'Dras­tic re­duc­tions' of Aus­tralia's north­ern bet­tong pop­u­la­tion re­ported

The Guardian Australia - - News - Lisa Cox

Re­searchers are call­ing for ur­gent mea­sures to save the north­ern bet­tong from ex­tinc­tion af­ter a five-year study found just two re­main­ing pop­u­la­tions of the an­i­mal in the wild.

The re­search, led by WWF Aus­tralia work­ing with the Queens­land gov­ern­ment and sci­en­tists from James Cook Univer­sity, has rec­om­mended state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments look to es­tab­lish in­sur­ance pop­u­la­tions for the small mar­su­pial known as the “rat kan­ga­roo”.

North­ern bet­tongs are en­demic to far north Queens­land and their num­bers have de­clined dra­mat­i­cally since Eu­ro­pean coloni­sa­tion.

Stud­ies from the 1980s sug­gested the an­i­mal could be found in four ar­eas – Mount Wind­sor, the Car­bine table­land, Lamb range and Coane range.

The project team for the lat­est pop­u­la­tion study used trap­ping and 587 sen­sor cam­eras to search for the species in nearly 100,000ha of the wet trop­ics.

The re­sults, pub­lished by WWF on Thurs­day, only found north­ern bet­tongs at Lamb range and Mount Spurgeon in the Car­bine table­land, with no trace of the species de­tected at ei­ther Mount Wind­sor or Coane range.

The project team said this meant the num­ber of dis­tinct pop­u­la­tions had halved and that the to­tal land area the an­i­mals oc­cu­pied had fallen by about 70% – from 500 square kilo­me­tres to 145 square kilo­me­tres – in the past three decades.

They es­ti­mate there are at most 2,500 an­i­mals left in the wild and that only the pop­u­la­tion at Lamb range could be con­sid­ered stable.

“It is clear from the re­sults of this project that north­ern bet­tong pop­u­la­tions have suf­fered dras­tic re­duc­tions over the last three decades,” the re­port states.

It says the de­cline in the species has been caused by fac­tors in­clud­ing changes in cli­mate, land man­age­ment prac­tices, pre­da­tion by feral an­i­mals, habi­tat clear­ance and changed fire regimes.

The sci­en­tists have called on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to up­grade the species threat sta­tus from en­dan­gered to crit­i­cally en­dan­gered, and for both state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments to con­sider op­tions for an in­sur­ance pop­u­la­tion.

“This is a pretty alarm­ing de­cline for the north­ern bet­tong,” said Tim Cronin, the se­nior man­ager of species con­ser­va­tion at WWF Aus­tralia. “If we don’t do some­thing soon, we will lose them.

“Any time you’ve got a species with only one stable pop­u­la­tion left in the wild, it leaves it re­ally vul­ner­a­ble to things like a fire event.”

He said while there were risks as­so­ci­ated with translo­cat­ing an­i­mals to es­tab­lish new pop­u­la­tions, the re­search team be­lieved it was nec­es­sary to ex­plore it in this case.

It has also called for the ex­ist­ing pop­u­la­tions to be prop­erly pro­tected and their habi­tat re­stored.

The Se­nate is ex­am­in­ing Aus­tralia’s fauna ex­tinc­tion cri­sis.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists have called for bet­ter re­sourc­ing and co­or­di­na­tion of threat­ened species work so that more Aus­tralian wildlife does not suf­fer the same fate as the Bram­ble Cay melomys, a tiny ro­dent that went ex­tinct in 2009 af­ter gov­ern­ments failed to act in time to save it.

The north­ern bet­tong project team said its study was an­other ex­am­ple of species de­cline that was oc­cur­ring across the coun­try.

Caitlin Weather­stone, a wildlife

ecol­o­gist who worked on the project, said if the an­i­mal was lost it would have knock-on ef­fects for the sur­round­ing ecosys­tem.

The project found the mar­su­pial played an im­por­tant role in its en­vi­ron­ment be­cause it was one of the main an­i­mals that ate truf­fles and dis­persed truf­fle spores through its habi­tat.

Its de­cline could af­fect truf­fle bio­di­ver­sity in these ar­eas “with un­known con­se­quences for plant-fun­gal in­ter­ac­tions and ecosys­tem health”, the re­port said.

“If we lose that an­i­mal out of the ecosys­tem we don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen,” Weather­stone said. “It will af­fect for­est health but we don’t know by how much at this point.”

A spokesper­son for Queens­land’s de­part­ment of en­vi­ron­ment and science said about 80% of the north­ern bet­tong’s habi­tat was on land man­aged by the Queens­land parks and wildlife ser­vice.

As a re­sult of the pop­u­la­tion study, the de­part­ment had pro­duced an up­dated field guide for the man­age­ment of fire in north­ern bet­tong habi­tat. “With the de­part­ment’s col­lab­o­ra­tors, JCU and WWF-Aus­tralia, DES will con­sider the re­port to de­ter­mine the best way for­ward from this point,” the spokesper­son said. Com­ment was sought from the fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment de­part­ment.

Stephanie Todd/JCU/WWF-Aus Pho­to­graph:

A five-year study has found the north­ern bet­tong is no long found in ar­eas it was known to have in­hab­ited in the the 1980s.

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