the report says, governments and park managers will need to, “embrace the task of managing the change to minimise the loss”.
The federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, said yesterday that the Government would begin acting on the report immediately to identify the refuges in the network of Australia’s 9000 national parks, public and private reserves, including Aboriginal lands. Refuges will include the most resilient land where animals can retreat to and plants can survive.
“The refuges project will look at the existing refuges for threatened species and whether we need to extend their boundaries and identify what new protected areas are needed to reduce extinction risk for our native plants and animals,” Mr Garrett said.
An initial $250,000 will be spent to identify the refuges but a significant increase in funds to protect wildlife and plants from climate change is expected to be announced soon.
Last year, scientific advice to the Government suggested $250 million over five years would be needed, shared between the states, Aboriginal groups and private landowners.
Leading conservation groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have been urging the policy shake-up since last year.
“Climate change has been perceived as principally stopping greenhouse gas emissions,” said Penny Figgis, of the IUCN. “What we have been screaming from the rooftops is that, in the meantime, every scientist on Earth is saying that we are basically facing a global extinction crisis.
“As one of the epicentres of biodiversity on Earth, and as a developed country, we need to do all the things we can do to head off that outcome.”
The CSIRO report examines the crucial role Australia’s national reserve system will play in helping plants and wildlife cope with climate change. Preserving and expanding these reserves will be the best way to conserve threatened species, the report says.
The authors identify four threats that “will be particularly hard to manage”, including an increase in pests and exotic species, changes in bushfire behaviour, changing land use – particularly grazing lands in wetter regions turning into crop land – and changing rainfall patterns.
The report warns that “mass mortality events” from bushfire and drought will have lasting effects on the landscape, like the 2003 bushfires in the Alps where in parts of Victoria almost no trees survived.
While the report says the trees will regenerate, the new growth faces increased threats from both fire and drought.
In other unusual patterns, the report cites studies showing how some bird species are already adapting to climate change as they shift their migration and breeding patterns, potentially having cascading impacts on insect species and plant seeds.
The forest kingfisher, for example, is now breeding twice a year rather than once. Some migratory birds are arriving earlier and leaving later. In Western Australia, tropical seabirds are pushing further south. This initial rich increase in some species as they adapt could result in pressure on others as competition for food increases.
While Australian plants and wildlife have adapted to change before and suffered extinction, the report finds the scale of changes from global warming are “unprecedented in their nature and rate [and] they may be outside any evolutionary coping range of many species”.