By Dr Eridani Mulder, Senior Wildlife Ecologist
In the Northern Territory’s remote north-west, embraced by millennia-old sandstone ranges, Australian Wildlife Conservancy has entered into a major new partnership to deliver conservation on pastoral land to help protect the region’s threatened wildlife and habitats.
Australian Wildlife Conservancy, in partnership with long-term AWC supporters, Julian and Alexandra Burt, are developing and implementing an exciting new model to deliver land management and science across one of the country’s most iconic commercial pastoral stations.
Located 360 kilometres south-west of Darwin, Bullo River Station covers more than 160,000 hectares of the NT that has exceptional conservation value. Dissected sandstone plateaux, sweeping eucalypt savannah woodlands, open grasslands and the rich alluvial floodplains of the Victoria and Bullo rivers provide vital refuge for threatened wildlife. Like most of northern Australia, the region is under threat from wildfires, feral animals and weeds. Now under the ownership of the Burt family, the property is an important site for conservation.
Under the 10-year partnership agreement, AWC is contracted to protect wildlife and improve the ecological health of Bullo River Station through the delivery of land management and conservation science. In other words, no donation dollars are needed for AWC to manage Bullo River Station for conservation. The Burt family continue to run the property as a commercial cattle station, alongside a sustainable eco-tourism operation. The partnership model has the potential to catalyse wider application on commercial pastoral land.
Uncovering Bullo River’s natural treasures
In the late dry season of 2018, AWC ecologists set to work on a major, multi-year biological exploration to uncover the secrets Bullo River Station has been keeping. Equipped with remote camera traps, the AWC team completed the first round of systematic scientific surveys at Bullo River. Based on their extensive knowledge of similar ecosystems across northern Australia, the ecologists set cameras deep within gorge systems, across refugial paperbark-lined sand seep habitat at the base of ranges, and in protected patches of long, unburnt vegetation. The initial camera trap surveys involved over 1,000 trap nights over two short visits.
Sorting through thousands of images captured during the survey, AWC ecologists were astonished to discover an exceptionally rare Wyulda (Scaly-tailed Possum). This record is significant. It represents a momentous range extension for this species. Until AWC discovered the possum living in the upper tributary of Bullo River gorge, Wyulda had only ever been recorded in Western Australia, more than 150 kilometres away.
The possums are consummate rock-dwellers, easily navigating the rock ledges, vines and vegetation of vertical cliff walls, using their bare, prehensile tail to hang from branches to feed on young leaves, flowers and fruit. Although superficially similar to the more common Rock Ringtail Possum, which may also occur at Bullo (and is found sharing habitat with Wyulda at AWC’s Artesian Range Sanctuary), Wyulda are more closely related to the group of possums which includes the Common Brushtail and the Spotted Cuscus. Despite a history of hot, late dry season wildfire in recent years, the detection of Wyulda provides great encouragement that other remnant populations of declining mammal fauna, such as Golden Bandicoots, Black-footed Tree Rats and, potentially, the elusive Narbarlek, might be holding on at Bullo River.
Setting up this year’s biological survey across the property has been sweaty work with AWC’s ecologists establishing 36 permanent monitoring sites in 33-degree heat. AWC’s trapping program will be backed up by spotlighting surveys and remotely triggered camera traps. Around 2,000 trap-nights are planned at Bullo River this year. There has never been a comprehensive ecological audit of the property, making AWC’s biological exploration of Bullo River even more important. The data we collect will enhance our knowledge of the property’s spectacular biodiversity values and help inform the ongoing design and delivery of our land management activities to control feral animals, fire and weeds.
Delivering effective fire management
Like the rest of northern Australia, wildfire is a key threat to biodiversity and pastoral productivity in this region. AWC’s Wongalara Wildlife Sanctuary manager Chris Whatley has been delivering fire management at Bullo River Station since 2017 with the objective of limiting the frequency and extent of late season wildfires. Now that the 2019 wet season in the northwest has ended, Chris is busy implementing prescribed burns at Bullo River.
After just two years, the successful exclusion of late dry season wildfires from the station’s open savannas is already making a positive impact by increasing the age classes of vegetation across the landscape. This is generating positive benefits for wildlife dependent on cover and seed resources at specific times of the year, such as the nationally endangered Gouldian Finch, small mammals and reptiles. The program is also boosting pastoral productivity and protecting infrastructure.
Under this innovative business model, AWC and the Burt family are building a new template for the delivery of conservation on commercial pastoral land. It is here that AWC has an opportunity to demonstrate that conservation partnerships can work hand-in-hand to successfully deliver a positive return on investment for both commercial pastoralists and Australia’s natural capital.