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Chapter 16: Wildlife and heritage

Summary

16.1 Australia’s extensive biodiversity includes an estimated different 620,000 species, or between 7 and 10% of all species on earth, the value of which is incalculable. However, due to a range of pressures, Australia’s ecosystems are under increasing strain. Australia also has a vast number of heritage places of significant value, domestically and internationally.

16.2 The 2019‑2020 bushfires have been described as an ‘ecological disaster’. Fires extended across tens of millions of hectares of land, covering native forests and grasslands that serve as wildlife habitat and house ecosystems. Over 330 threatened species and 37 threatened ecological communities protected under national environmental law were in the path of the bushfires.

16.3 Many efforts were made to rescue and protect wildlife, ecosystems and heritage sites during and since the 2019‑2020 bushfires. These efforts relied on expert advice, data and information sharing and fundraising efforts across individuals, communities, not-for-profit organisations, government agencies, environmental experts and the private sector.

16.4 Australian, state and territory governments share responsibility for protecting and managing Australia’s environment and heritage. They each have legislative arrangements that assist them to do so. However, there is a need to better integrate environment and heritage needs into emergency planning and response. This includes working with relevant non-government organisations to establish best practice arrangements and responses relevant to emergency wildlife response and recovery. Greater consistency and collaboration is also required in the collation, storage, access and provision of data for Australian flora and fauna.

Australia’s wildlife and heritage

16.5 Australia has extraordinary biodiversity, and is home to an estimated 620,000 species. [1796] This represents between 7 and 10% of all species on earth. [1797] The majority of Australia’s species and ecological communities are unique to Australia: they occur nowhere else in the world. [1798]

16.6 The value of Australia’s biodiversity is incalculable, and has many tangible and intangible benefits: to the economy, wellbeing, culture and sense of identity, and scientific understanding of the world. [1799]

16.7 Australia’s unique and complex ecosystems are under increasing strain. [1800] Changes in land-use, natural hazards, habitat loss and degradation, and feral animal and invasive plant species are contributing to increasingly poor ecological prospects, with the impact of climate change exacerbating existing pressures. [1801]

16.8 Australia also has exceptional national and international natural, cultural and commemorative heritage places that contribute to Australia’s national identity. For example, there are more than 100,000 known Indigenous art sites across Australia and there are likely to be even more sites as yet not revealed to or recognised beyond local community groups. The large number of commemorative places poses challenges to their protection and management, particularly in terms of resourcing. [1802]

Government responsibilities for environmental protection

16.9 Australian, state and territory governments share responsibility for protecting and managing Australia’s environment and heritage. State and territory governments are responsible for day-to-day land and environmental management.

16.10 The Australian Government administers Australia’s national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). The EPBC Act relevantly empowers the Commonwealth to regulate development that could adversely affect ‘matters of national environmental significance’ (MNES).

Environmental impacts from the 2019‑2020 bushfires

16.11 The 2019‑2020 bushfires have been described as an ‘ecological disaster’. [1803] Fires affected tens of millions of hectares of land, covering native forests and grasslands that serve as wildlife habitat and house ecosystems. According to Professor Chris Dickman, Professor in Ecology at the University of Sydney, no bushfires on record have burnt more forest and woodland habitats within a season. [1804] The affected areas include sites that are recognised and protected under the EPBC Act for their significant ecological and heritage value: [1805]

  • World Heritage properties: six properties were affected, including extensive burnt area across the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia in QLD and NSW (54% burnt), Greater Blue Mountains Area in NSW (82% burnt) and the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Victoria.
  • National Heritage places: Multiple places were affected, with the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves, Stirling Range National Park, and West Kimberly suffering the most significant impacts.
  • Wetlands of International Importance (‘Ramsar Wetlands’): [1806] At least five wetlands were affected, with the Macquarie Marshes and Gwydir Wetlands, and Gippsland Lakes assessed as being at high-risk of long-term ecological damage.

16.12 It is too early to say with certainty what the ultimate consequences of the bushfire season will be for Australian wildlife. [1807] However, wildlife and ecology experts have predicted serious, long-term, adverse effects on biodiversity. [1808]

16.13 Over 330 threatened species and 37 threatened ecological communities protected under the EPBC Act were in the path of the bushfires, [1809] and we heard estimates that the number of animals killed ‘greatly exceeded’ one billion. [1810] Additionally, we heard that species and communities, not currently listed as threatened under national environmental law, may now be threatened, as the consequences of the season are better understood. [1811]

16.14 We heard of significant efforts to rescue and protect wildlife, ecosystems and heritage sites during and since the 2019‑2020 bushfires. These rescue and recovery efforts relied on expert advice, data and information sharing and fundraising efforts across individuals, communities, not-for-profit organisations, government agencies, environmental experts and the private sector.

Emergency response and recovery for the environment

16.15 In responding to disasters, state and territory emergency services agencies have primary responsibility for protection of people, property and the environment – they provide protection in that order. They each have legislative arrangements that assist them to do so, which are supported by various management strategies and policies, and operational plans.

16.16 In some jurisdictions, emergency services are embedded in the same portfolio as agencies responsible for environmental protection, but often they are not. We heard that while in many instances wildlife rescue or protection efforts were initiated outside emergency services, there was great value in leveraging emergency management incident management teams (IMTs) in assisting rescue operations, for example in coordinating fire suppression and requesting air support.

16.17 Some protection priorities are clearly embedded and formally recognised in emergency management, such as critical infrastructure. However, in the case of sites of environmental and heritage value, emergency services often rely on external information and relationships with other agencies to understand environmental values at risk during disasters.

16.18 States and territories had bushfire strategies and operational plans in place before the 2019‑2020 bushfires with a view to preventing and responding to bushfire impacts on wildlife, ecosystems and heritage values.

Box 16.1 2019‑2020 bushfire-affected species, ecological communities and heritage sites.

Clockwise top left: (1) Tae Rak channel and holding pond, Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Victoria17 which was fire affected in 2019-2020 bushfires; (2) Release of a nationally endangered Eastern Bristlebird in Victoria after it had been extracted during the fires; 18 (3) the nationally threatened Northern Corroboree Frog, 19 which was defended by aerial firefighting; (4) the Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens, a nationally threatened ecological community that was defended in the ACT during the fires.

Figure 63: Clockwise top left: (1) Tae Rak channel and holding pond, Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Victoria [1812] which was fire affected in 2019‑2020 bushfires; (2) Release of a nationally endangered Eastern Bristlebird in Victoria after it had been extracted during the fires; [1813] (3) the nationally threatened Northern Corroboree Frog, [1814] which was defended by aerial firefighting; (4) the Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens, a nationally threatened ecological community that was defended in the ACT during the fires. [1815]

16.19 These strategies and plans identify high-level arrangements, such as threatened species and heritage sites, their locations, and response and recovery strategies.

16.20 There is a need to better integrate consideration of environment and heritage assets in emergency planning and response. This requires accessible data, including on the location of environmental, heritage and cultural sites, the distribution of species and ecological communities and priorities to guide response efforts.

16.21 In assessing environmental and heritage impacts and prioritising recovery efforts, a number of states and territories have adopted a ‘rapid risk assessment’ methodology. This allows them to identify immediate interventions, as well as longer-term recovery priorities. Box 16.3 profiles the ACT government’s Rapid Risk Assessment approach following impacts of the 2019‑2020 bushfires.

16.22 Rapid determination of environmental priorities assists in ensuring timely implementation of strategies to recover from natural hazards.

Integration of non-government organisations in emergency response and recovery

16.23 Wildlife organisations are integrated into state and territory emergency management arrangements to varying extents. Some wildlife organisations noted that their coordination efforts with government were initially informal, developed from outreach and offers of assistance. [1816] Other wildlife organisations are embedded in formal state and territory emergency management frameworks.

16.24 For example, the South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management Incorporated (SAVEM) is a response and recovery organisation under South Australia’s State Emergency Management Plan with a mission to retrieve, triage, treat, shelter and return animals of all species in an emergency. During the 2019‑2020 fire season, SAVEM was activated under this plan, and deployed to the sites of the Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island fires. [1817] SAVEM is usually able to access a fire ground within 48 hours of a bushfire passing through an area.

16.25 We heard that first responders did not always understand the arrangements relating to bushfire-affected wildlife and the non-government resources that could be made available to support the immediate and subsequent care of impacted wildlife.

16.26 Including non-government wildlife organisations within emergency management arrangements can enable these groups to work in concert with emergency management agencies, to benefit from the situational awareness of first responders, and to access the fire ground safely. Raising awareness of animal welfare, species conservation, and the capabilities of wildlife first responders can also help ensure that these groups are deployed as swiftly and safely as practicable. [1818]

Box 16.2 Wollemi Pines – NSW

The Wollemi Pine is a critically endangered Jurassic Period plant species with less than 100 mature plants surviving in the wild, all located in a single remote gorge in the Wollemi National Park. It is an ecological treasure, believed to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1994. Bushfire is one of its most significant threats.

When the Blue Mountains were under threat during the 2019‑2020 fire season, the Wollemi Pines were at risk of being damaged or destroyed by fire. In anticipation of this risk, large air tankers were deployed to lay fire retardant, and a rescue mission was quickly established. Wollemi National Park had previously experienced periods of high fire danger, but with this season came new challenges. Conditions were significantly hotter and drier than usual, limiting the amount of water available to fight a bushfire. It was windy, and smoke from the surrounding fires impeded visibility. Furthermore, resources were stretched by the extent and severity of fires across NSW.

A team was assembled to fight the fire comprising national park staff, firefighters and Wollemi Pine researchers. Access to the gorge was difficult: due to the ruggedness of the terrain and remoteness of the location, the site could only be reached by air. Firefighters were flown by helicopter and winched into the gorge to install and operate irrigation equipment.

By irrigating the area, the team was able to increase the moisture content in ground fuels surrounding the pines, mitigating the severity and impact of the blaze. Helicopters were also deployed to drop water onto the fires as they approached the rainforest gorge. These efforts helped protect the Wollemi Pines during the fires, minimising damage and preserving the species in the wild.

Pumping creek water to moisten ground fuel surrounding the Wollemi Pines

Figure 64: Pumping creek water to moisten ground fuel surrounding the Wollemi Pines [1819]

Box 16.3 Rapid Risk Assessment – Orroral Valley Fire, Namadgi National Park

The ACT Government’s Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) work with the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency provides an example of the incorporation of environmental values into emergency response, and how rapid risk assessment can support stabilisation, rehabilitation and recovery following disaster.

Emergency management IMTs in the ACT include a Values Officer during bushfire response. Although not formally included in the Australasian Inter-service Incident Management System (AIIMS) IMT structure, the Values Officer advises on cultural and ecological values, including those protected under national environmental law. [1820]

Namadgi National Park is home to a number of precious cultural and ecological assets, including Indigenous rock art, Alpine bogs and fens, and a variety of threatened woodland fauna. In January and February 2020, the Orroral Valley fire burnt through 87,923 ha of the park. [1821] During the fire, the Values Officer embedded in the IMT assisted sharing of information on environmental and heritage values, including emergency services protection of Indigenous values and laying of fire retardant to protect the Ginini wetlands.

In February while the Orroral Valley fire was still active, [1822] the EPSDD deployed a Rapid Risk Assessment Team – which included specialists in flora, fauna, and cultural heritage – to assess impacts on the area and recommend mitigation treatments. The team identified 27 key risks to the burn area, including extreme and high risks to cultural and ecological assets. Examples of these risks included:

  • fire impacts on alpine bogs, causing degradation
  • post-fire predation from introduced species
  • reduced water quality due to debris and erosion, impacting threatened fish species, and
  • post-fire starvation of large gliders. [1823]

The rapid assessments informed mitigation actions and recommendations for follow-up assessment targeted to individual risks. The team also made broader ‘landscape scale’ recommendations, encouraging monitoring and data collection to develop learnings. For example, the team noted that a previously unused fire retardant was used in the Gibraltar Rocks and Mount Clear areas, and encouraged land managers to monitor for any long-term impacts on these areas. [1824]

Development of guidelines

16.27 The development of clear and consistent national guidance on rescue and treatment of wildlife would support a coordinated approach to recovery. For example, Wildlife Health Australia (WHA) reports that it was frequently approached by jurisdictions and response organisations seeking advice during the 2019‑2020 fire season. WHA noted that there are currently no agreed national standards for rehabilitation, assessment, treatment and care for wildlife. [1825] WHA worked rapidly to fill some of these gaps by, for example, developing and disseminating national food and feeding guidelines for wildlife. [1826]

16.28 We note that there may be scope to enhance the ability of fire and other emergency responders to support the wildlife response by developing and disseminating guidance to them on handling wildlife, and risks around animal welfare, zoonotic disease and biosecurity. [1827]

Volunteer training

16.29 We heard of the value of well trained volunteers to wildlife response. SAVEM told us that ‘really good wildlife carers are gold in a response’. [1828]

16.30 Training is essential to mitigate the risks of working with wildlife on the fireground. Firegrounds are inherently dangerous, and volunteers must follow protocols to keep themselves and others safe and avoid compromising other aspects of the response. [1829] Training also mitigates risks to wildlife by ensuring that attempts to rescue, treat, or humanely destroy an animal meet an appropriate standard of care.

16.31 We heard that spontaneous volunteers conducted their own rescue and rehabilitation efforts, [1830] at times arriving before recovery agencies were deployed. [1831] Organisations reported that this complicated response operations, introducing risk and at times causing adverse outcomes.

16.32 Volunteer groups and individuals may lack training in incident management. We also heard concerns that spontaneous or untrained volunteers may have attended firegrounds during the 2019‑2020 bushfires without the requisite skills or knowledge to operate safely. [1832]

16.33 Some spontaneous responders lacked wildlife-specific expertise, or knowledge of best practices for treatment of wildlife in an emergency context:

There were a number of stories of well-intentioned individuals offering water to burnt koalas directly from bottles; an action which wildlife experts later explained could lead to drowning. [1833]

16.34 State and territory governments should work together with relevant non‑government organisations to establish best practice arrangements and responses relevant to emergency wildlife response and recovery.

16.35 State and territory governments should ensure that effective wildlife response and recovery capabilities are developed and integrated into emergency planning processes for natural disasters. This could include consideration of specific coordination capabilities, such as rapid deployment of appropriately trained personnel.

Data and information for wildlife management and species conservation

16.36 Access to high-quality, consistent and comprehensive data is essential to wildlife management and conservation efforts. These data include information on the distribution of species and ecological communities, their status, and key management needs. This information helps with their management and the prioritisation of response and recovery efforts. Data allow land managers to monitor the health and status of species and ecologies. For example, in the context of the EPBC framework, data are crucial for the purpose of communicating the needs of species and communities (and the relative urgency of these needs) to decision makers.

16.37 Currently, data and information on species and ecological communities are collected through survey and remote sensing methods by a variety of stakeholders. These include academic researchers, government land managers, industry consultants, non‑government organisations, and citizen scientists. This information is supplemented by various types of repository data, including information about, and spatial modelling of, potential habitats, and information about the geographic distribution of vegetation types. [1834]

16.38 In the case of bushfires, fire data are amassed through a wide range of methods – for example, observations from emergency services personnel and satellite imagery and hotspot analysis – and collected by state and territory governments, research organisations and Geoscience Australia. [1835]

16.39 In response to the 2019‑2020 bushfire season, the Australian Government established a Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel chaired by the Threatened Species Commissioner, Dr Sally Box, to assess the impacts of bushfires on natural assets, identified species and locations requiring intervention, and advise on necessary recovery actions. [1836]

16.40 The work of the Expert Panel was reliant on information on species and ecological communities, and on fire extent and severity. The Panel collaborated with state and territory governments to identify an initial list of fire-affected species. [1837] The Panel subsequently worked with experts to assess the vulnerability of each species based on:

  • whether the species was threatened before the fire season
  • how much of its geographic area intersected with the fire path, and
  • whether the species has any particular vulnerabilities to bushfire. [1838]

16.41 Additionally, in early 2020, to meet the broader need for a ‘reliable, agreed, fit for purpose and repeatable national dataset of burnt areas’, [1839] the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment developed and released a National Indicative Aggregated Fire Extent Dataset (NIAFED).

16.42 The NIAFED aggregated data for the 2019‑2020 fire season and provided a cumulative national view of the areas impacted by fires across Australia. [1840] According to the Panel, this has provided ‘critical’ support to its work in prioritising species for urgent intervention. [1841]

16.43 Examples of species impacted by the 2019‑2020 bushfires, assessed using the NIAFED, together with other environmental data and information include:

  • the vulnerable Slaty Red Gum (Eucalyptus glaucina), which is estimated to have had over 20% of its known or likely habitat burnt
  • the endangered Kangaroo Island Dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni), which is estimated to have had over 80% of its known or likely habitat burnt, and
  • the Kangaroo Island assassin spider (Zephyrarchaea austini) for which all known inhabited locations have been burnt. [1842]

16.44 The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment noted that ‘while it is the best national dataset currently available for this purpose, the limitations of the NIAFED would have affected the accuracy of the derived analyses’. They identified several known issues, including:

  • low accuracy for some data inputs
  • a lack of national coherency due to the variety of mapping methods, and
  • a lack of information on fire severity in these areas (only outlines of burnt areas are shown). [1843]

Gaps in data and information

16.45 Stakeholders – including wildlife researchers and decision-makers in government –are not always aware of where and how to access relevant information. This causes duplication, inefficiency, and siloing. No single agency has responsibility for collation and maintenance of data at a national level.

16.46 We heard that access to critical data is a pervasive challenge across the conservation and wildlife sectors. As noted in the EPBC Act Interim Report, ‘multiple parties collect or purchase the same or similar information, often because they are not aware of other efforts. Similar systems and databases are built by multiple jurisdictions’. The review also noted that data are frequently inaccessible for reasons of format (eg historical data is frequently not digitised) or ownership (useful information is often considered proprietary). Where they are accessible, they are not necessarily shared between jurisdictions. [1844]

16.47 Irrespective of the need for data relevant to an emergency, much remains unknown regarding Australian flora and fauna.

Little is known about Australia’s invertebrates, non-vascular plants and fungi, with many species known from only 1-2 records. An estimated 70% of the species predicted to inhabit Australia and New Zealand are yet to be discovered and described…The current distributions, genetics and traits of vascular plants and vertebrates are still largely undocumented. [1845]

16.48 In order to fill many important knowledge gaps on wildlife and ecosystem populations and distribution, ongoing environmental monitoring and research would be required.


Recommendation 16.1 Environmental data

Australian, state and territory governments should ensure greater consistency and collaboration in the collation, storage, access and provision of data on the distribution and conservation status of Australian flora and fauna.


Wildlife and species protection under national environmental law

16.49 Although states and territories have primary responsibility for protecting the environment, we heard a number of expert opinions and public comments on Australia’s national environmental law (the EPBC Act) in the context of threats to the environment from natural hazards. Chapter 17: Public and private land management also explores environmental protection in the context of land management and hazard reduction.

16.50 Concurrent with our inquiry, an independent review of Australia’s national environmental law has been underway. It released an interim report in July 2020. As at October 2020 its final findings and recommendations are still being prepared.

16.51 We note the observation of the EPBC Act Interim Review that the number of listed threatened species and communities continues to increase. [1846] We also heard that ‘Australia has, in general, failed to arrest the declines in its threatened species’. [1847]

16.52 We heard that the basis on which species and ecological communities are identified as being threatened is reactive. Listing of species relates to declines in numbers and distribution and probability of extinction, [1848] and does not account for imminent or potential future pressures, [1849] such as anticipated increasing natural hazard risks.

16.53 We understand that natural hazard risks for wildlife and ecosystems can be considered under the EPBC Act in two main ways:

  • First, natural hazard occurrence or prevalence may factor into the determination that a particular species or ecological community is threatened, and by extension influence the management and protection of that species or community. [1850] We heard fire is noted as a threat for a number of listed species, and factors into conservation advices and recovery plans for these species. [1851] The Interim Report for the EPBC Act review notes that, although the EPBC Act provides for the preparation of recovery plans for threatened species and ecological communities, there is ‘no requirement to implement a recovery plan, or report on progress or the outcomes achieved’. It notes that ‘under these arrangements it is not surprising that the list of threatened species and communities has increased over time and there have been very few species that have recovered to the point that they can be removed from the list’. [1852]
  • Secondly, a natural hazard can be identified as a ‘key threatening process’. To date, no natural hazards have been listed as such. [1853] We heard that ‘things are listed as, or could be listed as a key threatening process if they could cause a species or an ecological community to become endangered, or threatened, or to become more threatened or endangered’. [1854] We heard that, in 2008 fire regimes was nominated as a key threatening process. No decision was made at that time to give effect to the nomination, and renewed consideration was sought in 2018. [1855] In light of increasing anticipated impacts of natural hazards, we suggest this nomination be reconsidered.
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