The 2019–20 bushfires caused widespread environmental damage and wildlife death. In its interim report, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Royal Commission) noted that the impacts of the bushfire season have been described as an ecological disaster.
As noted earlier in this report, between 24 and 40 million hectares of land burned across the country. According to estimates provided to the Royal Commission, over three billion animals died or were displaced as a result of the fires, with many ecosystems suffering extensive damage.
A significant proportion of the land and ecosystems affected by the 2019–20 bushfires had not previously been impacted by fire. Further, the bushfires burned several of Australia's World Heritage areas. For example:
in New South Wales (NSW), 81 per cent of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and 54 per cent of the NSW sections of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia were impacted by the bushfires;
in Queensland, 53 per cent of the ancient Gondwana rainforests burnt; and
in Tasmania, approximately 20 000 hectares of wilderness classified as World Heritage area was burned.
This chapter examines the impact of the fires on the environment, and in particular the impact on wildlife and other animals.
Loss of biodiversity, wildlife and livestock
In January 2020, figures were released which estimated that approximately 1.25 billion animals were killed as a result of the bushfires. The animals affected by the bushfires included wildlife, domesticated animals and livestock. By late July 2020, this figure had been revised to approximately three billion native vertebrates.
This estimate accounts for 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs.
The rates of biodiversity loss and wildlife killed during the fires vary between the states and territories. For example, in Victoria, '170 species were affected, including 19 mammal species, 13 frog species, ten reptile species, nine bird species, 29 aquatic species and 38 plant species'.
Kangaroo Island in South Australia experienced a severe loss of biodiversity and wildlife. Ninety-six per cent of the Flinders Chase National Park area was burnt. Several species including the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart and the glossy black cockatoo experienced significant decline in their populations. Further, prior to the bushfires, the koala population on the island was approximately 50 000. The bushfires affected 85 per cent of koala habitat and estimates now indicate that the population has been reduced to approximately 5000 to 10 000.
In NSW, it is estimated that over 800 million animals were killed, and that the habitats of at least 293 threatened animals were affected by the bushfires.
Another issue identified by submitters was the impact of the fires on the ability for native animals to seek refuge. For example, in its submission, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) observed that:
Because of the number of days of Very High fire danger and above leading to extreme fire behaviour on multiple days, there are few unburned patches left in many areas to provide refuge for wildlife. Many of the few animals that survived the most severe fires have likely since succumbed to starvation, injuries and predation by feral animals.
In their submission, Ms Ashleigh Best, Professor Christine Parker and Professor Lee Godden from Melbourne Law School commented that '[w]here habitat and migration corridors are diminished to the point where wildlife populations are encircled in small areas, their capacity to escape extreme weather events becomes severely compromised'.
Ms Best, Professor Parker and Professor Godden went on to note that '… wild animals face particularly acute threats during fast-onset disasters such as bushfires. Unlike their domesticated counterparts, most [of] these animals are not amenable to system evacuation'.
Several submitters noted that there was limited ability to locate and provide care for injured animals. For example, Animals Australia commented on the lack of trained personnel to search for and rescue animals during the fire period.
In highlighting the importance of mitigating climate change in protecting wildlife, the Veterinary Oncology Consultants submitted that:
… from a veterinary perspective, mitigation is much more important because adaptation mainly centres around the needs of humans and to a certain extent domestic animals, but does little to reduce risks for wildlife.
Submitters such as the Eurobodalla Shire Council also commented on the makeshift nature of animal evacuation sites and noted in particular the difficulty in evacuating livestock from rural properties.
It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of domesticated animals and livestock that were killed during the bushfires. However, the Royal Commission heard that over 80 000 head of livestock were killed and for example, on Kangaroo Island, 'more than more than 50 000 sheep were reported to have died–either directly by the fires or by euthanasia after sustaining injuries'.
The United Firefighters Union of Australia explained that '[w]hilst there is no comprehensive database of the livestock losses incurred in disasters, available data suggests that the direct costs of livestock losses are considerable.' Mr Luke Gallagher, Executive General Manager, Short Tail Claims for the Insurance Australia Group (IAG) informed the committee in May 2020 that IAG were currently processing 1324 farm insurance claims.
Availability and accessibility of biodiversity and wildlife data
While there are several estimates regarding the loss of biodiversity and wildlife during the recent bushfires, it is difficult to estimate the full extent of this loss and other environmental impacts. There are several reasons for this difficulty, including:
a lack of monitoring of original or baseline data;
the fact that the areas impacted by the 2019–20 bushfires had previously never been affected by bushfire;
the lengthy time for flow‑on effects to be fully realised; and
that the nature of monitoring some species can be particularly difficult.
As noted in the Royal Commission's interim report, '[k]nowledge of Australia's wildlife and its distribution in Australia was, and remains for many species, disparate, fragmented, incomplete and inaccessible'.
In its submission, the Ecological Society of Australia stated that 'there is no comprehensive database of Australian environment responses to fire' and that 'the best way to quantify environmental response to repeated natural disasters is through long-term monitoring'.
This sentiment was echoed by other submitters, such as the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, which stated that long term ecological monitoring was 'key to improving our understanding of the impact of fire on the natural environment'.
Further, a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the monitoring of status and trends of ecosystems and species in Australia was 'patchy, time‑limited and generally inadequate'. The OECD also drew attention to the fact that a number of strategies and monitoring efforts in Australia had ceased, and called for national approach to biodiversity monitoring. For example:
A commitment in the 2010 Commonwealth-State National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy, to develop a national biodiversity monitoring and reporting system has largely been abandoned. Previous monitoring efforts such as the River Health Program and the Wetlands Inventory have also been discontinued… Significant additional effort, including funding, is needed to progress towards a national, comprehensive biodiversity monitoring and reporting system that can inform Commonwealth, state and territorial policy decisions and priority setting.
The extent of the 2019–20 bushfires created many challenges, particularly in assessing and evaluating environmental impacts. As the fires burned areas previously unaffected by fire, it became difficult to estimate the environmental impacts due to a lack of baseline data.
For example, the Ecological Society of Australia stated that '[m]any post-fire assessments of the likely impact of these mega-fires on biodiversity were based on 'best guesses' rather than empirical evidence … as most impacted species had never been monitored in relation to fire impacts'.
Additionally, there are limitations on the ability to monitor ecosystems and individual species effectively before, during and post-bushfire. Some of these limitations include the remote locations of native species and the human risk factor involved in animal monitoring activities.
Furthermore, at a public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, Professor David Keith, Professor of Botany at the Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of New South Wales, advised that:
… for many of the individual species it's about estimating the population size and understanding what direction the trends are heading in. In many cases we need to be able to measure rates of reproduction and also rates of survival. That can be very challenging. In some species it's done reasonably practically. It can be expensive, although technology is helping to reduce those costs. But, fundamentally, we need to know how many individuals there are, where they are, and what the trends are, both before these events and the time after them, so that we can monitor recovery. As well as passively understanding what the trends are, we also need to understand the impact of the management actions that are being implemented and how effective they are so that we can adjust those as need be.
Environment and wildlife recovery
While bushfires are a natural part of the Australian landscape to which many ecosystems and individual species have adapted, the intensity and severity of fires in recent years is reducing the capacity for ecosystems and species to respond and recover from bushfire.
Many submitters observed that the devastation that occurred to the environment and different species during the 2019–20 bushfires will take years and up to decades for the environment to recover from, and others stated that some ecosystems will have likely changed forever.
A similar theme emerged during a public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee, where Mr Evan Quarterman, Head of Programs at the Humane Society International stated that:
… it's clear that fires are becoming more severe with climate change and previously resilient ecosystems, like those on Kangaroo Island, are being pushed beyond their limits by the frequency with which fires are now hitting.
At this same public hearing, Associate Professor Mark Lintermans, Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Applied Water Science at the University of Canberra identified another key issue being that the environment is getting less chance to recover between fires, due to their increasing frequency. Associate Professor Lintermans continued that:
… If you have animal populations that are decimated by fire impacts, it may take them a decade or two to come back to some sort of normality. They won't return to their pristine state… The fires in the upper Cotter, which I'm dealing with now, burnt in 2003, and they burnt again this year. The impacts from those fires are much more severe this year. I'm not sure whether that's because the fire was a lot worse or the environment was a lot more fragile because of the previous fire. They are the sorts of questions that we have to tease out.
Recovery and rehabilitation
Many submitters, such as the Nature Conservation Society, the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal and the Australian Academy of Science, advocated for environment and wildlife recovery and rehabilitation to be a central part of the recovery process for the 2019–20 bushfires, as well as for preparation for future bushfire seasons.
However, a number of submitters to the inquiry took the view that there is an inadequate level of resourcing for wildlife rescue and care, with a heavy reliance on a volunteer network.
For example, Animals Australia noted that there was a lack of resourcing available to address the needs of animals during a natural disaster. Animals Australia went on to highlight the key role of volunteers, saying that:
The volunteer wildlife care community in Australia is one of the most dedicated and under-acknowledged areas of community service. Their role in caring for and rehabilitating wildlife is an invaluable one. However, numbers of animals coming into their care post the Bushfires were minimal due to the lack of search and rescue operations in the days, weeks and months post the fires.
Gecko Environment Council echoed these concerns in their submission, observing that there is:
… limited ability to locate and provide care and rehabilitation for injured wildlife. There was little to no support for wildlife carers to locate and rescue injured animals to deal with their treatment and rehabilitation … At present all of these measures are left to wildlife care volunteers and some research institutions who mainly pay the costs of such care out of their own pockets or rely on donations and the generosity of veterinary staff willing to give their expertise free of charge.
This sentiment was also expressed in a hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee. In responding to questions from the committee regarding the impact of bushfires on wildlife care and rehabilitation, Mr Quarterman from the Humane Society International stated that:
… sectors such as wildlife rehabilitation, which are largely volunteer based and have been running on the smell of an oily rag for decades, are being pushed to their absolute limit in the need to respond to the suffering that these natural disasters cause to our fauna.
From the evidence received by the committee, it is clear that there is a dominant role of charities and volunteer work involved in the care and rehabilitation of animals during and post bushfire.
The impact of logging on post-fire recovery
Another significant impediment to effective wildlife and environmental recovery is the role of post-fire logging.
The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) submitted that 'many decisions soon after major disasters are made in a crisis management mode', and therefore may not be 'good, evidence-based decisions'. The AAS pointed to post‑fire logging as an example of this, saying that 'the rapid decision to conduct post‑fire (salvage) logging in protected areas' could:
… have long-lasting negative impacts on ecosystem integrity and on biodiversity, including on species listed under the EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act. A better model is for governments to plan for environmental decisions after natural disasters well before events take place. This is critical in the context of the EPBC Act, as some species and ecosystems can shift from low risk to high risk very quickly following large-scale natural disasters.
It was recently reported that '[g]overnment logging has resumed in fire‑damaged forests in NSW' and in East Gippsland. In her submission, Ms Lesley Hodges discussed the impact of post-fire logging by state governments on wildlife, stating that:
… [m]ultiple independent, peer reviewed studies show logging forests after bushfires increases future fire risk and can render the forest uninhabitable for wildlife for decades or even centuries.
This issue has been reported several times in the media following the 2019–20 bushfires, in particular citing the research of landscape ecologist and conservation biologist Professor David Lindenmayer that:
... the science on the impacts of post-fire logging is clear: it can significantly impair the recovery of burned ecosystems, badly affect wildlife and, for some animal species, prevent recovery.
Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel
In response to the devastation on the environment during the 2019–20 bushfires, the Threatened Species Commissioner, Dr Sally Box, was tasked by the Minister for the Environment, the Hon Sussan Ley MP, with chairing the Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel (Expert Panel). The Expert panel was to advise the Minister of the immediate and longer‑term actions required for species protection.
A provisional list, released by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment on 24 March 2020, identified 119 animal species as the highest priorities for urgent management intervention.
The Expert Panel recognised that 'recovery will require not only immediate emergency needs but also long-term commitment and planning', and recommended a series of medium and long term responses, which are outlined in its March 2020 communiqué.
On 23 April 2020, the Expert Panel released a list of 471 plant species and 191 invertebrate species identified as the highest priorities for urgent management intervention to support recovery from the 2019–20 bushfires.
NSW Bushfire inquiry
The committee acknowledges that there are several inquiries ongoing into the 2019–20 bushfires. One such inquiry was established by the NSW Government. The inquiry commenced in January 2020 and reported on 31 July 2020, making 76 recommendations to the NSW Government.
The inquiry made two core recommendations in relation to wildlife and animal care during bushfires, as follows:
That Government develop and implement a policy on injured wildlife response, rescue and rehabilitation including:
a) a framework for the co-ordination and interaction with emergency management structures
b) guidelines for Incident Management Plans to include wildlife rescue and rehabilitation as a consideration
c) a requirement for all vets and wildlife rescue volunteers to obtain the Bush Fire Awareness accreditation
d) guidance for firefighters on handling injured wildlife
That, in order to improve support for people evacuating with animals, the Department of Primary Industries:
a) work with Resilience NSW to develop evacuation protocols and procedures to ensure appropriate supports are provided for both people and animals (informed by the findings from Project Ohana), including a process for animal registration at evacuation centres and mutually agreed naming conventions, and provide this information to Local Emergency Management Committees (LEMCs)
b) work with LEMCs to identify overflow sites that can be used for evacuated animals when preferred sites are full
c) further develop the domestic pets evacuation protocol.
Funding for the environment and wildlife recovery
As discussed in earlier chapters, the Commonwealth Government plays a supporting role to the states and territories in bushfire recovery, which extends to the field of environment and wildlife recovery.
In January 2020, the Commonwealth Government announced the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Fund (NBRF). The fund has several priorities including support for the environment and native wildlife.
The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet highlighted two core programs that receive funding under the NBRF: the Bushfire Immediate Wildlife Rescue and Recovery Program, and new funding for Bushfire Recovery for Native Wildlife and Habitations. For the 2020–21 financial year, the Commonwealth Government has committed $25.1 million and $76.5 million for these programs respectively.
Further, on 13 January 2020, the Treasurer announced an initial $50 million package for wildlife and habitat recovery. It was confirmed at Senate Estimates in March 2020 that the package was appropriated from the NBRF, with $30 million of that funding allocated to the Environment Restoration Fund, $7 million to the National Heritage Trust, and the remaining $13 million through the Treasury for payments to state governments.
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
The Commonwealth Government's core statutory obligations regarding the environment and wildlife can be found in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The objectives of the EPBC Act are to:
provide for the protection of the environment, especially matters of national environmental significance;
conserve Australian biodiversity;
provide a streamlined national environmental assessment and approvals process;
enhance the protection and management of important natural and cultural places;
control the international movement of plants and animals (wildlife), wildlife specimens and products made or derived from wildlife;
promote ecologically sustainable development through the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources;
recognise the role of Indigenous people in the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity; and
promote the use of Indigenous peoples' knowledge of biodiversity with the involvement of, and in cooperation with, the owners of the knowledge.
The government presented the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Streamlining Environmental Approvals) Bill 2020 (the Streamlining Bill) to the House of Representatives on 27 August 2020, and the Bill passed the House on 3 September 2020 without debate.
Several submitters to this inquiry commented on the need to enhance environmental and wildlife protection under the provisions of the EPBC Act, as well as enabling the EPBC Act to better incorporate and plan for bushfires and other disaster risks.
For example, in its submission, the Gecko Environment Council recommended that:
The Department of the Environment … through the EPBC Act, could play a stronger role in declaring land clearing as a key threatening process to biological diversity viability. All sectors, government and non‑government, involved in preparing for and responding to bushfires need to be fully briefed on the importance of biodiversity on our nation's physical, social and economic viability.
Other submitters noted the need for the EPBC Act to:
enable rapid responses to environmental impacts caused by bushfires;
list emergency triggers and include a natural disaster environmental response strategy within the EPBC Act;
review the listing of fire regimes as a potential threating process; and
consider the impacts of the recent bushfires on 'matters of national environmental significance'.
Further, HVP Plantations discussed the difficulty interpreting the various requirements of the legislation across all levels of government, noting that the EPBC Act and:
[s]tate government legislation often cause confusion by referring to the same vegetation communities by different names and it is even possible for different penalties to be imposed for the same infringement under each State and Commonwealth Act. Governments need to develop a clear framework for implementation and hierarchy of legislation to guide fuel management and firefighting activities.
Independent statutory review
A statutory independent review of the EPBC Act by Professor Graeme Samuel AC commenced in October 2019 and is due to present its final report in October 2020.
An interim report was released in June 2020 and provided core findings in relation to the 2019–20 bushfires and environmental and wildlife protection. The interim report highlighted several gaps in bushfire response and recovery, similar to those identified in submissions.
The interim report of the review into the EPBC Act discussed the issue of environmental data and noted that a number of government-funded initiatives had sought to deliver 'greater coordination and standardisation of environmental data'. However, despite these efforts:
… governments often must resort to negotiating case-by-case data licensing and sharing, rather than having data-sharing agreements and systems that can talk with each other. The collation of information on the impacts of the 2019/20 bushfires on the environment is an example of this.
Further, the interim report noted the current strategic gaps in the implementation of the EPBC Act and issues in regards to funding efforts for environment and wildlife protection and conservation:
The Act is limited in its ability to strategically conserve biodiversity, manage key threats or quickly respond to emerging threats such as bushfires, biosecurity incursions or other natural disasters.
… funding is often scattergun, unreliable and short-term and funding cycles do not support an enduring, focused or prioritised approach. The EPBC Act does not refer to climate change or explicitly require consideration of future pressures. There is no avenue for an emergency listing of newly threatened species in response to natural disasters such as the 2019/20 bushfires.
The devastating impact of the fires on the environment and on wildlife is difficult to fathom. The loss of three billion animals due to the 2019–20 bushfire season is overwhelming and distressing.
The evidence provided to the committee thus far has shown that there are ways for the government to better support and care for animals and wildlife in need, and to better protect the environment from natural disaster risk. There is a clear need for better data collection across the board, highlighted by the fact there was no baseline data going into the 2019–20 bushfire season, and that it is still hard to quantify the total impact of the Black Summer fires on both flora and fauna. Data collection is a matter that the committee will consider as it continues its inquiry.
In addition, and in light of the findings of the interim report and the evidence gathered by the committee, it is clear that there are significant gaps in the current environmental and wildlife protection legislation, and disparities between jurisdictions.
However, the committee is greatly concerned that the Streamlining Bill was presented to the House of Representatives for its consideration, while the independent review of the EPBC Act remains ongoing. Further, the fact that both debate and amendments to the Bill were prevented from occurring in the chamber raises considerable alarm.
The final independent report of the EPBC Act will help to establish how the Commonwealth can be better protect Australia's natural environment and wildlife from bushfires, and to recover from natural disasters. Given the utter devastation experienced over the 2019–20 summer, the committee is of the strong view that the independent review should be completed before any amendments are made to existing legislation.
In addition, the committee strongly suggests that the government allow for full parliamentary consideration and debate on any proposed amendments to the EPBC Act, both already before the parliament and those arising from the review.