Newsletter #41 | 2011

A newsletter for people interested in the Australian Alps

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Contents

Letter from the editor

Welcome to issue 41 – my first as Alps program manager. In the short time I’ve been in this position I’m still working to get my head around the scope and depth of what goes on across the Alps, knowing that my role is partly to help maintain and develop the Program in ways that keep it relevant, effective and engaging.

‘Front and centre’ is the engagement of staff at all levels and across all agencies as well as maintaining the interest of close stakeholders. From there the program must encourage staff to look over our own back fence (shown as state boundaries on maps) at what our neighbouring agencies are doing. Sharing information; collaborating with research; developing new project ideas and using our small budget to implement them is what the program is about. Of course there is the ‘big picture’ coordination – looking at issues and challenges which don’t worry about borders. Increasing numbers of wild horses, the Hawkweed menace and managing visitors in a sustainable yet positive way are three of these operational challenges.

Working sideby-side with our Traditional Owners and providing the respect they deserve is incredibly important. The valuable report into the state of the Alps Catchments provided by Alps stalwarts Graeme Worboys, Roger Good and Andy Spate is a great asset to the Alps program. And typical of people who work in the Alps, we are never satisfied with our achievements – only two years ago the Alps was put onto the National Heritage list, but straight away the ‘bar is raised’ and the push for nomination onto the tentative World Heritage list is now under way. And the work goes on.

‘Till next issue.

Anthony Evans | program manager & editor

Willow the weed

A staff reconnaissance trip on the Snowy River, negotiating Corrowong Falls

A staff reconnaissance trip on the Snowy River, negotiating Corrowong Falls

Thanks to past generations, we have willow in the Alps. With every hope that they would be an asset, instead some species have proved to be weeds, invading our waterways to bully and dominate what were once diverse ecosystems. Now, at both state and national levels the noxious willow species are now known for what they are – weeds of national significance. This is the era with the impetus and support to do battle, to control these challenging adversaries. What follows is snapshot – a tiny taste of a truly massive amount of work – looking at current willow-work, the challenges, the partnerships and achievements.

When Charlie Pascoe , Natural Values Program Manager in Parks Victoria’s Alpine District, began work on willows back in 2002, they were widespread and abundant in valleys around many parts of the Alps. The fact that some quite large areas were still willow-free was not widely appreciated. As far as control programs were concerned, “They were so wide spread it was almost a case of where do we start?”. As he recalls, up until the 2003 fires, the approach was essentially to focus efforts on specific areas where willows were causing a significant threat to high-value assets, such as the Howqua River and the Baw Baw plateau. Josh Bean, Senior Ranger with the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NSW) is also an expert on pest control. “We’ve been plugging away for decades, removing willow from riparian areas – rivers and creeks where they prefer to grow.”

And then several main factors converged to ramp things up: willow gained classification as a nationally significant weed; support funding for willow control was made available by Snowy Hydro Limited; and the 2003 fires triggered a nasty surprise.

Firstly, willow was placed on the weed register at a national level because it was having a significantly negative environmental and biodiversity effect. Activity at both national and state levels has been the follow-on with. In other words, willow is on the wanted poster, with the relevant organisations now responsible for its control, something which is taking place seemingly everywhere. The former Snowy Hydro sites in New South Wales are an example…

Liz MacPhee is the rehabilitation officer with the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service working in Kosciuszko National Park. “It’s our responsibility to maintain and improve eco-systems for the future, and in terms of willow, our goal is to remove it (and all other woody exotic species) from the upper reaches of Australia’s largest catchment, the top of the Murray Darling Basin.” And while this sounds almost impossible, the brilliant news is that it is soon to be a reality. “To date we’ve treated about 80 kilometres along the Tumut River and a further 50 of the Snowy. Apart from the steepest section, between T2 dam and the Cable Yards at Elliot Way (near Cabramurra), we’re nearly done with the entire initial kill.”

This target area had been ‘blessed’ with dense plantings of willow thanks to the fact that when the waterways were altered through the engineering of the Snowy River scheme, willow were planted following blasting and earthworks to help stabilise new banks. Sixty or more years on, and the aim is in some ways the same, to remove the willow, while stabilising the banks.

“It’s all about logistics and knowing your country”, Liz continues. “We’d done a lot of reconnaissance and planning in 2004 before we began, so we knew the hardest areas to access, where we’d need to cut helicopter pads to drop supplies in, where we’d be walking up rivers.

“It’s also about using a three step process, destroying the weeds, but then facilitating the natural processes and doing active rehabilitation (like planting colonising species and rock armouring) to help promote stabilisation of the river banks and natural regeneration of the native vegetation.” It’s this facilitation which uses mother nature to stabilise the banks and reduce day-to-day erosion. And while significant floods will always do damage, as the catchment system reverts to a more natural configuration, even these are expected to have less of an effect. “It’s all about promoting the establishment of a stable landscape.”

The methodology is based on common sense mixed with best practice. “We cover bare ground with organic material to reduce the weeds, to help build soil health and to encourage nature to come back. We also monitor regeneration to assess any weed resurgence. We may also do minor works – building rock weirs and artificial billabong-like overflow areas, or planting fast growing native species – all to build habitat and river health.

Obviously an immense number of hours has been involved so far, with more to follow as part of the ongoing process necessary to maintain the control. However you look at it, this soon-to-be willow-free zone is the result of brilliant work by a dedicated team – engineers, environmental planners, rehabilitation experts, contractors and staff who know the area well. “We’ll by flying over every two or so years, and those involved will still walk the rivers, and we expect to carry out follow up control every two years for ten years.”

Despite the fact that most willow is found along riparian corridors, sometimes they pop up where they’re least expected, giving parks managers and scientists a very nasty surprise.

Following the 2003 fires that burnt over one million hectares of the Victorian high country, a fire recovery plan was produced to guide post-fire recovery work. This was a direct response to the fact that alpine bogs are fascinating places – biologically and geomorphologically – but also highly vulnerable. Interestingly, willows did not appear in that the fire recovery plan because they were not considered to pose any particular additional threat following fire. (Cue the theme song from Jaws…)

Parks Victoria’s Elaine Thomas, (Ranger, Bogong Management Unit, Alpine National Park) tells the grim tale. “Those who’d seen it described it as dense, like the hairs on a dog’s back”. By ‘it’, Elaine is referring to the vision that eventually greeted scientists and park staff. Apparently fire had altered the bogs so significantly that during the months which followed, they’d become an ideal germination site for the air-borne seed, probably from those established willows growing downstream in the Kiewa Valley. As Elaine explains, it was very much an Oh-My-Goodness-We-Have-To-Do- Something moment.

The response to the weed infestation was swift and a great example of a responsibility shared firstly by: Parks Victoria, the North East Catchment Management Authority, volunteer groups and contractors; then several years later, the Department of Sustainability & Environment, and Melbourne University. “Operating cross-tenure control is all about being able to discuss where control is needed, to work out the priorities together, to keep everyone in touch, and to share and optimise the pooled resources.”

Anyone who took part on site remembers the soft shoes worn, the fertilizer bags full of hundreds of thousands of hand pulled willows. “We estimate that over 365 person days a year was dedicated on willow control with Victorian contractors in 2008/2009.” Which, if you do the maths, means many hands doing the work, as the window of opportunity for control sits oh-so-tightly between December and April at this elevation.

Clearly there may always be willow in the landscape, but equally, there are effective ways to manage it as long as we work in partnership and look at landscapes as a whole. This philosophy is summed up by the fact that the Howqua River catchment in Victoria may be about to be declared willow free, but those involved are smart enough seek the general public’s support to dob in any willow that may have been missed in the process.

Maintaining a balance

Wonnangatta Valley

Wonnangatta Valley

Managing natural landscapes is a complex business, one which keeps most park managers and rangers happily swamped. Anyone new to the field soon learns that there is never a typical day, week, or even season. And that’s due to the variables.

These come in different forms as well as degrees of potential control. For example, careful observation and adaptation may be the best tools in the case of a fire storm, while the spread of weeds can be actively reduced, for example, through educating walkers about why it’s not a good idea to pick the seeds off your socks once you’re deep in the wilderness. Given each area of the Alps has it’s specific assets and threats, we’re fortunate to have teams of intelligent people who can think on their feet to best protect and manage them.

Take the Wonnangatta Valley in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. According to Ranger Mike Dower it’s a remote setting that ticks enough boxes to be one of Parks Victoria’s newly launched iconic 4WD adventures. Apart from the obvious attrac- tion to 4WD enthusiasts, Wonnangatta is a mecca for sambar deer hunting, trail bike riding, horse riding, trout fishing and those interested in the Wonnangatta homestead’s European cultural heritage (oh, and the murder mystery). On a long weekend the visitors will number in the hundreds and it’s these people – and the way they interact with the landscape – that Mike and a team of others is interested in. Clearly there is a great deal to value here, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to protect and maintain it.

“We work together with others who appreciate the Valley. There are the many families with strong connections to this place who offer support through the Friends of Wonnangatta. We also work in partnership with numerous Four Wheel Drive Clubs affiliated with Four Wheel Drive Victoria, and then there are also our connections with the Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria Police and Parks Victoria staff based at Bright, Heyfield and Dargo.”

This combined skill set is impressive – from the protection offered by DSE officers which helps build a diversity of flora and fauna, to the track care carried out by 4WD club members, a lot is achieved. As for Parks Victoria rangers and Victoria Police, their focus is often on the visitors. “We’re equally promoting and protecting. Our aim is for the people who visit to be able to absorb the Valley on all levels: a remote setting where you can set your swag up under the stars; a homestead site rich with European cultural heritage; challenging designated tracks for walkers, 4WD, trail bikes or horses; and a premier location for Sambar deer stalking.”

For the vast majority of visitors, this is the case, thanks to information provided before they arrive. But there will always be issues with a handful of others over camp fire management, littering, respecting the cultural values, bush bashing and illegal hunting methods. Which is why rangers and police, camp alongside to help educate visitors in situ – a tried and true method which gets good results.

Yes the Wonnangatta – like many, many other natural sites – is a complex place to manage. But as Mike puts it , “We need to make sure that the best experiences are offered and that same experiences are available for future park users.”

Ribbon of hope lengthens

Great Eastern Ranges Corridor

Great Eastern Ranges Corridor

Q. How does a squirrel glider cross a paddock? A. It uses a paddock tree. Q. How does the same glider cross the Hume Highway near Holbrook? A. It uses those strange telegraph-like poles set along the verges.

These questions point out the obvious – humans, unwittingly, interfere with wildlife traffic flow. As we busily modify the landscape around us, clearing fields, or constructing unending ribbons of bitumen to speed us on our way, we’re also making it difficult for other species to move around to survive. Unlike us, who find the Hume an ideal way to increase our mobility, many species experience this same road as a barrier, one that prevents them from accessing the habitat they need.

Imagine then, a long ribbon of green, superimposed over the vast sweep of Australia’s eastern coast where many areas of wildlife-friendly-landscape already exist. Imagine this massive wildlife corridor could be made a reality through the creative efforts of many people, keen to pool their experience and expertise.

Happily this is in fact what has been taking place for the past three years. Federal and State governments appreciate the importance of green corridors. Watercatchment management authorities, local councils, non government conservation organisations, community groups, corporate entities and universities are already working in partnership. And the focus of much of this attention is the 2,800 kilometre long Great Eastern Ranges – from the Australian Alps in southern Victoria through to the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland.

Of course, the green spaces within this area are already diverse. However, it is the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative that will create a contiguous corridor, both from low to high altitudes as well as from North to South. It will be a corridor that offers many species the flexibility to move, adapt and therefore survive pressures such as climate change. It’s an initiative which safeguards this diversity into the future.

The New South Wales’ Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water began the Initiative supported by $7 million in crucial funding from the New South Wales Environmental Trust Fund. With Ian Pulsford guiding the project, the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative benefited from his skill in helping to build the key partnerships needed to work in the five focus areas within New South Wales.

The model has proved to be a great one, and in this next year, the responsibility for taking it forward and out across the larger landscape lies outside government hands – as was always the intention – and five lead partners now guiding the process. The initiative’s newly appointed director, with ample non-government conservation experience, is Rob Dunn. “The approach is not radical – it’s backed by sound science* which states that if you are serious about biodiversity you have to think beyond conservation in national parks. Our parks are under threat from climate change. If they are not buffered and protected, and if we don’t look at connectivity, these parks will become islands in a hostile sea.”

As for the model itself, its success lies in its simplicity. “The partners have local expertise, they know the issues. And while they come from differing perspectives, they appreciate that the solution has to be taken up voluntarily, by people who understand to think beyond tenures, catchments or borders.”

With it’s profound and simple aim, and its even more common-sense architecture, the Initiative is now being sought out by interested parties in the ACT, Queensland and Victoria. “They see value in the Initiative and the potential for greater outcomes than just the sum of the parts.” * Connectivity Conservation and the Great Eastern Ranges Corridor: Mackey, Watson and Worboys (available – greateasternranges.org.au)

Priceless plots

A series of images taken of one of the fire ecology plots set up in Namadgi National Park taken in 1997; then in April after the 2003 fires; then 2004 and 2007.

A series of images taken of one of the fire ecology plots set up in Namadgi National Park taken in 1997; then in April after the 2003 fires; then 2004 and 2007.

As Dr Margaret Kitchin, Senior Forest Ecologist with ACT Parks points out, “We’ve got this as a resource and we’re going to get as much as we can out of it.” The resource she’s referring to is the body of information being gathered from 40 fire ecology plots set out across the Australian Alps.

These 30 x 30 metre quadrats are much more than a carefully selected series of sites where scientific observations can be made. They are a commitment to an ongoing and growing body of information, precious because, as Margaret puts it so well, “Everyone talks about it, but very few do it”.

Like most good ideas, the fire recovery plots project is a simple one. Any information on how landscapes behave post fire is virtually a tradable currency amongst those who want to better understand these dynamic landscapes. And since so many people – such as scientists and natural resource managers – will benefit from the feedback provided by these plots, a decision was made to put them in place.

Various agencies across the Alps stepped forward in June 1997 for the set up phase, each one of the 40 plots being carefully selected to make the maximum potential contribution to what will, in time, form an endless river of information. Ignoring state boundaries, the quadrats mark areas of differing communities of vegetation – sub-alpine snow gum woodlands; tall gum, Alpine Ash and montane mixed gum forests; dry valley mixed open forests and woodlands – from Namadgi in the ACT through to the Alpine National Park in Victoria. Factored in was the need for each plot to burn, as the whole point is to see how each behaves immediately after a fire, and then at yearly intervals over the following five years.

“It was a big commitment to set it up, and also to go back each year for the data collection, with a minimum of two people in the field, taking three hours to assess each plot as well as time to enter the data at home.”

In 2003 fire swept through almost all the plots, triggering the planned monitoring process. Teams were quickly on site post fire to photograph and record as per the protocols set out by the project, and the process was then repeated over the next five years. In 2009, with all the data in, Margaret who is currently custodian of the data and manager of the project has been working together with the Australian National University, tidying things up and checking for consistency.

The analysis is currently underway and a final report will follow in June next year. Like most good projects, it looks to turn up as many questions as it answers. But as Margaret explains, the project will achieve what it was intended to. “It will help inform management of the effects of fire on vegetation, for instance, how frequently they should put fire into a landscape as a prescribed burn based on how quickly various species are known to recover.”

The plots are now in a resting phase, waiting for the next fire event to trigger a new cycle of monitoring and data building. But even in this moment they continue to prove useful. “Fire ecologists are aware of interesting developments – in flowers and fruiting of slow maturing shrubs – seven to eight years after a fire, so we’re going back.”

History slices

Matthew Brookhouse cutting samples in the feild

Matthew Brookhouse cutting samples in the feild

Last summer, Dr Matthew Brookhouse drove from Mount Buller to Wangaratta to buy a fist full of pruning saws, something he tends to do quite often given his line of work. And that’s because he quickly destroys each saw, cutting through the dead trunks of a species that happens to grow in alpine granite boulder fields.

Matthew is a scientist, based at the Australian National University in Canberra, whose particular interest in this instance is Podocarpus lawrencei (the Mountain Plum Pine). Together with Keith Mc-Dougall (botanist with the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water), he has been collecting samples – around 700 to date – to be analysed for their potential treasure-trove of information. Given the majority scientific community view is that there is a strong relationship between climate and tree-ring width, gathering samples offers a view back in time – of climate and major fire events from four to six hundred years ago.

Which is why around this time last year, Matthew and Keith spent days in the field collecting samples, blunting blade after blade as sections of dead stems – ideally 15cm in diameter – were gathered from all over the Alps: around Mt Buller, Mt Howitt, Mt Buffalo, Mt Hotham, Mt Loch, the Bogong High Plains, the Cobberas, Mt Jagungal, Bimberi Peak, and the Brindabellas.

With the samples in hand, the next step has been their processing to gather priceless information. For this species growing at these elevations, the belief is that the width of each ring is a response to various factors lumped under the term climate – such as temperature or snow depth. And while assessing ring width may seem a straightforward method, it is also laborious and slow. The truth is, dendrochronologists like Keith and Matthew come down out of the mountains to become French polishers.

Yes, each sample is being sanded by hand, working down from 60-grit paper to the fine 3200 grade. “We sand to a point that is the equivalent of French polishing, smooth as a mirror so that the light reflects off it quite well.”

The point of all this effort is profound. Data gathered in this way could give us a comparison point for what we observe in these alpine landscapes today. “It separates out the short term noise and longer term trends. It takes climate assessment out of the realm of gut feeling and into observable fact.” Work like this produces an informed picture of what has happened and what is really happening now.

For example, a major fire event will trigger a mass post-fire germination. “We’re seeing evidence of such an event in the Victorian section of the Alps through to the Brindabellas in the ACT. We know it took place in 1851 even though we have no written record of it apart from a note in a High Country Cattleman’s diary which mentions the effects at Tawonga near Mt Beauty, Victoria.” Study results (supported by the Australian Alps program) showing both temperature and snow cover over the last 300 years are due out next year.

For more information, contact Matthew Brookhouse matthew.brookhouse@anu.edu.au

Foxes 93% wild dogs 85%

The ejector is up to 93% effective in controlling foxes, one of the two target pest species.

The ejector is up to 93% effective in controlling foxes, one of the two target pest species.

You have to respect those who doggedly work to out-fox canid pests – in this case controlling the populations of wild dogs and foxes in the Alps. And that respect ramps up when you begin to appreciate both the complexities involved and the creativity needed to deal with them…

No-one questions the negative impact of foxes on wildlife and lambs, and wild dogs on livestock. Controlling numbers is part of the park managers’ standard brief with various means at their disposal, among them: aerial baiting, ground baiting and soft jaw trapping. Then in 2006, trials began on the M-44 ejector, a method imported from the United Stated Department of Agriculture which has used ejector devices in a number of forms since the mid 1930s. Four trial years later, Rob Hunt (Department of Environment & Climate Change at Queanbeyan) is something of an expert.

“Dogs and foxes gape over the top of the baited ejector head, so that when they grab hold, in one motion the springloaded piston propels the contents of the capsule into the animal’s mouth. It’s a fast method of control with no opportunity for foxes to cache baits where they can be found and eaten by non target species… native animals or working dogs. The ejectors are set up in a few minutes and because the bait capsules are weatherproof, they remain lethal in the field for extended periods of time.”

This longevity is definitely an asset. The ejector is unlike other ground baiting methods, where the poison can degrade to a sub-lethal dose over a week or so (making foxes and dogs sick and potentially shy of future baits). The ejector therefore allows monthly rather than the usual weekly or fortnightly visits to bait stations. “Ejectors save on labour and help make our limited resources go further. Control can be maintained with only 12 visits a year which means that we can now look at strengthening or extending our current control programs.”

What is known – from studying the traffic recorded in sand-plots before and after using the ejectors – is that the method has proved up to 93% effective with foxes and between 80 and 85% with wild dogs.

However Rob wouldn’t like anyone think that ejectors should be used as the only means of control. Like most aspects of managing a living landscape, nothing is as simple as it seems and with fox and wild dog control, an holistic, informed and flexible approach is needed.

“To begin with, it’s good to take a nil tenure approach – taking the focus off boundaries and identifying the impact zones and likely areas where foxes or wild dogs need to be controlled before they cause problems. Once we’ve mapped out the assets at risk – whether they be threatened native species or domestic livestock – we can work out the best strategy to reduce the impact on that particular asset.” In the case of domestic stock, livestock guarding animals – llamas, donkeys and maremma dogs – may be the first line of defence before employing any one, or a combination of, the baiting methods. For example, there are situations where the ejectors initially control foxes, and then some of the dogs. But as some wild dogs can be particularly wary we rely on experienced trappers to pick up what the ejectors and baits have left behind. This means valuable trapper time is better spent setting traps for wild dogs rather than foxes.”

The ejector trial is virtually complete, with the Invasive Animals Co-operative Research Centre now collating research results from across Australia. This will form part of an ejector registration package to the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the body responsible for issuing both the temporary permits which has made this research possible, and the future national permit.

For more information, contact Rob Hunt: Rob.Hunt@environment.nsw.gov.au or visit the Invasive Animals Co-operative Research Centre’s web site: invasiveanimals.com.