By Dr Greg Holland, NSW Regional Ecologist, Tim White, Regional Operations Manager, and Hannah Thomas, Field Ecologist
Embarking on a large-scale, ground-breaking new project can bring great rewards, while also providing plenty of challenges and learning opportunities. Such is the case at Mallee Cliffs National Park and Pilliga State Conservation Area, AWC’s project sites under its historic partnership program with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) as part of the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program.
Feral Animal Control
At each site, AWC is establishing large, feral predator-free fenced areas to facilitate reintroductions of regionally extinct mammals. The Mallee Cliffs fence – protecting 9,570 hectares – was completed in August 2019 and within just 10 months all feral animals were removed from this vast landscape. Intensive monitoring was undertaken over several months and the area was formally declared feral predator free in September 2020, making Mallee Cliffs home to the largest feral predator-free area on mainland Australia – a project milestone and major achievement for conservation in Australia.
In the Pilliga project area, just one wily fox remains within the fenced area (5,800 hectares). Thick forest makes tracking this animal extremely difficult. An array of proven and cutting-edge techniques − including new technologies such as drones equipped with thermal cameras − have been deployed in this war against feral predators, but so far, the team has been outfoxed.
Determined not to be outdone, the Pilliga team have redoubled their efforts and we look forward to reporting our success to you.
Reintroductions of regionally extinct mammals
At Mallee Cliffs, Greater Bilbies (Macrotis lagotis) were reintroduced into a feral predator-free ‘breeding area’ (480 hectares) in October 2019 and this new Bilby population is thriving. Recent trapping found all animals to be in very good condition, with half of all adult females carrying pouch young. Current estimates suggest the Greater Bilby population at Mallee Cliffs has doubled in size in just nine months.
Greater Bilbies are also doing well in the Pilliga breeding area (680 hectares), following reintroduction in 2018, with 75 per cent of females found to be carrying pouch young in the most recent survey. Trapping of the Pilliga population of Bridled Nailtail Wallabies (Onychogalea fraenata), 12 months after reintroduction, revealed all captured adult females to be carrying pouch young, and showed the population is increasing in size.
Reintroductions on the horizon
Excitingly, a series of reintroductions at Mallee Cliffs are imminent. Nationally threatened Greater Stick-nest Rats (Leporillus conditor), sourced from Franklin Island (SA) and captive-bred for 12 months, have been released in the first of a multi-stage process. Preparations are also underway for the reintroduction of Mitchell’s Hopping- mouse (Notomys mitchellii) and Numbats (Myrmecobius fasciatus). All of these species are listed as extinct in NSW and their return will mark another important milestone for conservation.
Further reintroductions in the Pilliga are dependent on the removal of the last known fox from the 5,800-hectare area. Once this has been achieved, Brush-tailed Bettongs (Woylie, Bettongia penicillata) and Western Barred Bandicoots (Perameles bougainville) will be the next species to be returned here.
Ultimately, the project will see up to 11 locally extinct mammals restored to these two NSW national parks.
Operations bases – embedding the AWC model
Strategic planning for operations bases at both parks is well advanced, including residential accommodation, operations and scientific research facilities for the AWC field team. This is a vital step that will provide AWC with a permanent boots-on-the-ground presence and ensure AWC’s template for restoring biodiversity is effectively delivered and embedded in each park.
On-site headquarters will also enable visitation from supporters, key stakeholders and others, allowing people to experience the amazing conservation outcomes of the project first-hand. Establishment of the operations bases therefore represents a high priority for the delivery of this project.
AWC and NPWS are working closely to ensure plans comply with necessary specifications and regulations. Most buildings will be prefabricated off-site incorporating sustainable and environmentally conscious designs that blend with the natural environment. Design and planning continue apace, with on-ground works to commence soon.
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