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Fire Threat to Monsoon Vine Thickets – Rangers and Environs Kimberley present to Science Conferences

[December 2012]

Environs Kimberley and Aboriginal rangers from the Dampier Peninsula have teamed up to campaign for the threatened Monsoon Vine Thicket (MVT) to be recognised as Nationally Endangered.

Environs Kimberley West Kimberley Nature Project and the Bardi Jawi and Nyul Nyul Rangers are making presentations to two scientific conferences on their collaborative work to protect one of the Kimberley’s most threatened ecosystems.

Indigenous Rangers, facilitated by the Kimberley Land Council, have worked with Environs Kimberley and partners to protect, manage and understand interactions within MVTs of the Dampier Peninsula, a unique, culturally significant and Vulnerable Threatened Ecological Community (WA). The Federal Government is currently deciding whether or not to list the ecosystem as Nationally Endangered.

Louise Beames (EK) and Dr Judy Fisher (Fisher Research), prepared the presentation, which was delivered by Kylie Weatherall (EK)  and Nyul Nyul Rangers Ninjana Walsham and Keith Shadforth at the Society for Ecological Restoration Australasia Conference in Perth (November 27-30).  Malcolm Lindsay (EK) will make a similar presentation with Chris Sampi and Damon Pyke from the Bardi Jawi Rangers at the Ecological Society of Australia Conference in Melbourne, as part of the Linking Indigenous & Western Ecology Symposium (3rd-7th Dec).

Entitled “Interactions in monsoon vine thickets: people, plants, fauna, fire and restoration in the Dampier Peninsula, Western Australia”, the presentations explain important ecological linkages and the cultural significance of MVTs in traditional food, medicines, water sources, tools, materials, language, law and culture ”  with loss or dysfunction of the ecosystem likely to have profound cultural, as well as ecological, impacts.

“If MVT is listed as Endangered then it will be recognition of the incredible threats posed to the  ecosystem, and the government will have a responsibility to support the community to manage and protect it.” Environs Kimberley Projects Coordinator,” Louise Beames said.

This rainforest-allied ecosystem occurs in patches within and behind the swales of coastal dunes, over less than one-tenth of 1% of the Dampier Peninsula. Containing almost a quarter of all the Peninsula plant species, MVTs are important refugia for birds, bats and other animals, which move between patches, spreading the seeds and maintaining the connection between them.

The partnership identified two health indicators ” vegetation structure and ant communities ”  to detect change in response to fire and invasion, and developed, trialled and implemented protocols, using the local Aboriginal language names and knowledge of species occurrence.

“We were surprised at the high diversity of ants, identifying 84 species! However, we are concerned about the two aggressive invasive ants found, Singapore Ant and Black Crazy Ant,  which could be a problem for other species and are a sign that vine thickets are becoming more disturbed by fire, weeds and other factors,” Nyul Nyul Ranger  Ninjana Walsham said.

To understand the extent, seasonality and frequency of fire, remote sensing technology was employed with the assistance of DEC, alongside ground-truthing and vegetation structural monitoring. For each of the 79 MVT patches, three types of maps were developed that examined Fire-scar history, Vegetation Cover change and Fire incidence between 1989 and 2010.

“Aboriginal people, including Bardi Jawi people, are known traditionally to have kept fire away from MVTs to protect important fruit, water and cultural resources, but now fire on the Peninsula is mostly uncontrolled and increasing in frequency, seasonal intensity and scale,” Bardi Jawi Ranger Chris Sampi said.

“Now we know that the change in the fire regime on the Dampier Peninsula has resulted in more fires, larger fires and more frequent fires, affecting a large percentage of vine thickets,”  Mr Sampi said.

Analysis revealed significant annual fire damage and losses in canopy cover, with 74% of MVT patches being burnt every one to three years. Ground-truthing identified that fire impact is likely to be underestimated, and that fire compromises vegetation structure well into the patches.

“These are frightening findings, given that we know that MVT’s  are slow growing and will retreat rapidly when vegetation is burnt. This sustained damage has alarming consequences for the ecological function and viability of the entire Dampier Peninsula MVT ecosystem network,” Environs Kimberley Projects Coordinator, Louise Beames said

“This collaboration between Indigenous rangers with strong traditional local knowledge and practical skills, ecologists and partners has enabled us to identify the most vulnerable MVT’s on Bardi Jawi and Nyul Nyul country, adjust management and better protect MVT’s significant eco-cultural values,” Environs Kimberley Projects Coordinator, Louise Beames said

“It’s great that we have been able to develop this science together and use it in our management to better protect Monsoon Vine Thickets. We are very proud to present our work to other land managers and scientists,” Nyul Nyul Ranger Keith Shadforth said.

“We must thank the ESA and SERA conferences, and Rangelands NRM WA, whose support has made our travel to Perth and Melbourne possible.”

For more information, contact Louise Beams at Environs Kimberley

Images – (© Environs Kimberley)
Nyul Nyul Rangers and Environs Kimberley measure habitat change following fire
Nyul Nyul Ranger Brendon Smith and Louise Beames Environs Kimberley measure litter depth within MVT