Protecting habitat key to wildlife recovery

Protecting habitat key to wildlife recovery

It is estimated that more than one billion native mammals, birds and reptiles have been affected by this summer's mega-fires across eastern Australia alone, making it crucial that we act now to protect the habitat that remains unscathed.

While pictures of burnt koalas dominate the media, the devastating impact of these bushfires on native wildlife runs much deeper than that.

Countless animals have been incinerated or suffocated from smoke inhalation as fire engulfed them. Many animals shelter from fire in burrows, crevices, under rocks or in wet gullies. But these fires have burnt so intensely that these usual places of refuge may not have saved them.

Others may escape the blaze only to die from exhaustion, starvation, or be picked off by predators in the days and weeks that follow.

The plants and invertebrates that they feed on will have been incinerated, and without logs and vegetation to shelter in, they are exposed to temperature extremes and feral predators.

Given the severity of these fires, vast areas will be devoid of key resources such as nectar, fallen logs, leaf litter and tree hollows for years to come.

Many animals that survive will be confined to small unburnt patches within the fire zone, or, if they can, will move to unaffected areas. Animals will face new challenges in these unburnt remnants, many of which are already drought-affected.

With an influx of fire refugees, competition for limited resources will be intense. And populations in relatively small remnants are at higher risk of localised extinction.

Unburnt habitat will be the key to wildlife recovery and ultimately re-populating the burnt landscape. Protection and conservation management of unburnt patches will be the single most important action we can take to support the recovery of our wildlife.

Management of threatening processes, such as weeds, introduced herbivores and feral predators, is paramount to increase the availability of critical resources for food and shelter.

But we must also resist calls to increase land clearing and logging in forested areas in the name of fuel management.

Such actions will only serve to increase fire risk and inflict further loss and suffering on our native animals.

In their time of greatest need, we must act in the interests of our native animals, for their sake and our own.

Dr Jim Radford is an ecologist in the Research Centre for Future Landscapes at La Trobe University