They’re back from the very brink of ex­tinc­tion


THE suc­cess of Mt Buller’s Moun­tain Pygmy Possum re­cov­ery pro­gram has been highly praised dur­ing the open­ing of the 2016 snow sea­son.

Both ARMB board chair Jen­nifer Hutchi­son and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer John Hu­ber men­tioned the suc­cess of the pro­gram to re­in­state a healthy colony of the tiny crea­tures that were in fear of ex­tinc­tion.

Ms Hutchi­son re­lated how a ‘few male pos­sums were bor­rowed from Mt Hotham’.

She said the suc­cess of these males be­ing in­tro­duced, to boost the gene pool, had been so suc­cess­ful the ‘boys had been sent home early’.

Mr Hu­ber also praised the work of the en­vi­ron­men­tal team on Buller, in par­tic­u­lar Louise Per­rin, head of the en­vi­ron­men­tal depart­ment.

“The moun­tain pygmy possum story at Mt Buller is a pretty rare ex­am­ple of where Aus­tralian threat­ened species man­age­ment has suc­ceeded,” Ms Per­rin said.

“This past sum­mer, as we un­der­took our stan­dard mon­i­tor­ing, we were stag­gered by the num­bers – we now have more than 140 moun­tain pygmy pos­sums – more now than when they were first re­dis­cov­ered in 1996.

It was ini­tially thought the possum to be ex­tinct, how­ever, a live possum was found at Mt Hotham as early as in 1966.

“They are very small, live deep down in rock boul­der-fields (not trees) in tiny habi­tat patches at high el­e­va­tions and hi­ber­nate from May to October – mean­ing they are not of­ten seen,” Ms Per­rin said.

“Over the years, their habi­tat has been lost and/or frag­mented (mean­ing loss of ge­netic di­ver­sity) and feral preda­tors (par­tic­u­larly foxes and cats) have been hap­pily munch­ing on them.”

When they were re-dis­cov­ered at Mt Buller in 1996, around 80 in­di­vid­u­als were trapped.

By 2004, this num­ber had dropped to six (bi-an­nual mon­i­tor­ing takes place in Novem­ber and Fe­bru­ary) - ex­tinc­tion was im­mi­nent.

Re­sort man­age­ment, with BSL and DSE (now DELWP) de­vel­oped a re­cov­ery plan, which was im­ple­mented from 2005 to 2010.

Key ac­tions were to con­nect pre­vi­ously frag­mented habi­tat, reveg­e­tate habi­tat, un­der­take in­te­grated year­round on­go­ing preda­tor con­trol pro­grams, re­duce sed­i­ment im­pact­ing habi­tat and to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion and aware­ness of the species.

“By the end of 2010 we had re­built habi­tat us­ing 4000 cu­bic me­tres of rock re-creat­ing boul­der-fields, in­stalled 10 rock tun­nels to link pre­vi­ously frag­mented sites and planted around 75,000 food and shel­ter plants in key habi­tat ar­eas,” Ms Per­rin said.

“We had also de­vel­oped, and con­tinue to im­ple­ment, our year-round preda­tor con­trol pro­grams.

“Some 182 sed­i­ment traps were in­stalled to catch sed­i­ment be­fore it reached boul­der-fields and we have es­tab­lished the mini habi­tat ar­eas in the Vil­lage and at the Ski School to raise aware­ness of the species – along with in­for­ma­tion avail­able on our web­sites and through brochures.

“By 2010, we caught 30 an­i­mals (re­mem­ber­ing that snowgum wood­lands which link the boul­der-fields had been de­stroyed by fires in 2006-2007 burn­ing 10 per cent of the boul­der-field habi­tat).

“As pop­u­la­tion was not re­cov­er­ing as it should we de­vel­oped the next re­cov­ery plan for the species – 2011 to 2016 - and be­gan the next set of works.

“We’d col­lected ge­netic ma­te­rial (sim­ply a hair sam­ple con­tain­ing the hair fol­li­cle) from each in­di­vid­ual caught over the years of mon­i­tor­ing and the anal­y­sis of these sam­ples re­vealed that al­though the pop­u­la­tion was grow­ing, the ge­netic di­ver­sity was still low.”

This was the fac­tor ham­per­ing the full re­cov­ery of moun­tain pygmy pos­sums on Mt Buller and prompted the team to take con­trol and un­der­take a novel in situ translo­ca­tion project which in­volved wild-to-wild translo­ca­tions of six male moun­tain pygmy pos­sums from Mt Hotham to Mt Buller just as the breed­ing sea­son started.

The fol­low­ing au­tumn, more than 50 per cent of the ju­ve­nile pos­sums caught had a per­cent­age of Mt Hotham ge­net­ics.

“In 2011, we had 48 pos­sums so we were pretty sure we’d hit on the win­ning for­mula,” Ms Per­rin said.

“We un­der­took an­other translo­ca­tion the fol­low­ing spring with an­other six males – this time from Mt Bogong (to fully soup up the ge­netic di­ver­sity) and again saw ter­rific re­sults the fol­low­ing au­tumn.”

Next on the agenda is the 2017-2021 re­cov­ery plan.

“We still have some work to do; we con­tinue to reveg­e­tate habi­tat and we are look­ing at an­other novel ap­proach (in­tra-site translo­ca­tions) to es­tab­lish pop­u­la­tions in ar­eas of habi­tat which are cur­rently un­used,” Ms Per­rin said.

“It’s pretty cool that a small group of pas­sion­ate peo­ple have been able to work to­gether to get this species back on track at Mt Buller.

“And we are pro­vid­ing ex­tremely valu­able in­for­ma­tion not only for man­age­ment of moun­tain pygmy pos­sums in the wild in Aus­tralia, but also for threat­ened species man­age­ment in gen­eral,” Ms Per­rin con­cluded.

PHOTO: An­drew Wet­ten­hall

FLOUR­ISH­ING: Mt Buller’s man­ager of en­vi­ron­men­tal ser­vices Louise Per­rin records de­tails of the moun­tain pygmy possum pop­u­la­tion twice a year and is thrilled at the suc­cess of an in­tro­duced breed­ing pro­gram

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