Kangaroo Island locals give insight to Senate committee inquiry into Australia's faunal extinction crisis

SENATE VISIT: Senator McMahon, Senator Smith, Senator Hanson-Young, Jim Geddes from Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and Senator Fawcett. Photo supplied
SENATE VISIT: Senator McMahon, Senator Smith, Senator Hanson-Young, Jim Geddes from Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and Senator Fawcett. Photo supplied

The Senate's Environment and Communications References Committee visited Kangaroo Island on Tuesday to conduct a public hearing on its inquiry into Australia's faunal extinction crisis.

Committee chairperson Greens Senator Sarah-Hanson Young led the delegation's visit to the Island, including a tour of the wildfire-devastated western end.

An area where multiple species could be on the edge of extinction, or already extinct, after the firestorm that ripped through in early January 2020.

The committee visited Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and met with owner Jim Geddes. Ms Hanson-Young and the senators planted a few trees and learned about the sanctuary and Island's ongoing recovery operations.

WAITING DOZER: A bulldozer on Shackle Road at 11.28am on December 30, 2019 that the Davis family says was ready to put in firebreaks in Flinders Chase National Park. Photo: Brenton Davis

WAITING DOZER: A bulldozer on Shackle Road at 11.28am on December 30, 2019 that the Davis family says was ready to put in firebreaks in Flinders Chase National Park. Photo: Brenton Davis

The delegation also heard from the Davis family, who properties, businesses and beehives around the Island had been heavily impacted on or destroyed by the fires.

Peter Davis said authorities needed to conduct more hazard reduction burning in the Island's parks and it needed to be done at the right time, in winter such as this week just before the rain.

He alleges that more could have been done to get equipment including a bulldozer into the wilderness area of the park when the lightning first struck on December 30.

Mr Davis also spoke to the committee about blue gum seedlings spreading through creek lines since the fires, and said vigorous regrowth of fire affected timber plantations was a concern for future fire seasons.

The formal hearing was held Tuesday afternoon, September 29 at the Kingscote Town Hall, after a meeting with mayor Michael Pengilly and four councillors.

Margi Prideaux and Steph Wurst were the first to formally give testimony, speaking as two bushfire-impacted landowners.

Landowners testify

The Australian Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Dr Prideaux is calling for a "radically local" approach to conservation after witnessing first-hand last summer's devastating bushfires.

She also describes herself as a "card-carrying member of the conservation movement", said it was time to empower local change to save and preserve the environment.

More than 200,000 hectares of farmland and scrub were destroyed in the fires which ripped through the western half of the island in late December and early January.

The fires also destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings, as well as hundreds of thousands of animals, including koalas, kangaroos, sheep and cattle.

Dr Prideaux said the fires were the worst islanders had ever experienced.

"They burnt hotter, they burnt faster, they moved across a large area of the island in one fell swoop," she told the Senate committee.

The experience had moved her into "a camp of people living inside the grip of climate change".

"Climate change is not theoretical or distant or on the horizon, it's real, it's now and it bites hard," Dr Prideaux said.

"We've just witnessed the might of a fire to destroy decades of conservation in a single night."

She also criticised what she described as "big conservation" organisations that prioritised fundraising while Kangaroo Island farmers were left to deal with destroying their suffering livestock after weeks of unrelenting firefighting to protect their properties and the natural environment.

"Never has it been so clear how disconnected big conservation can be to people," she said.

Another landowner, Stephanie Wurst, told the inquiry the fire destroyed the majority of her family's 750-hectare farm at Stokes Bay, along with their home, all farm infrastructure, 70 kilometres of fencing, a vineyard and half their livestock.

She said Kangaroo Island's recovery would take years and the impact of the fires had "torn people's lives apart".

"They've lost their businesses, their livelihoods and their land. There are people in our community who are really suffering," she said.

Ms Wurst said the local community had to be cared for as a priority, because it was those same people who would champion wildlife conservation and protection.

"If they don't have a buy-in and the ability to see change in fire management policy, a fire of this intensity and scale will occur again in the next 10 to 20 years and will once again destroy all the hard work and conservation of flora and fauna," she said.

Ms Wurst called for the introduction of indigenous fire management practices, the implementation of roadside vegetation breaks, and moves to allow landowners to manage their own land.

"Local knowledge is the key to managing local landscapes," she said.

Ecologists speak out

Also testifying were Heidi Groffen and Pat Hodgen from Terrain Ecology/KI Land for Wildlife were invited to speak about their work saving KI's endangered species.

Former National Parks manager Fraser Vickery from Kangaroo Island Ecology and former National Parks ranger Caroline Paterson from KI Eco-Action also testified.

Mr Vickery questioned the effectiveness of hazard reduction and fire breaks given the changing climate and potential for excessive burning to harm ecology, while Ms Paterson spoke about concerns for widespread habitat loss.

"We really tried to highlight the uniqueness of KI's species and fire history. The importance of managing for biodiversity instead of single species, and the importance of science based decision making, research and monitoring," Ms Paterson said.

"The importance of protecting both state and federal threatened species, including the Kingdom of fungi and invertebrates.

"With so much lost the increased threat of competition for precious natural resources, particularly those left unburnt. Introduced honey bees will compete with native nectar-dependent insects, birds and small mammals.

"The opening up of new areas for tourism and development to support the economy will increase pressure on already threatened species, particularly coastal raptors and beach nesting birds.

"We may never know what has been lost in the most intense areas that burnt in catastrophic conditions, the fungi that is so important for recolonisation, the rare plants that rely on buzz pollination from our native carpenter bees, the many symbiotic relationships that occur in natural ecosystems.

"Much of the native vegetation will recover, and has evolved with fire but not at the intensity of the Ravine fire on January 3, this was a fire fuelled by a changing climate.

"The regeneration will be impacted by radiant heat this summer, wind and water erosion and incursion of weeds and feral animals."

They also spoke about the importance of remnant roadside vegetation as habitat to provide resources, shelter and corridors for smaller mammals, reptiles and woodland birds to move through.

Land users, government

Agriculture Kangaroo Island chairman Rick Morris and Kangaroo Island Plantation Timber community engagement representative Shauna Black also testified.

Representatives from the Department for Environment and Water, Ki Landscape Board and Department of Premier and Cabinet also testified.

Finally, tour guide Craig Wickham from Exceptional KI and wildlife carers Dana Mitchell and Billy Dunlop from KI Wildlife Park gave evidence.

The federal government meanwhile last week did announce funding for multiple conservation projects on Kangaroo Island.

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