In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.
The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.
Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.
Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.
The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.
The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.
The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.
The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.
The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.
The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.
In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.
The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.
During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.
What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.
CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.
Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.
This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.
Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.
It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.
The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.
The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.
Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.
But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.
The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.
Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.
Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.
Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle
Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
It’s been 13 years since the Australian Government set out to develop the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with the goal of finding a more sustainable balance between irrigation and the environment.
Like much of the history of water sharing in the Murray-Darling over the last 150 years, the process has been far from smooth. However, significant progress has been achieved, with about 20% of water rights recovered from agricultural users and redirected towards environmental flows.
One of the most difficult debates has been over how the water should be recovered.
Initially most occurred via “buybacks” of water rights from farmers. While relatively fast and inexpensive, opposition to buybacks emerged due to concerns about their effects on water prices and irrigation farmers and regional communities.
This led to a new emphasis on infrastructure programs including farm upgrades in which farmers received funding to improve their irrigation systems in return for surrendering water rights.
While these farm upgrades are more expensive, it was thought that they would have fewer negative effects on farmers and communities.
However, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences finds that – while beneficial for their participants – these programs push water prices higher, placing pressure on the wider irrigation sector.
The Murray-Darling Basin operates under a “cap and trade” system. Each year there is a limit on how much water can be extracted from the basin’s rivers, based on the available supply.
Water users (mostly farmers) hold rights to a share of this limit, and they can trade these rights on a market.
To date 1,230 gigalitres of these water rights have been bought from farmers via buyback programs at a cost of about A$2.6 billion.
The other type of program is farm upgrades which offer farmers funding to improve their irrigation infrastructure in return for a portion of their water rights.
To date 255 gigalitres of water has been recovered through farm upgrades at a cost of about $1 billion.
Annual volume of water rights recovered for the environment since 2007-08
As would be expected, the dominant short-term driver of prices is water availability, with large price increases during droughts. The dominant longer-term drivers include lower average rainfall related to climate change and the emergence of new irrigation crops including almonds.
While water recovery has played less of a role, buybacks and farm upgrades have still reduced the supply of water to farmers and increased prices to some extent.
Our modelling suggests water prices in the southern basin are around $72 per megalitre higher on average as a result of water recovery measures, with the effects varying year-to-year depending on conditions.
Modelled water allocation prices with and without water recovery
Farm upgrades are often viewed as an opportunity to save water and produce “more crop per drop”.
But they can also encourage farmers to increase their water use as they seek to make the most of their new infrastructure: sometimes referred to as a “rebound effect”.
While there have been concerns about rebound effects for some time, there has been limited evidence until recently.
As would be expected, our study finds that upgraded farms have benefited in terms of profits and productivity. However, we also find large rebound effects, with upgraded farms increasing their water use by between 10% and 50%.
To get the extra water they need to buy it from other farmers, putting pressure on prices. We find the resulting price impact to be much more than the impact of buying back water. Per unit of water recovered, it is about double that of buybacks.
These higher water prices increase the risk that irrigation assets – including some newly upgraded systems – could become stranded as price sensitive irrigation activities become less profitable.
Recovering water through off-farm infrastructure is one alternative, however the most effective projects have already been developed, leaving cost-effective water saving schemes harder to find.
This brings us back to buybacks. Because buybacks are cheaper than farm infrastructure programs, there is more scope to combine them with regional development investments to help offset negative impacts on communities.
The challenge is that in a connected water market the flow-on effects on water prices and farmers can be complex and difficult to predict, making it hard to know where to direct development investments.
A potential middle ground is rationalisation, where parts of the water supply network are decommissioned, and affected farmers are compensated both for their water rights and for being disconnected from water supply. This approach has less effect on water prices and allows regional development initiatives to be targeted to the affected areas.
However, rationalisation can be hard to implement given it requires negotiating with all affected farmers and all levels of government.
Given the complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, water policy is far from simple. While it is clear more water will be needed to put the basin on a sustainable footing, there are no easy options.
Further progress will require careful policy design to help ease adjustment pressure on farmers and regional communities.
Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES); David Galeano, Assistant Secretary, Natural Resources, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)
New South Wales planning authorities relied on flawed evidence when backing a highly controversial coal seam gas project that may endanger critical water supplies, farmland and threatened species, our analysis has found.
Early next month, the Independent Planning Commission NSW (IPC) is due to announce its decision on the future of the A$3.6 billion Narrabri Gas Project. The commission will presumably give substantial weight to an assessment report by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), which recommended the proposal be approved.
However, we contend DPIE has failed to substantiate its claims that the Narrabri Gas Project:
Some 23,000 submissions were made on the Narrabri Gas Project, 98% of which opposed it. They include Australia’s former chief scientist Penny Sackett, who says the project is at odds with the nation’s Paris climate commitments.
The pending decision comes at a critical time for Australia’s gas industry. The Morrison government has flagged a gas-led economic recovery from COVID-19, and on Monday there were reports the October federal budget will contain support for the industry.
The experience of the Narrabri Gas Project so far shows government decisions on such proposals must be evidence-based and take full account of risks to the environment, people and the economy.
The Narrabri Gas Project aims to produce “unconventional” or coal seam gas, by sinking 850 wells in the Pilliga region near Narrabri in northwest NSW.
State authorities have spent four years assessing the project, and a decision by the IPC is due by September 4.
Some 60% of the project is located in the Pilliga forest – the largest forest and woodlands in western NSW and home to threatened species including the koala. The remaining 40% of the project is next to prime farmland. It is also located on the traditional lands of the Gomeroi people.
As assessment by DPIE recommended the proposal be approved. We believe the evidence upon which the department based its decision was flawed. Here are three big problems we identified:
DPIE says the Narrabri Gas Project is in the public interest because it will contribute to gas security for NSW. This assertion is based on a scenario in which Santos commits to providing all gas from the project solely to NSW, rather than the wider East Coast Gas Market.
Yet, DPIE’s recommended conditions for approval make no mention of Santos promising, or being legally compelled, to reserve gas for NSW consumers if the project is approved.
The assessment fails to provide evidence showing the project does not pose significant risk to high-quality groundwater in a region and ecosystem highly dependent on it.
The project will drill extensively below the Great Artesian Basin, potentially contaminating groundwater, land and surface water. Despite Santos and the department’s assumptions that risks will be minimal, recent research shows methane contamination of groundwater occurs due to changes in pressures during water and gas extraction.
This risks human health and safety, and compromises water quality. Wastewater has already leaked in the proposed project area during pilot exploration and production, demonstrating the high risks involved.
The department’s assessment of threats to the water table and management of waste brine is not robust. For example, the government’s own independent Water Expert Panel recommends brine be disposed of at landfill facilities. But brine and salt generated by the project would be highly soluble in comparison to standard landfill waste, and require robust storage management to prevent leaching and migration, according to our colleague and co-author of our assessment, Matthew Currell.
The department’s recommendation of an “adaptive management” approach – essentially “learning by doing” – is risky, given the highly complex potential impacts which are almost impossible to guard against.
DPIE’s assessment does not provide robust evidence that people will not be significantly harmed by the project.
Santos commissioned a social impact assessment, and the department engaged University of Queensland professor Deanna Kemp to review it. DPIE took the view that this review constitutes support for the project and states “overall, the negative social impacts of the project can be appropriately managed”.
However in correspondence with our colleague and co-author of our assessment Rebecca Lawrence, Professor Kemp expressed concern the department “misconstrued” her advice and misinterpreted it as giving the project a “green light”. Professor Kemp stated that her advice in no way constitutes a recommendation of approval of the project.
We believe Professor Kemp was not commissioned by DPIE to comprehensively assess the social impact merits of the project, nor did she do so.
In a response to The Conversation, Professor Kemp said she did not contest the claims made by the authors of this article, and said “any suggestion that my review constitutes an approval of the project would be incorrect”.
There is sufficient evidence to suggest the social impacts in the short and long term will be unmanageable. These include social conflicts over the proposed gas project, loss of rural livelihoods from contamination of both groundwater and surface water, and effects on Aboriginal people and the broader Narrabri community – which is already socially disadvantaged and vulnerable.
The Narrabri Gas Project presents considerable and significantly underestimated risks to the environment, sensitive water resources and communities.
The department’s argument that Narrabri gas will increase NSW’s energy security is highly unlikely and at present there’s nothing to suggest such a condition would be legally enforced. And its assertion the project would not harm people or the environment is not backed by evidence.
On this basis, we believe the Narrabri Gas Project is unsustainable, unviable and not in the public interest.
In response to this article, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said in a statement it “does not agree with any of these claims”, adding:
The Department’s comprehensive assessment of the proposal was informed by extensive community consultation, advice from the Narrabri Shire Council, government agencies and independent experts, including a Water Expert Panel,“ it said.
The assessment concluded that the project is critical for energy security and reliability in NSW, would deliver significant economic benefits to NSW and the Narrabri region, and has been designed to minimise environmental impacts.
Santos has made a commitment that the gas would be provided only to the domestic gas market and has agreed to accept a condition to this effect on any petroleum production lease granted for the project.
The Department’s assessment found the project is in the public interest and is approvable, subject to strict conditions.
Comment has been sought from Santos.
Most people probably associate the Australian Alps with skiing and snow. Others might think of the Man from Snowy River legend or the engineering feats of the Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme.
But few people know the region’s history of exploitation and overuse, nor the courage of those who fought to save this precious wilderness area. A new book, Kosciuszko: A Great National Park, tells that important story. The result, by authors Deirdre Slattery and Graeme L. Worboys, is a positive yet cautionary tale.
Today, the park is largely protected – yet threats such as ski tourism, feral horses and the Snowy 2.0 scheme still loom. And climate change has left the region highly vulnerable, as shown by declining snow depths and a massive bushfire that tore through the Snowy Mountains last summer.
The book shows how Kosciuszko National Park is the product of robust science and hard-fought battles by dedicated individuals – battles that continue to this day.
The Australian Alps in southeast New South Wales is the traditional home of three Aboriginal groups: the Ngarigo, Walgalu and Djilamatang people. It is home to Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko.
The book describes how squatters with cattle occupied the region from the 1820s. By 1840, the Snowy region had been stocked with 200,000 sheep, 75,000 cattle and 3,000 horses which grazed in the mountains each summer.
The discovery of gold in 1860 brought another 10,000 people to the Snowy Mountains. By the turn of the 20th century, the mountains were also a playground for recreation. Hotel Kosciusko, with 93 bedrooms, a ballroom, museum, skating rink and tennis courts, catered for an upmarket clientele.
In 1949 the mountains became the site for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme: 16 dams, 80 kilometres of aqueducts and more than 140 kilometres of tunnels.
By then, the signs of overuse were evident. Soils were eroding, streams became silted and unique alpine flora was diminishing.
Tannat William Edgeworth David, a professor at the University of Sydney, was one of the first to document the unique values of the Snowy Mountains and call for their protection.
In the 1800s, the notion that an ice age once gripped Australia was considered preposterous. The book tells how David and colleagues put the matter “absolutely beyond dispute” when they mapped, on Kosciuszko’s main range, the undeniable signature left by glaciers.
In the early 1900s, David urged that the alpine area be preserved:
[I]t would be wise policy, in the interest of people and of science, to reserve from occupation and even from the depasturing of stock, all the highest points of our alpine plateau, so that this floral wonderland may be preserved intact for posterity…
It took almost 50 years before this advice was heeded. Kosciuszko State Park — later Kosciuszko National Park – was proclaimed in 1944. A decade of further scientific research led to the end of summer grazing leases above 1,350 metres in 1958.
One of the first park managers was Neville Gare. As the book notes, Gare quickly learned that feelings over management of the mountains ran deep. Soon after rangers started impounding stock found illegally in the park, an effigy of a park ranger swinging from a hangman’s noose was installed on the veranda of the Jindabyne Hotel.
In 1950, Gare resisted a plan by head of the Ski Tourers Association, Charles Anton, to build a network of ski lodges. The book recounts how the tensions culminated at a public function when Anton snipped Gare’s tie in half to “indicate his indifference to Gare’s authority”. Some lodges were later built.
In his unpublished memoir, Gare wrote “it is not easy to conserve something and use it too”. In future years, this observation would prove all too true.
Gare and the Kosciusko State Park Trust developed the first formal plan of management for the park in 1965. The park was divided into zones for different uses: wilderness, conservation of exceptional natural and historic features, development, hydro-electricity and tourism.
This zoning was radical thinking at the time but has since been widely adopted in park management across Australia.
The plan of management for Kosciuszko National Park has been frequently amended to accommodate more tourism facilities, and the threat of further development is ever-present. As the authors note, further pressure is also coming via Snowy 2.0, a A$5 billion proposal to expand the current hydroelectric scheme.
Climate change is also a threat. Rising temperatures have triggered a 15% decline in the annual maximum snow depth, relative to the 1961-90 average.
Climate change is also making the threat of bushfires worse. In January, the massive Adaminaby Complex fire burned through more than 93,000 hectares in the Snowy region, affecting swathes of bush. It also devastated populations of several threatened species, including the corroboree frog and the stocky galaxias fish.
And the lethal chytrid fungus, introduced to Australia, has pushed the park’s southern corroboree frog to the brink of extinction.
The book reminds us that today, as throughout history, Kosciuszko National Park needs protecting. And key to that are courageous, committed individuals – and robust science.
Over the past two weeks, storms pummelling the New South Wales coast have left beachfront homes at Wamberal on the verge of collapse. It’s stark proof of the risks climate change and sea level rise pose to coastal areas.
Our new research published today puts a potential price on the future destruction. Coastal land affected by flooding – including high tides and extreme seas – could increase by 48% by 2100. Exposed human population and assets are also estimated to increase by about half in that time.
Under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions and no flood defences, the cost of asset damage could equate up to 20% of the global economy in 2100.
Without a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, or a huge investment in sea walls and other structures, it’s clear coastal erosion will devastate the global economy and much of the world’s population.
In Australia, we predict the areas to be worst-affected by flooding are concentrated in the north and northeast of the continent, including around Darwin and Townsville.
Sea levels are rising at an increasing rate for two main reasons. As global temperatures increase, glaciers and ice sheets melt. At the same time, the oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere, causing the water to expand. Seas are rising by about 3-4 millimetres a year and the rate is expected to accelerate.
These higher sea levels, combined with potentially more extreme weather under climate change, will bring damaging flooding to coasts. Our study set out to determine the extent of flooding, how many people this would affect and the economic damage caused.
We combined data on global sea levels during extreme storms with projections of sea level rises under moderate and high-end greenhouse gas emission scenarios. We used the data to model extreme sea levels that may occur by 2100.
We combined this model with topographic data (showing the shape and features of the land surface) to identify areas at risk of coastal flooding. We then estimated the population and assets at risk from flooding, using data on global population distribution and gross domestic product in affected areas.
So what did we find? One outstanding result is that due to sea level rise, what is now considered a once-a-century extreme sea level event could occur as frequently as every ten years or less for most coastal locations.
Under a scenario of high greenhouse gas emissions and assuming no flood defences, such as sea walls, we estimate that the land area affected by coastal flooding could increase by 48% by 2100.
This could mean by 2100, the global population exposed to coastal flooding could be up to 287 million (4.1% of the world’s population).
Under the same scenario, coastal assets such as buildings, roads and other infrastructure worth up to US$14.2 trillion (A$19.82 trillion) could be threatened by flooding.
This equates to 20% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2100. However this worst-case scenario assumes no flood defences are in place globally. This is unlikely, as sea walls and other structures have already been built in some coastal locations.
In Australia, areas where coastal flooding might be extensive include the Northern Territory, and the northern coasts of Queensland and Western Australia.
Elsewhere, extensive coastal flooding is also projected in:
– southeast China
– Bangladesh, and India’s states of West Bengal and Gujurat
– US states of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland
– northwest Europe including the UK, northern France and northern Germany.
Our large-scale global analysis has some limitations, and our results at specific locations might differ from local findings. But we believe our analysis provides a basis for more detailed investigations of climate change impacts at the most vulnerable coastal locations.
It’s clear the world must ramp up measures to adapt to coastal flooding and offset associated social and economic impacts.
This adaptation will include building and enhancing coastal protection structures such as dykes or sea walls. It will also include coastal retreat – allowing low-lying coastal areas to flood, and moving human development inland to safer ground. It will also require deploying coastal warning systems and increasing flooding preparedness of coastal communities. This will require careful long-term planning.
All this might seem challenging – and it is. But done correctly, coastal adaptation can protect hundreds of millions of people and save the global economy billions of dollars this century.
This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.
On a coastal holiday last summer, I was preoccupied. Bushfires were tearing through southeast Australia, and one in particular had me worried. Online maps showed it moving towards the last remaining population of a plucky little fish, the stocky galaxias.
I’ve worked in threatened fish conservation and management for more than 35 years, but this species is special to me.
The stocky galaxias was formally described as a new species in 2014. Its only known population lives in a short stretch of stream in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales. A single event could wipe them out.
On January 2 the bushfires forced my family and I to evacuate our holiday home. As we returned to Canberra, I was still worried. Fire maps showed the stocky’s stream virtually surrounded by fire.
A few days later, I prepared for an emergency rescue.
The stocky galaxias is the monarch of its small stream; the only fish species present. I’ve been trying to protect the stocky galaxias before it was even formally recognised.
Over the last century or more, the species has seen off threats from predatory trout, storms, droughts and bushfires. Snowy 2.0 is the latest danger.
It’s listed as critically endangered in NSW and is being assessed for a federal threatened listing. Before the fires, there were probably no more than 1,000-2,000 adults left in the wild.
As the fires burned, I knew we had to move quickly. I wanted to collect up to 200 stocky galaxias and take them away for safekeeping.
Rainfall after bushfires is major threat to fish, because it washes ash and sediment into streams. Storms were forecast for the afternoon of January 15. So early that morning, myself and two colleagues, escorted by two staff from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, drove to the stocky galaxias stream.
A colleague and I waded in and began electrofishing. This involved passing an electrical current through water, stunning fish momentarily so we could catch them.
After 45 minutes we’d collected 68 healthy stocky galaxias. Woohoo! Further downstream we collected 74 more. By now, fire burned along the stream edge. We packed the fish into drums in the back of my car and drove out.
We headed to the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ trout hatchery at Jindabyne, where we measured each fish and took a genetic sample. I felt immensely relieved and satisfied that we’d potentially saved a species from extinction.
The fish have been thriving in the hatchery building. Stocky galaxias have never been kept in captivity before, but our years of field work told us the temperatures they encountered in the wild, so holding tanks could be set up appropriately.
The captive fish can be used for breeding, but the species has never been captive-bred before and this is not a trivial task.
When they’re reintroduced to the wild, the sites must be free of trout, and other invasive fish like climbing galaxias. Natural or artificial barriers should be in place to prevent invasive fish invasion.
In late March I finally got back to the stocky galaxias’ stream to see whether they’d survived. At the lower stretch of its habitat, the fire was not severe and the stream habitat looked good, with only a small amount of ash and sediment.
Upstream, the fire had been more severe. At the edge of the stream, heath was razed and patches of sphagnum moss were burnt. Again, sediment in the stream was not too abundant. But fish numbers were lower than normal, suggesting some there had not survived.
The stocky galaxias species might have survived yet another peril, but the battle isn’t over.
Feral horse numbers in Kosciuszko National Park have increased dramatically in the last decade. They’ve degraded the banks of the stocky galaxias’ stream, making it wider and shallower and filling sections with fine sediment. This smothers the fish’s food resources, spawning sites and eggs.
Before the fires, plans were already afoot to fence off much of the stocky galaxias habitat to keep horses out. Fire damage to the park has delayed construction until early 2021.
The biggest long-term threat to the species is the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro development. It threatens to transfer an invasive native fish, the climbing galaxias, to within reach of stocky galaxias habitat. There, it would compete for food with, and prey on, stocky galaxias – probably pushing it into extinction.
Despite this risk, in May this year the NSW government approved the Snowy 2.0 expansion, with approval conditions that I believe fail to adequately protect the stocky galaxias population. The project has also received federal approval.
The stocky galaxias is unique and irreplaceable. I want my grandchildren to be able to show their grandchildren this little Aussie battler thriving in the wild.
The damage wrought by Snowy 2.0 may not be apparent for several decades. By then many politicians and bureaucrats now deciding the future of the stocky galaxias will be gone, as will I.
But 2020 will go down in history as the year the species was saved from fire, then condemned to possible extinction.
This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.
Bushfires are a threat to most animal species. But for one rare lizard living on a rocky island in the sky, a single blaze could wipe the species off the planet.
The Kaputar rock skink (Egernia roomi) is thought to have have one of the smallest ranges of any reptile in New South Wales – at the summit of a single extinct volcano, Mount Kaputar.
The existence of this mysterious skink was informally known for decades, and in August last year the species was finally scientifically described. But months later, it may already be headed for extinction.
Late last year, bushfires are thought to have ripped through more than half the Kaputar rock skink’s habitat. We don’t yet know what this means for its survival, but the outlook is not good.
The Kaputar rock skink is handsome lizard, typically around 10 centimetres in body length, with dark chocolate brown and grey scales and an orange belly.
It’s found in the Nandewar Ranges near Narrabri. The ranges – weathered remnants of ancient volcanic eruptions between 21 and 17 million years ago – rise out of the surrounding plains in a series of breathtaking rock formations.
The Kaputar rock skink lives on one of these outcrops, Mount Kaputar. It exists on a narrow band of rock at the summit, more than 1,300 metres above sea level.
This high elevation areas is cooler than the surrounding plains, which suits this cool-adapted species perfectly. But the species’ tiny range means it’s highly vulnerable. When danger strikes, the Kaputar rock skink has nowhere to go.
Bushfires tore through the Nandewar Ranges in October and November last year, reportedly burning more than 17,000 hectares of bush. More than half of Kaputar rock skink habitat is believed to have burned.
The expert panel advising the federal government on bushfire recovery has named the skink as one of 119 severely-affected species needing urgent conservation intervention. But the species’ rugged, remote habitat, combined with COVID-19 restrictions, have delayed efforts to assess the extent of the damage.
It’s likely that many Kaputar rock skinks died during the fires themselves, although we hope others survived by crawling deep into rock cracks.
But after the fires, threats remain. Vegetation loss may make the skinks easy prey, and in a charred landscape, there may be little for the reptiles to eat.
History tells us fires do affect high-elevation skinks. For example, fire is thought to have driven the rock-dwelling Guthega skink (Liopholis guthega) to become locally extinct at some sites on the Bogong High Plains in northeast Victoria.
Species restricted to a small area are vulnerable to any loss of habitat. And fire is not the only threat to the Kaputar rock skink.
Climate change is a big concern. While many species respond to increasing temperatures by migrating uphill to cooler climes, that’s not possible for the skink, which is already precariously perched on a summit.
Introduced goats may also be taking a toll as they trample through the rocky terrain.
Evidence suggests humans are also a disturbance to the Kaputar rock skink’s habitat. The reptiles live close to the edge of cliff lines that are readily accessible by walking tracks. Trampling of low vegetation has been observed at many sites, as have disturbed rocks – the latter possibly from people wanting to find and photograph the species.
Scientists know relatively little about the Kaputar rock skink. One thing we’re sure of, though, is that the species’ existence is threatened.
Surveys are needed at known skink locations, as well as surrounding areas where it might lie undiscovered. Understanding where the species occurs and how it responds to fires, drought and other disturbances is critical to conservation efforts.
Of course it’s the middle of winter now, so the skinks may not be very active on their cold mountain top. But my colleagues and I hope to travel to Mount Kaputar soon to survey the skink’s habitat and find out how the species fared.
It’s just months since science officially welcomed the Kaputar rock skink to the world. It’s far too early to say goodbye.
Dane Trembath, an Australian Museum biologist with a focus on reptiles, contributed to this article.
This article is a preview of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a multimedia project launching on Monday July 13. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Sign up to The Conversation’s newsletter for updates.
In late summer, male northern corroboree frogs call for a female mate. It’s a good time to survey their numbers: simply call out “Hey, frog!” in a low, deep voice and the males call back.
This year, the survey was vital. Bushfires had torn through the habitat of the critically endangered species. We urgently needed to know how many survived.
In late February we trekked into Kosciuszko National Park, through a landscape left charred by the ferocious Dunns Road fire.
We surveyed the scene, calling out: “Hey, frog!”. At ponds not severely burnt, reasonable numbers of northern corroboree frogs responded. At badly burnt sites where frogs had been found for 20 years, we were met with silence. The adults there had likely died.
After completing our surveys we collected melted cameras we’d deployed eight months earlier to monitor water levels in the ponds. Some weeks later, these would reveal just what the frogs had endured.
Northern corroboree frogs are tiny – no longer than three centimetres long – and feature distinctive yellow and black stripes. They are listed as critically endangered, but are more abundant than their close relative, the southern corroboree frog.
They’re found only in the high country of southern New South Wales and the ACT. Before last summer’s bushfires, just a few thousand northern corroboree frogs were thought to remain in the wild. Our preliminary post-fire assessment indicates a substantial number might have died where fires were severe.
Of the frogs’ two key habitat areas in NSW, one was burnt by the fires and one was left untouched. Over the border in the ACT, the fire damage was relatively slight, but the worst came later.
After the fires, heavy rain in denuded burnt catchments produced water runoff laden with sediment. Some frog breeding habitat was eroded and filled with silt and ash. Once-mossy ponds were now gravel and ash.
In March 2019, we’d set up cameras to take one photograph a day, to monitor water levels in ponds. The fires melted the cameras, and some were also waterlogged. One of the authors, Ben Scheele, took them home and left them in his garage, assuming the footage was lost.
But several weeks later, bored during the COVID-19 lockdowns, he chiselled open the warped casing and removed the memory cards. Amazingly, most still worked.
They contained a fascinating series of photos. Some revealed how a number of ponds largely escaped the fires, only to be destroyed afterwards by flooding.
The series below shows a pond in Kosciuszko National Park. Watch the transition from autumn to deep winter snow, then to dry earth before the fire and its smoky aftermath (when the camera had fallen to the ground):
Australia is home to around 240 frog species, most found nowhere else in the world.
The expert panel advising the federal government on bushfire recovery has identified 16 frog species likely to be severely affected by last summer’s fires.
All but one was listed as threatened by the IUCN prior to the fires. Importantly, the panel noted not much is known about how Australian frogs respond to fire.
Many Australian frog species have adapted to survive fire. But last summer, fires tore through areas where such events are extremely rare.
This includes World Heritage rainforests in northern NSW, home to the mountain frog, found nowhere else on Earth. How these frogs will respond to the fires remains to be seen.
For species associated with streams, such as the Barred River frogs, the impacts of fire may not be immediately apparent. Males typically stay near streams and may have escaped the flames, but females spend much time away from streams and may have died. These frogs are long-lived, so it may be many years before population declines are detected.
The effects of last summer’s fires on frogs are likely to be felt for years to come. For example, regrowing forests use lots of water, which will affect species in forested areas such as the northern corroboree frogs. This compounds a trend towards less rainfall under climate change, which is already driving their decline.
Annual northern corroboree frog monitoring conducted under the NSW government’s Saving Our Species program has been in place since 1998. This, coupled with the fact about half the known sites were fire-affected, puts us in a good position to better understand the species’ responses to fire by comparing burnt and unburnt sites in coming years.
The NSW government’s Saving Our Species program, and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, have started work on a captive “assurance” population for the species. The project, supported by Commonwealth funding, involves collecting eggs from the wild to safeguard the species’ unique genetic diversity.
Ongoing monitoring of other frog species is also critical. Importantly, anyone can get involved in helping understand frog responses to fire through the FrogID app.
Habitat degradation, climate change and disease threaten frogs globally. In this, they have much in common with humans. Last summer’s severe fires were a direct result of climate change. And of course, COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 people in recent months.
Perhaps humanity should reflect on the fate we share with wildlife, and act.
David Hunter of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment contributed to this article.
Benjamin Scheele, Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University; David Newell, Senior Lecturer, School of Environment, Science & Engineering, Southern Cross University; Jodi Rowley, Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum, and Michael McFadden, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong