What toll do bushfires have on native wildlife in an increasingly urbanised landscape?

20 August 2019

Published by https://www.abc.net.au/

AUSTRALIA – Vicki Lett is a long-time wildlife carer and still struggles when she sees the level of pain animals experience when they are injured in a bushfire.

Ms Lett works with WIRES (Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service) and was recently called after a female koala was rescued from a fire near Grafton on the New South Wales north coast.

WARNING: The following story contains distressing images.

“They found [the koala] scrabbling in the sand on one of their tracks; they actually lifted it and put it in an esky and brought it back to their house,” she said.

“We collected it and took it to a local vet where it was given pain medication and sedated … a decision was taken it was too badly burnt to continue.

“I suppose the levels of pain for that animal would have been enormous. I don’t know quite how to deal with thinking about how the animal would have felt.

“The majority of the koalas we get here are affected by chlamydia, so to see a healthy breeding female who could contribute to her population die in a fire is distressing.

“We are really a bit like an ambulance service, where the best we can do for many of these animals is to manage their pain and resolve that for them as quickly as possible.”

Ms Lett said bushfires had a huge impact on native animals.

“Koalas, possums also get affected, lizards and other reptiles, birds in nests and other animals like wallabies and bettongs, sometimes they just get trapped and get burnt feet and paws and singed faces — pretty much all our wildlife is affected.”

“Most of our wildlife has evolved with fire, but what’s changing is their habitat is more limited because we are clearing it.

“The other issue is we need to think about climate change now, and certainly in the Clarence things are as dry as they’ve ever been, so there’s the dryness and the quality of the leaves.

“It’s also about the frequency and intensity of the burns, so if it burns too hot and it burns too often, they have trouble recovering.

“And it has other impacts — they then have to come to ground to move from tree to tree or area to area, and then they get hit by cars or attacked by dogs, often domestic dogs.

“After fires, communities are generally so traumatised by what’s happened they can sometimes react by taking down even more vegetation — we need to avoid that, simply because every time we take out that habitat, our animals are even more affected.”

Koala fire management

On the NSW mid-north coast, the Port Macquarie-Hastings and Kempsey councils have received funding to study fire management for koalas.

“We’ve brought all stakeholders for fire management in our region together into a fire and biodiversity consortium,” ecologist Rebecca Montague-Drake said.

“It’s a tricky conundrum. You don’t want to exclude fire entirely from these ecosystems, because you’d end up with a very-high-intensity wildfire that scorches the canopy and does a high level of mortality to koalas.

“But by the same token, you don’t want to do too frequent burning, because you can change the nutritional content of the leaves and have a whole raft of flow-on effects for koalas.

“You also don’t want to exclude fire again either, because we can end up with the recruitment of rainforest species and transition away from the eucalypt-dominated system to a rainforest-dominated system and lose koala food trees.

“So we have to tread a really fine balance in managing koala habitat.”

Refuge areas for wildlife

Ms Montague-Drake said they were studying the role special refuge areas could play for wildlife during bushfires.

“We’re trying to identify koala habitat across the study area and work with the different fire agencies to better protect and manage those habitats with fire in mind,” she said.

“One of the key things we’re seeking to do is identify the mesic refuge areas.

“There’s an increasing recognition with climate change that we are having more intense runs of long extended hot periods, so mesic refuge areas are so important for koalas.

“They are dense, shady, cool, somewhat wet areas, often near creeks or gullies and on southern aspects, where animals can congregate in the landscape to have the best chance to survive a wildfire.”

‘They all have their own time to burn’

Victor Steffensen is an Indigenous fire practitioner, who, equipped with knowledge from mentors to look after country using fire, said a wholistic approach was needed.

“Indigenous fire knowledge takes into account every single thing in that landscape — they all have their own time to burn because of the different resources in those areas.”

He has been working with Aboriginal communities, rangers and private land holders.

“The only reason we have intense fires today is because we don’t look after the land, not because of climate change.

“Reading country is not just about fire, it’s for every decision we make on the landscape and understanding those ecosystems is crucially important … it’s all one system.”

Topics: bushfire, urban-development-and-planning, animals, animal-behaviour, animal-science, fires, wildfire, endangered-and-protected-species, marsupials, climate-change, environmental-policy, environmental-management, environment, human-interest, port-macquarie-2444, newcastle-2300, vic, nsw, grafton-2460

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