Funding boost for remote malleefowl management
The Australian Government has extended funding for AW's malleefowl project.
Malleefowl in remote South Australia will continue to be monitored and protected, thanks to extended funding from the Australian Government for a project run by the Alinytjara Wiluṟara Landscape Board (AWLB). AWLB has been undertaking a highly successful federally funded malleefowl project for the last five years and the additional funding allows the project to continue operating to June 30, 2024.
Malleefowl are only one of many threatened, endangered and at-risk species that benefit from activities undertaken within this larger Malleefowl program. By removing feral predators and maintaining healthy habitat corridors through pest predator, buffel grass and large feral herbivore control, the whole ecosystem has the chance to flourish.
Malleefowl, Nganamarain Pitjantjatjara, are unique ground-dwelling birds, notable for their large nest mounds, which can be more than a metre high and several metres across. Their mounds are built on a base of organic material that generates heat as it breaks down. The covering of sand on top provides insulation and the birds adjust it diligently to keep the temperature just right for the developing eggs inside. Although able to fly, they rarely do so, and are susceptible to predation by feral pests such as foxes and cats.
The additional funding will support threat mitigation strategies on four main fronts: reducing the numbers of feral predators; controlling the spread of invasive buffel grass to improve habitat and reduce fire risk; fire management activities to reduce potential bushfire impacts to habitat; and controlling large feral herbivores, particularly camels.
Malleefowl are shy and extremely well camouflaged, and the population is sparsely spread across a vast area, so aerial and ground-based surveys will be undertaken to ensure these activities are focused effectively.
Over the duration of the project, AWLB has conducted a number of aerial Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) surveys of more than 35,000 hectares of mallee woodland in the southern Great Victoria Desert, to establish a baseline number of mounds in the region. New LiDAR surveys will be carried out over new sites and previously surveyed sites.
LiDAR can detect mounds but can’t determine whether they are active, so each LiDAR survey is followed up by ground truthing exercises, where AWLB staff supported by local Aṉangu ranger teams categorise mounds as active or non-active. Surveys to date have located 36 mounds, with a third of these in active use. For this arid landscape that’s a high number of nest sites, with an active percentage much higher than the national average.
Foxes and cats are well documented as threats to Australian wildlife and reducing their numbers is essential for the wellbeing of malleefowl and other vulnerable species, such as sandhill dunnarts, that share their habitat.
As part of the National Malleefowl Adaptive Management Predator Experiment (AMPE), AWLB has trialled the use of automated devices called Felixers. Felixers use laser sensors and AI recognition cameras to identify animals passing in front of them. This allows the units to only target and remove cats and foxes while leaving native species untargeted. Results from the AMPE has indicated that malleefowl habitat in AWLB has relatively low density of cats but slightly higher numbers of foxes. These devices are especially important in such a vast and remote area, where other control methods can be difficult or impossible to achieve. The Felixers have been deployed across an area of more than 20,700 hectares.
Felixers are placed in small clusters near known active mounds, in conjunction with passive trail camera grids to identify, quantify and mitigate pest species. Similar passive camera grids are also installed at known active mounds without Felixers, to allow for comparison in feral animal populations and to determine the effectiveness of the devices.
One of the most significant threats to malleefowl is slower moving than cats and foxes, but has the potential to be even more devastating. Buffel grass is a highly invasive tussock grass that transforms entire landscapes, outcompeting native plants, raising the risk of serious wildfires and preventing the safe movement and hunting behaviours of animal species such as sandhill dunnarts.
Since 2019, AWLB’s buffel teams, including AWLB staff, Aṉangu ranger groups and contractors, have controlled buffel grass through chemical spraying and small-scale burning along more than 3,500km of roads and 550km of rail corridor. This work significantly reduces the spread of buffel grass within the AW region, and it remains imperative that management is maintained to protect vast areas of native habitat that underpins survival of native and threatened species.
Camels pose a threat to malleefowl habitat, destroying trees and shrubs and fouling water sources. AWLB conducts monitoring operations in the region using GPS collars to track the animals’ movements. In total, camel control has been carried out over more than 1.4 million hectares since 2019. Collars were fitted to 17 camels during the most recent aerial culling action taken in April 2023. Data from these collars will inform future culling activities to mitigate the ecological threat posed by these large feral herbivores.
AWLB’s fauna surveys, conducted as part of this project, have extended the known range of the elusive sandhill dunnart, while also increasing our knowledge of native flora such as the unique Mount Finke grevillea and Ooldea guinea flower.
“Through partnership with Aṉangu ranger groups and communities, AWLB’s malleefowl project has successfully safeguarded malleefowl habitat in our region, with a positive population trajectory for the malleefowl themselves, as well as for the myriad animals and plants they coexist with,” says AWLB General Manager Kim Krebs.
“It’s a successful multifaceted approach that must be maintained to continue these positive outcomes into the future, so the funding extension from the Australian Government is very welcome.”
This project is supported by the Alinytjara Wiluṟara Landscape Board with funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.