Bushfire study shortlisted for Eureka

One of the largest studies ever into the impact of bushfires on Australia's landscape and native wildlife has been shortlisted for the 'Oscars' of Australian science – the 2014 Eureka Prizes.

Jointly headed by Professor Michael Clarke from La Trobe University and Professor Andrew Bennett from Deakin University, it involved a team of 12 researchers over six years.

Their pioneering work detailed changes in mallee vegetation and wildlife and the lasting effects of fire on biodiversity over more than a century.

Covering more than 100,000 square kilometres of Murray Valley mallee landscape in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, it is also one of the largest fire ecology studies anywhere in the world.

The project is one of three finalists for the 2014 NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

'Fire management', Professor Clarke said, 'is a complex challenge as it aims to balance risks to human life and property with the pressing need to conserve biodiversity for future generations.'

The study's key findings have been described as game-changing, overturning conventional wisdom that landscapes with greater variety of fire ages will support a greater diversity of wildlife. 

Prior to this study, the assumption that a mosaic of numerous fire age-classes was beneficial for generating and maintaining habitats for a diversity of wildlife underpinned much conservation management both in Australia and overseas.

'Instead,' Professor Bennett said, 'we found that the overall extent of particular age-classes, particularly older unburnt vegetation, was a much better predictor of the diversity of wildlife in mallee landscapes, than a variety of fire ages.'

'Our research shows that vital habitat features, like large old trees with hollows, take at least 40 years to even begin to develop in the Mallee. This challenges current policies.

'Broad scale burning to achieve a state-wide target of five per cent of public land will reduce the availability of these key habitat features and place the survival of some species at risk – for example, the South-eastern Long-eared Bat and Major Mitchell's Cockatoo which need tree hollows, and the Mallee Emu-wren that requires mature spinifex clumps.'

Professor Clarke said: 'If this five per cent target is sustained it will have profoundly negative consequences for mallee ecosystems.

'We favour an alternative approach that identifies areas to burn on the basis of where the greatest reduction in risk to life and property can be achieved, whilst also minimising the risk to biodiversity.'

Information from the study, plus its fire maps and data on fauna and flora, is now being used to help revise fire planning in south-eastern Australia to better manage fire and biodiversity.

The mammoth project collaborated with more than a dozen government agencies, private landowners and leading conservation NGOs from the three states. It compared 28 mallee landscapes with different fire profiles, measured 44,000 mallee stems and recorded 21,348 birds, 7,200 reptiles and 1,490 mammals.

The success of the Mallee Fire Biodiversity Project has led to further research on fire ecology in other Victorian ecosystems, and many of the approaches developed are now being applied in other fire prone states.

The research has been published in world-leading ecology and conservation journals.   

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of research and innovation, leadership, science communication, journalism and school science.

Media contact

Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications, La Trobe University

T: 0412 261 919

Image credit: Bert Knot

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