Bushfire disaster recovery efforts require ongoing support

Statement of the Ecological Society of Australia

The Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) acknowledges the unprecedented circumstances facing the world through the current COVID-19 pandemic, described by many as a one in 100-year crisis. This situation deserves urgent and priority attention to everyone’s safety and wellbeing.

For Australia, this COVID-19 crisis comes on the back of our unprecedented and disastrous bushfire season of 2019-2020. While working to stem the spread of COVID-19 and protect our community, it is also critical that Australia continues to progress its bushfire recovery plans.

In particular, effectively addressing the national ecological crisis that resulted from the Australian mega-fires* is critical to maintaining Australia’s economy, as well as our environmental, cultural and social values and benefits.

In addition to ESA’s response, we note and applaud the progress already made at the national level through key initiatives like the Wildlife and threatened species bushfire recovery Expert Panel convened by the Minister for the Environment and Threatened Species Commissioner, as well as the work of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, and other key groups including the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the National Environmental Science Programme. These national level activities are also complemented and bolstered by substantial efforts led by the State and Territory Governments (like Victoria), as well as the efforts of numerous NGOs, ecological researchers, and land management groups.

Although the flames have been extinguished and communities are moving into the recovery phase, there is still much we need to understand about the impact these fires have had, and will continue to have on our unique native plants, animals and ecosystems.

In line with expert recommendations made by these groups, the ESA calls for the following urgent actions to continue to advance Australia’s bushfire recovery agenda:

  1. Urgently allocate funding to management and on-ground monitoring actions deemed critical for maintaining species’ populations and avoiding extinctions.
  2. Guarantee ongoing funding for cooperative fire research.
  3. Prioritise assessment and listing (if needed) of impacted species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999. There have been no new listings of species since the bushfire crisis.
  4. Deliver strong national and international leadership and coordination across government portfolios in bushfire disaster response to ensure an improving trajectory for biodiversity.

We stand ready to work alongside our nation’s institutions and leaders to addressing the challenges before us. It is possible for progress to be made, while still ensuring public safety from COVID-19.

Since its inception in 1959, the ESA has dedicated itself to promoting ecology, supporting the application of ecological principles to protect and conserve ecosystems, and promoting the exchange of ecological knowledge for education and cultural development. We remain committed to fulfilling this mission.

 

*About the Australian mega-fires of 2019-2020

These fires were unprecedented in their spatial extent and severity across the subtropical, Mediterranean, and temperate bioregions of the continent. As of 18 March 2020, an estimated 18.6 million hectares (186,000 square kilometres) has burnt across the country, destroying over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killing at least 34 people.

Due to the massive scale and often severe nature of the 2019–2020 mega-fires, an inordinate number of animals have perished including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and many invertebrates.

These fires have impacted ecosystems across Australia, from rainforests in southeast Queensland, New South and Victoria, to Kangaroo Island in South Australia and the Sterling Ranges in Western Australia. The area burnt included 21% of Australia’s remaining forest extent, including Australian ecosystems that typically do not burn such as the World Heritage-listed Gondwana rainforest.

And the impact did not stop when the flames were put out. Many animals that survived the initial fires are vulnerable to starvation, environmental extremes, pollution (e.g. fish kills), and predators in the short-term in burnt or ash-impacted localities. Loss of key resources such as tree hollows, nectar-bearing trees and diverse connected vegetation, is likely to impact species’ populations for decades or centuries into the future.

Many impacted species were already declining as a result of drought, disease, land clearing, and invasive species. The 2019-2020 mega-fires exacerbated the situation by abruptly and severely reducing population sizes and rendering habitat unsuitable.

Photo: Mark Gilpin