Mr Kean said a slew of immediate action was underway and his department would soon release a medium-term plan. He also stressed “protecting the remaining areas of unburnt habitat” was key for the “longer-term restoration and recovery” of species and landscapes across NSW.
The vow to protect unspoilt areas puts Mr Kean at odds with Deputy Premier and Nationals leader John Barilaro, who has recently demanded increased prescribed burning and even grazing and logging in national parks.
Mr Barilaro, who is also Minister for Disaster Recovery, said “the main concern raised with me every single day is the fear of having to live next to national parks and state forests that are locked up, with fuel loads ready to explode”.
“This is real and it’s not just about communities, but also what has occurred to our wildlife and landscape,” he said.
The government’s immediate response includes dropping tonnes of supplementary food to more than a dozen colonies of brush-tailed rock-wallabies. Fires have burned some 80 per cent of the known range of the endangered marsupial.
Some $1 million in emergency funding has been set aside as part of a $6.5 million investment to
support the rescue and care of injured wildlife, the report said.
The government also plans “widespread aerial shooting” of feral deer, pigs and goats in burnt and unburnt refuges. The 12-month National Parks and Wildlife Service program includes 1500–2000 hours of aerial shooting, follow-up ground shooting, dropping as many as 1 million baits, and fencing off some areas.
Ecologists have been concerned that feral horses would not be included in the feral control plans but wild dogs would feature. Dingoes, an apex predator than can control foxes and cats, will likely suffer from any wild dog poisoning or shooting plan, they say.
Meanwhile, at least a third of the Kosciuszko National Park has burned, adding to the pressure from brumbies. A government-commissioned survey last year found horse numbers were expanding at the rate of 23 per cent a year, and likely topped 25,000 in alpine regions alone.
The government’s priority plans are based largely on the use of mapping fire-hit areas with known ranges of threatened species, as it will take time for parks officers and other researchers to survey precise impacts on the ground.
That first pass, though, found some 26 threatened plant species – such as the Creswick apple box and Kelton’s leek orchid – have their entire recorded ranges in fire-affected areas.
Seeds of that orchid and also the Bago leek orchid, both critically endangered, are among the seeds being collected as part of rescue efforts for plants and animals.
“To give them the best chance of recovery we are collecting seeds for banking and individual animals
for care and emergency housing until it is safe to release them back to the wild or to provide an insurance population should they struggle to survive,” the report said.
In a nod to recent reports that the once common platypus may be at risk, the government has given the monotreme priority for rescue operations. Other animals being collected include grey-headed flying foxes, Booroolong frogs and genetically important koalas from the Blue Mountains region.
Koalas are also being helped by the deployment of watering stations at key locations on the North Coast. The government estimates 24 per cent of the marsupial’s habitat in eastern NSW has been scorched, a number that could rise given 41 per cent of wet sclerophyll forests have been hit with closer assessment.
“The NSW Koala Strategy Expert Advisory Panel chaired by the Deputy Chief Scientist and Engineer is meeting with koala experts to identify priority actions,” the report said.
Rescue efforts included NPWS firefighters escorting researchers into the Tantangara region of the
Kosciuszko National Park as as fires approached Adaminaby to catch and save as many as 140 of
the “extremely rare” Stocky Galaxias fish found only in the park.
“University of Canberra researchers were concerned that ash from the fires would contaminate the creek and endanger the fish, which live in cold, clear and fast flowing water, often covered in snow during winter,” Mr Kean said.
The rescued fish – as long as an adult’s index finger and weighing about13 grams – may have a home range of just 100 metres, he said.
This one small creek is a tributary of the Upper Murrumbidgee River and the fish has survived from predatory trout above a waterfall upstream of the Tantangara Reservoir, the government said.
Another endangered population rescued was the rare Manning River turtles that faced rapidly drying waterholes as the drought deepened.
“The Barnard River is one of the waterways in the Manning River Valley which is home to
these rare turtles that have been around for 50 million years,” Mr Kean said, adding the river had largely dried up.
“Our experts are taking urgent action, working with Aussie Ark to monitor and relocate turtles
from small waterholes into larger ones until rainfall replenishes the waterways,” he said.
Director of Aussie Ark Tim Faulkner said three turtles were rescued from the waterholes to be taken into care for conservation and breeding, with nine more to be collected by March to boost the genetic mix of the insurance population.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.