Research Letter #6

FIRES AND RARE OR THREATENED SPECIES

Most of terrestrial Australia is subject to fires at some time or another. Because of this, most of Australia's earth-bound biodiversity is also exposed to fires. The effects of these fires, however, varies widely according to the regime of fires - including their frequencies, intensities, seasonalities and types (Gill 1975). While fire regimes vary across the continent they also vary within a locality and can be manipulated. Inappropriate fire regimes adversely affect the biota and the greatest adversity is to go extinct.

Gill and Bradstock (1995) documented some examples of local extinctions of plant species - "higher plants" or "vascular plants" - due to inappropriate fire regimes but lichens, mosses and liverworts can also be vulnerable. Scott et al. (1997) regarded fire as "the greatest threat to lichens", and "too-frequent burning" as a threat to bryophytes (mosses and liverworts). They recognized the need for much more research if we are to understand the role of fire regimes in affecting the status of all such plants including fungi and terrestrial algae.

Recent Action Plans for the conservation of Australian animals have highlighted the fact that many species are threatened by inappropriate fire regimes. Of 193 marsupials and monotremes, 53 are rare or threatened and 55% of these are threatened by processes that include inappropriate fire regimes (Maxwell et al. 1996). For rodents the equivalent figures are 62, 21 and 50% (the last of these figures being for the 14 types with 'known' causes for their condition) (Lee 1995). Among reptiles, the figures are 765, 47 and 21% (10 species) (Cogger et al. 1993). 150 types of birds (of 1074 in Australia) are considered to be "extinct or thought to be threatened", 37% (55) of these by inappropriate fire regimes in combination with other factors (Garnett 1992).

It is apparent that inappropriate fire regimes are of major concern in relation to rare and threatened taxa at the national level. At the local level we may expect the situation to be worse. It is emphasized that the problem is with inappropriate fire regimes and that stamping fires out is not considered a solution. What is needed is careful research and appropriate fire management.

Avoid extinction; it's painful!

Literature cited:
  1. Cogger, H., Cameron, E., Sadlier, R. and Eggler, P. (1993). The Action Plan for Australian Reptiles. Australian Nature Conservation Agency, Canberra.
  2. Garnett, S. (1992). Threatened and Extinct Birds of Australia. Royal Australian Ornithologists Union Report No. 82, 212p.
  3. Gill, A.M. (1975). Fire and the Australian flora: a review. Australian Forestry 38, 4- 25.
  4. Gill, A.M. and Bradstock, R.A. (1995). Extinction of the biota by fires. In: Bradstock et al. (eds) Conserving Biodiversity: Threats and Solutions. Pp. 309-22. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Sydney.
  5. Lee, A.K. (1995). The Action Plan for Australian Rodents. Australian Nature Conservation Agency, Canberra.
  6. Maxwell, S., Burbidge, A.A. and Morris, K. (eds) (1996). The 1996 Action Plan for Australian Marsupials and Monotremes. Environment Australia, Canberra.
  7. Scott, G., Entwhistle, T., May, T. and Stevens, N. (1997). A Conservation Overview of Australian non-marine Lichens, Bryophytes, Algae and Fungi. Environment Australia, Canberra.

Malcolm Gill
Division of Plant Industry, CSIRO
October 1998