I recently discovered the Australian Government’s 2015-16 budget for the Environment portfolio is worth just 17 days of spending on Australia’s Defence portfolio.
With such limited funds for research and management, both nationally and locally, and uncertainty around funding continuity; scrutinising and evaluating the effectiveness of environmental research and management is crucial to ensuring appropriate investments in the future.
One projects which seems unnecessarily wasteful (and cruel) is the threatened species conservation project to reintroduce Eastern Bettongs (Bettongia Gaimardi) to the wilds of the Lower Cotter Catchment in the ACT.
Although once widespread in the south-east of mainland Australia, the Eastern Bettong became extinct on the mainland following the spread of the European Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) after 1900, and are now only found in eastern Tasmania (where they are susceptible to forest clearfelling, burning and 1080 poison), and in captivity (here at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve).
With feral predators and competitors like foxes, cats, pigs, hares and rabbits relatively unmanaged and roaming the Lower Cotter Catchment, rangers are now spending limited time and money monitoring feral wildlife using expensive cameras – which have been lost or stolen – and from today, will begin targeted fox baiting over 60 square kilometres.
A recent discovery of a feral cat devouring a 4-kilogram adult Pademelon – a small marsupial similar to a kangaroo – shows that controlling fox populations may not be enough to stop the decline of medium-sized marsupials – let alone small bettongs.
While Eastern Bettong’s prefer habitat of dry open eucalypt forests and grassy woodland – the regenerating Lower Cotter Catchment instead offers large swathes of dense blackberry, further degraded by the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which is also a competitor.
With all these threats, the Bettongs stand little chance of survival if reintroduced this year, and face even more threats now than prior to extinction.
The project poses several questions, most notably – How effective is this investment? Is this the best management option? And how do we determine where to invest in threatened species conservation?
An example of a similar bettong translocation project was in 2001, when 85 brush-tailed bettongs (Bettongia penicillata) from Western Australia and South Australia were translocated to Yathong Nature Reserve in western New South Wales.
Despite there being sufficient food, and getting the red fox under control after five years of aerial baiting, 73 per cent of the bettongs fitted with radio transmitters died within the first six months, and all were dead within 13 months, mostly due to cat predation.
Although demonstrating that foxes no longer posed a threat, the effectiveness of this and similar projects must be remembered.
While some bettong ‘reintroductions’ have been successful thanks to barrier fences, these are not long-term sustainable solutions nor are they ‘real’ reintroductions to the wild.
If successful, the project could have substantial benefits socially, ecologically and economically.
Socially because it’s cute and it’s extinct.
Ecologically because the woodland ecosystem would benefit from the Bettongs extensive foraging which increases the soil’s capacity to capture and absorb water, and dispersal of fungi spores (which help plants like eucalyptus and acacia trees extract nutrients from the soil).
Economically, it could potentially have a good return on investment in terms of reduced spending on land management.
While the benefit cost ratio and the probability of the project’s success are unknown, in my opinion – the likelihood of success is the critical issue. Predators like the feral cat are in no way near under control, nor could they be before years’ end, and the habitat is far from ideal.
Our conservation priorities must not simply be based on the extent to which a species is threatened.
Simply because the Eastern Bettong is extinct on the mainland, should not give it’s reintroduction a higher priority than other more effective conservation efforts with a greater likelihood of success.
But it seems we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.