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Delicate rescue to save threatened wildlife from bushfire zone


Feb. 12, 2020

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Threatened wildlife will be winched to safety from burnt bushland in an unprecedented and delicate rescue mission from Victoria's fire-stricken forests.
Authorities have named up to 34 species may need to be carefully extracted from their burnt habitat or ash-polluted rivers, mostly in the state's east.
That number may be scaled down as analysis of the fire zone continues but James Todd, biosecurity executive director at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, said the mission would still be unprecedented.
"Yes, we've done extractions in the past. Yes, we've had captive breeding programs in the past and continue to. But in terms of the scale we're looking at, we've probably not had this ever before," Mr Todd said.
"I think what we're dealing with here are quite novel circumstances, and in part it's the size of the fires and the severity of them ... We also know the fires have burnt areas that have probably never burnt."
Authorities prepared a list of 34 species that could need evacuating using data from January 11, when fires had burnt through 1.3 million hectares around Victoria.
As habitat analysis continues, some species will be dropped from the evacuation plan. Already, the brush-tailed wallaby's habitat in the Snowy River National Park has been deemed safe enough for the animals to stay.
The wildlife extractions are delicate operations. Typically, no tranquiliser is used to minimise the impact.
Fifteen vulnerable Eastern Bristlebirds were extracted from Howe Flat last week before potential fires last weekend. Only 180 Eastern Bristlebirds live there, the only surviving population in Victoria.
A crack team of 10 experts - including eight qualified bird handlers - were taken to Mallacoota by a Singapore Defence Force Chinook. From the helicopter, they took a 4WD to a boat and then an "all-terrain vehicle" through several kilometres of bush to the bird's habitat.
That's before they had even begun to capture the birds, using "very very fine" mist net.
"They get tangled in the net," Mr Todd said.
"Qualified bird handlers then extract them from the net. They're treated, placed into boxes and transported in boxes."
The birds then took the same trip back on the all-terrain vehicle, boat, 4WD and helicopter to Essendon Airport before they were taken to Melbourne Zoo in Parkville.
The team will return the birds as soon as possible, but that could be months even though Howe Flat was spared on the weekend.
"In either case, I expect them to be held at the zoo for a couple of months," Mr Todd said last Friday.
The plan will vary depending on the species, the reason for their evacuation and the suitability to return them to the wild.
Threatened native fish have already been extracted from Buffalo River in Victoria's north-east after rains flushed bushfire ash into the water.
Macquarie Perch were taken from Abbeyard to a Victorian Fisheries facility in Snobs Creek last week, while smaller-bodied fish could be taken to DELWP facilities.
Some of the extractions could involve putting a small percentage of the population into suitable new habitat to spread and minimise the fire risk to the population in the long term.
Another possibility is mixing separate populations of the same species, if they are in genetic decline, to purposely boost the robustness of the overall population.
A species could also go through a breeding program in captivity before being returned to their habitat.
The preliminary extraction list was drawn up by DELWP with the Parks Victoria, Zoos Victoria, academics and independent scientists, and will be continuously refined as fresh data comes in.
The operations are part of the state government 's $17.5 million Bushfire Biodiversity and Recovery Program, with emergency extractions costing $2.4 million.
Fires have already burnt through more than 1.5 million hectares but DELWP modelling has found that could grow to 2.7 million hectares by the end of the season, in the worst case.
In a separate effort to protect native animals and plants, professional shooters have begun culling feral animals from helicopters over Victoria's high country.
The aerial operation will focus on introduced animals including deer, feral pigs and goats, which can wreak havoc on native vegetation.
The shooters will also target foxes and feral cats, which can have a devastating impact on native animals more likely to be exposed from loss of habitat after bushfires.
Rachel is a breaking news reporter for The Age.
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