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Australian bushfires could trigger 14 percent rise in threatened native species

The damage caused by the catastrophic 2019–2020 Australian bushfires could lead to a dramatic jump in the number of native species at risk, according to University of Queensland-led research.

Twenty-one threatened species – including the Kangaroo island dunnart and Long-footed potoroo – are among 70 animals which have had much of their habitat significantly affected by the blazes.

UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences PhD candidate Michelle Ward said about 97,000 square kilometres of vegetation in southern and eastern Australia burned, with that land considered habitat for at least 832 native animal species.

“Many of the species impacted by these fires were already declining in numbers because of drought, disease, habitat destruction, and invasive species,” Ms Ward said.

“Our research shows these mega-fires may have made the situation much worse by reducing population sizes, reducing food sources and rendering habitat unsuitable for many years.”

The team found 49 species not currently listed as threatened, including Kate’s leaf-tailed gecko and the short-eared possum, now warrant assessment for listing under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

“If these EPBC assessments find that all 49 animals meet listing criteria, the number of threatened Australian terrestrial and freshwater animals would increase by 14 per cent,” she said.

Professor James Watson, from Wildlife Conservation Society and UQ, said anthropogenic climate change was exacerbating fires in Australia.

“While fire is a crucial aspect of many ecosystems, we’re witnessing climate change-induced drought combined with land use management practices that make forests more fire prone,” Professor Watson said. “We need to learn from these events as they are likely to happen again.”

Ms Ward said Australia needs to urgently re-asses the extinction risk of fire-impacted species to better conserve remaining habitats.

“We must assist the recovery of populations in both burnt and unburnt areas,” said Ms Ward.

“This means strictly protecting and managing important habitats for other threats like habitat loss, invasive species, and disease.”

The Federal Government has launched a Royal Commission inquiry that will seek to find ways to improve Australia’s preparedness, resilience, and response to natural disasters.

Ms Ward and Professor Watson’s 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 The University of Queensland, Wildlife Conservation Society, University of Sydney, La Trobe University, James Cook University, The Nature Conservancy, BirdLife Australia, Charles Darwin University, Australian National University, CSIRO, and Charles Sturt University, Macquarie University. It has been published in Nature Ecology and Evolution (DOI: 10.1038/s41559-020-1251-1).