Bushfire damage - photo by Aaron Greenville

Fauna extinction listings may jump 14 percent after 2019-20 fires

22 July 2020
Habitat needs protection, finds study into bushfire impact 

The first study into the impact of Australia's worst-ever bushfires on fauna habitat has found almost 50 species may be added to the listing of endangered species under the EPBC Act, suggesting urgent action is required.

Dr Ayesha Tulloch with a mulgara. Credit: Al Healy. Top of page: Mt Hay in late February. Credit: Dr Aaron Greenville.

Dr Ayesha Tulloch with a mulgara. Credit: Al Healy. Top of page: Mt Hay in the background, Blue Mountains, in late February. Credit: Dr Aaron Greenville.

Australia was recently hit by the worst forest fires in recorded history. Here, for the first time, researchers have assessed the impact of these mega-fires and found about 97,000km2 of vegetation across southern and eastern Australia burned, which is considered habitat for 832 native animal species. 

The study, which has been published in the prominent journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, shows that 70 animals had a significant (more than 30 percent) proportion of their habitat impacted; 21 of these were already listed as ‘threatened with extinction’ under Australia’s primary legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. These include endangered animals such as the Kangaroo Island dunnart and the Long-footed potoroo, which had more than 80 percent of habitat impacted by these fires. 

Also suffering a significant amount of their habitat impacted were 49 species not currently listed as threatened, such as Kate's leaf-tailed gecko and the Short-eared possum, warranting assessment for listing under the EPBC Act. If these assessments find that all 49 animals meet listing criteria, the number of threatened Australian terrestrial and freshwater animals would increase by 14 percent. 

Dr Ayesha Tulloch, from the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said: “The mega-fires decimated populations of both widespread- and rare species. 

“Some of these are unlikely to recover without intense management, which includes ensuring their remaining habitat is protected from future fire.” 

Sydney co-author Dr Aaron Greenville, also from the Faculty of Science, added: “An estimated 1 billion individual animals nationally may have been killed due to the mega-fires and our new research identifies which species are under increased threat.” 

PhD candidate and lead author in the University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Michelle Ward, said that “while fire is a crucial aspect of many ecosystems worldwide, drought, anthropogenic climate change, and existing land use management practices have exacerbated fires in Australia”. 

“We must urgently re-assess the extinction risk of fire-impacted species and assist the recovery of populations in both burnt and unburnt areas. This means strictly protecting important habitats.”

The federal government has launched a Royal Commission inquiry that will seek ways to improve Australia's preparedness, resilience, and response to natural disasters. The study urges policy-makers to use multi-pronged strategies to abate all threats, including proactively protecting unburnt habitats. 

The study was undertaken by a team from University of Sydney, University of Queensland, Wildlife Conservation Society, La Trobe University, James Cook University, The Nature Conservancy, BirdLife Australia, Charles Darwin University, Australian National University, CSIRO, Charles Sturt University and Macquarie University.

Vivienne Reiner

Media and PR Adviser (Science & Health)
The mega-fires decimated populations of both widespread- and rare species.
Dr Ayesha Tulloch

Related articles