Australia — INCREASING controlled burning in the Mallee to meet a Bushfires Royal Commission recommendation would threaten the long-term survival of the region’s native wildlife, a scientific study has found.
Birdlife including the Mallee emu-wren and black-eared miner, both of which are endangered, and threatened marsupials such as the western pygmy possum, face a dramatic loss of habitat if the commission’s advice to triple the rate of prescribed burning to 5 per cent of public land each year is followed.
”Of course there is a need for prescribed burning to protect life and property, and to reduce the risk of large bushfires, but a blanket application of the 5 per cent target proposed by the royal commission ignores ecological subtleties in areas like the Mallee,” said Mike Clarke, associate professor at La Trobe University’s zoology department.
”The 5 per cent figure was based on foothill forest areas like the Dandenongs and Kinglake where people have settled, but it’s not ecologically sustainable in areas like the Mallee.”
A four-year study, led by Professor Clarke and Professor Andrew Bennett of Deakin University, found large parts of the Mallee have not burned for between 20 and 140 years. Flora in these parts has reached a maturity essential for certain species to thrive.
It takes at least 40 years for a tree hollow to begin to form in the Mallee, and at least 20 years for spinifex to become high-quality habitat.
”Such slow-developing resources highlight the importance of specifically providing for their availability in fire management planning,” the study’s authors write.
If 5 per cent of public land in the Mallee were burnt each year, without burning the same area twice, it would take 20 years to burn it all.
Between 1972 and 2007, typically 1.1 per cent of the Mallee burnt each year, whether through bushfire or prescribed burning. In that time there were three big fires that burnt more than 100,000 hectares, and less than 3 per cent of the region experienced more than one fire.
Professor Clarke said the Baillieu government needed to respect the unique characteristics of the Mallee in managing fire risk.
”The new government should have a science-based approach to burning, with a target worked out region by region, not a simplistic blanket-wide application of 5 per cent,” Professor Clarke said.
The government has promised to meet the commission’s 5 per cent target by 2014, a tripling of previously prescribed levels to about 390,000 hectares a year.