Scientists are being forced to shut down or scale back fieldwork to assess the impact of last summer’s devastating bushfires on threatened species amid the coronavirus crisis, prompting concerns it could affect wildlife recovery.
Several universities have shut down fieldwork to comply with restrictions on travel and physical contact and government agencies working on the recovery have had to scale back some of their operations.
Urgent work such as feral-animal baiting has been able to continue in many fire-hit regions, and departments have adjusted their working methods to use local contractors rather than fly their own teams into locations such as Kangaroo Island, where there have been calls for a ban on non-essential travel.
But some of the monitoring work that was due to assess the severity of the impact on at-risk wildlife has been suspended because of the difficulty in transporting experts to fire-ravaged locations.
All of the scientists Guardian Australia spoke to said they agreed with the measures that had been imposed to protect public health, particularly when many sites are near smaller regional communities.
But the necessary suspensions are a blow for research into which species have survived in remnant habitat, how they are coping in the months after the fires, and what recovery actions are necessary for plants and animals that have been pushed closer to extinction by the disaster.
“It means we can’t follow the complete trajectory of recovery and we can’t determine the initial impacts,” Mark Lintermans, an associate professor at the Centre for Applied Water Science at the University of Canberra, said.
Lintermans is a fish expert and had been working in the Cotter River and Kosciuszko national park regions to assess how the fires had affected species such as the stocky galaxias, one of the fish identified by the government as the most at risk.
He was able to do some fieldwork before the restrictions were imposed but said a months-long gap would make it harder to follow “the complete trajectory” of at-risk species.
“I’m concerned about potential lost opportunities to have a better recovery response because we don’t have that information about the severity of the impact. There’s a lot of worry that goes on,” he said.
On Kangaroo Island, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy built a 13.5 hectare predator-proof fence for Kangaroo Island dunnarts, an endangered marsupial experts feared had been pushed to the brink of extinction by the fires.
But plans for a much larger 370 hectare fence have been put on hold. The organisation’s chief executive, Tim Allard, said staff were having to be more “innovative” to keep some of their other programs, such as fire management in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, going.
The New South Wales and South Australian governments said where possible they were continuing work with smaller teams travelling to sites in separate vehicles. This includes work on pest and weed management, some wildlife monitoring and emergency food drops for animals.
The NSW department of planning, industry and environment said some adjustments had been made to ensure these operations complied with social distancing requirements.
The Victorian government provided no specifics on how Covid-19 was affecting its recovery work, supplying only a statement saying work “is continuing, to protect our native wildlife and biodiversity” in line with advice from the state’s chief health officer.
Lisien Loan, the director of conservation and wildlife for South Australia’s environment and water department, said teams had been able to do a lot of immediate work after fires on Kangaroo Island and around Cudlee Creek before the shutdown. Individual landowners are assisting with rabbit control in the Adelaide Hills region, where it complies with social distancing measures.
But she said the effects of Covid-19 meant plans to have experts in particular fields do on-ground research had been suspended. That included a plan to get university experts in to survey invertebrate populations, which includes insects, an area where there are large gaps in knowledge.
“We’ve done some rapid-assessment work. This is more that next layer of what exactly has been the impact, how many of these things do we think are left in remnant habitat, it helps inform our longer-term work,” Loan said.
Sarah Legge, a conservation biologist at the Australian National University, said many standard land-management activities were now difficult to carry on with.
“If it prevents rapid assessments, that opportunity to find out if species were affected by fire and being able to identify species that are hanging on by their claws, all of these things are potential negative consequences,” she said.
Euan Ritchie, an ecologist at Deakin University, said some “valuable, time-sensitive information” might be missed.
“While we all acknowledge and respect the need for the travel restrictions, it’s certainly very frustrating that at the critical time we need to get into the field to monitor species’ and ecosystem responses to and recovery from fire, we’re now in many cases not able to access study sites,” he said.
The effects of the Covid-19 response extend beyond the bushfire response into several areas of environmental and scientific research. Long-term monitoring of species, an area that experts have highlighted is in dire need of more funding, is also on hold.
It effectively looks like a year where we have no idea what’s happening in our ecosystemsAssociated Professor John White
John White, an associate professor in wildlife ecology at Deakin University, has been monitoring the effects of climate change and fire on small mammals in the Grampians national park since 2008.
Every year he and a team of researchers spend three months tracking species, compiling data on how they have coped following three major fires since 2006. This year they had been planning to also look for remaining individuals of particular species, such as the long-nosed potoroo. But it won’t go ahead.
“It effectively looks like a year where we have no idea what’s happening in our ecosystems,” White said.
“The understanding you get following sequences through time is far superior than what you might be able to get by studying an area for two to three years and then leaving.”
A spokesperson for the federal agriculture, water and environment department said the bushfire recovery remained a priority.
“The government is continuing to direct funds to the areas of highest priority based on expert advice. Some work is being modified in accordance with current government health advice but we continue to be focused on the challenge,” the department said.
Environment groups have expressed concern about the effects of the back-to-back crises of the bushfires and Covod-19. In particular, they are seeking clarity on whether the $50m the government budgeted for wildlife after the fires will still be increased as planned given the enormous financial stimulus required to assist workers and businesses affected by the shutdown.
“Looking forward there is an opportunity for economic stimulus spending to intersect with bushfire and wildlife recovery, and once people are able to get into these areas safely, there is potential to create new jobs in land management and ecosystem restoration,” James Trezise of the Australian Conservation Foundation said.
A spokesman for the environment minister, Sussan Ley, said the $50m was “a down payment and there has been a clear commitment to further funding in the future”.
The government announced this week that as part of that $50m it would spend up to $12m on a new round of grants for recovery work.
“Clearly, Covid-19 restrictions mean that some activities will not be able to start immediately but the process of identifying submissions and planning their role in the recovery process is an important one,” Ley said in the announcement.
On Thursday, Wires and Landcare said public donations meant the two organisations were offering $20,000 grants – up to a total of $1m – for community environment groups to do habitat regeneration work.