Representing a landmark collaboration between AWC and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Pilliga project area protects a vital piece of habitat for Australia’s threatened species. Already a refuge for a suite of wildlife that is declining elsewhere, the Pilliga project area will also host the reintroductions of at least six mammals that have been locally extinct for over a century.
AWC’s project in the Pilliga is managed under a historic partnership agreement between the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and AWC. The project area includes the Gilgai section of the Pilliga National Park, and the Pilliga State Conservation Area. The agreement provides a new model for collaboration between the public sector and the private (not-for-profit) sector. A feature of the partnership is the construction of a large predator-free area, and the reintroduction of several regionally extinct mammals.
The Pilliga project area covers about 35,632 hectares at the northern, more productive section of the vast Pilliga forests. The forests are part of the traditional area of the Gamilaraay (also known as Gamilaroi or Gomeroi) people, and stretch across the flat, sandy plains and low hills between the Warrumbungle Mountains, near Coonabarabran, and Narrabri. Extending over half a million hectares, the Pilliga forests are the largest consolidated block of forest and woodlands in western New South Wales, giving them extraordinary conservation value.
The Pilliga region, on the northwest slopes and plains of New South Wales, experiences a semi-arid climate. All of the creeks are ephemeral, flowing only during significant rain events. The forests have developed on relatively infertile soils, and are dominated by White Cypress Pine as well as a number of Eucalypt species including the Narrow-leaved Ironbark, several species of Red Gums, Rough-barked Apple, Pilliga Box and Poplar Box, Bull Oak and Belah. Less commonly occurring tree species include Black Cypress Pine, Brown Bloodwood and Broad-leaved Ironbark. Other areas of the Pilliga contain a distinctive Broombush vegetation type. Habitat quality for many species is determined by a gradient in fertility from higher elevations in the south-east to the more fertile ‘outwash zone’ in the north-west.
Fire regimes in the Pilliga forests have changed since Indigenous management, and most of the forests in the Pilliga (including within the Pilliga project area) have been selectively logged for over a century. The combination of logging and changed fire regimes has led to significant changes in forest composition and structure, in particular a thickening of White Cypress Pine and Bull Oak.
The Pilliga project area supports species and ecosystems that are typical of the western slopes and plains of NSW and, given its size, represents a significant reservoir for these species. It sustains many native plants and animals that have disappeared from the surrounding landscape, including a number of species associated with more mesic (wetter) eastern forests.
The area is currently home to many threatened animals. It forms part of a stronghold for threatened woodland birds including the Glossy Black Cockatoo, Grey-crowned Babbler, Brown Treecreeper, Speckled Warbler, Varied Sittella, Little Lorikeet and Turquoise Parrot. The Pilliga forests also protect a particularly important population of the iconic Barking Owl.
The forests are also home to a suite of threatened mammals, including the Koala, Squirrel Glider, Black-striped Wallaby, Corben’s Long-eared Bat and the endemic Pilliga Mouse. The threatened Pale-headed Snake is also likely to occur in the Pilliga project area.
In common with most Australian woodlands, the Pilliga project area and the broader Pilliga forests have lost almost their entire suite of small to medium-sized mammals, primarily through predation by feral cats and foxes. AWC is reintroducing at least six species of threatened mammals to a large feral predator-free fenced area. Most of the species to be reintroduced have not been found in NSW national parks for over a century, and will help restore a number of important ecological processes – dispersing seeds and spores, and helping retain nutrients and water.
Across the 35,632 hectares Pilliga project area, AWC is implementing a landscape-scale feral animal control program, combined with intensive weed control. In collaboration with the NPWS, we are also delivering effective fire management to restore key habitat types, and encourage a mosaic of burnt and unburnt vegetation across the area. The research effort by AWC informs ecological fire management practices and response to wildlife for the Pilliga Service Site.
As with all of our sanctuaries, AWC field ecologists will measure the ecological health of the Pilliga over time, and conduct a range of biodiversity research projects to examine the effects of feral animal control and the ecological benefits associated with the reintroduction of small mammals. Monitoring and research projects include:
The focus of AWC’s science and land management at the Pilliga project area has been the establishment of a large (5,800 hectares) fox and cat-free area. Along with our Mallee Cliffs project, this will be the first large feral predator-free area in the NSW national parks estate, and allows for the reintroduction of species that have been extinct in the area for more than 100 years:
AWC released the first Bilbies into a smaller predator-free area in December 2018, followed by the first Bridled Nailtail Wallabies in July 2019. Both reintroductions were historic, landmark occasions for AWC and the NSW government.
The last record of Bilbies in the wild in NSW was near Wagga Wagga in 1912. The source population for the initial Pilliga translocation came from Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary, in far-western New South Wales where AWC has re-established a wild population within an 8,000 hectare, feral predator-free area. It was a complex translocation effort, and involved catching the Bilbies at Scotia, transporting them on a chartered flight to Narrabri, where air-conditioned vehicles were waiting, fitting them with GPS-enabled radio transmitters, and releasing them after dark into the Pilliga. It is anticipated that in a few years’ time the Pilliga will support a population of 850 Bilbies.
The Bridled Nailtail Wallabies reintroduced at the Pilliga were trapped and flown to NSW from Queensland’s Taunton National Park, the site where the Bridled Nailtail Wallabies were rediscovered after being thought extinct for almost 40 years. This initial cache of animals was supplemented by a population from AWC’s Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary, which protects the largest remaining Bridled Nailtail Wallaby population in the world. AWC now protects at least half of the entire Bridled Nailtail Wallaby population.
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Small mammals in NSW and across Australia are under threat due to predation from feral cats and foxes. Combined with extensive habitat loss, this has meant that many species have gone extinct in large areas of their former range. Until there is a landscape-scale solution to managing feral predators, conservation fences are the only effective strategy for protecting small to medium-sized native mammals from extinction. The groundbreaking predator-free area constructed in the Pilliga is a vital, first step in saving a suite of Australia’s most iconic mammals.