Newsletter #42 | 2011

The alps program. Working together beyond borders

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Contents

25 years

The Australian Alps is over-run with threads-in-common. Each is laid over another to create a virtual web, representing what’s been going on across this landscape for the last 40,000 years.

These threads are all about people and the way they interact with the Alps. The First Peoples’ connection is obvious, and the network of their pathways is laid like lace over the landscape, etched by seasonal migration for food and culture. Settlers followed, adding their tracks based on timber, livestock and mining.

Over time, alpine-based recreation brought others up into this landscape, people who appreciate its natural assets. Likewise, this valued landscape has been the focus of scientific study and management. Amongst all this tracery there are two lines which break into this network – the borders between New South Wales and its neighbours, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. Politically necessary, these borders divide what is otherwise a single landscape.

And then 25 years ago, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed by the States and Territory. Its effect was brilliant – softening the rigidity of those barriers, helping to manage an area of 1.6 million hectares more effectively. With the MOU came the Australian Alps Program we all know and love, a Program that is dedicated to strengthening the Alps-wide network of people, helping them to share their experiences and expertise as they work to manage this invaluable natural asset.

For 25 years the MOU/Program has proved relevant and effective. To celebrate its signing, some of the people who’ve made good use of it share their views…

A SNAPSHOT The Australian Alps Co-operative Management Program is a partnership. It achieves excellence in management - of the Alps' natural & cultural values, sustainable recreation and tourism - through a program of cross-border co-operation. A group of people with influence established the Program. It is supported at the highest echelon through a Ministerial and Heads of Agencies level Memorandum of Understanding. It's success is also due to having the support of a balance of operational and planning level staff. Strong staff involvement has helped develop a culture of pride, ownership and relevance. Crucial to the Program's success is the dedicated partner funding and management support. Also vital are the individual working groups - each with a specific focus - staffed by those drawn from within the state agencies. Opportunities for across-agency staff networking, best-practice workshops and programs with tangible outcomes are also key. Future challenges include responding to climate change, water and fire.

A SNAPSHOT
The Australian Alps Co-operative Management Program is a partnership. It achieves excellence in management – of the Alps’ natural & cultural values, sustainable recreation and tourism – through a program of cross-border co-operation. A group of people with influence established the Program. It is supported at the highest echelon through a Ministerial and Heads of Agencies level Memorandum of Understanding. It’s success is also due to having the support of a balance of operational and planning level staff. Strong staff involvement has helped develop a culture of pride, ownership and relevance. Crucial to the Program’s success is the dedicated partner funding and management support. Also vital are the individual working groups – each with a specific focus – staffed by those drawn from within the state agencies. Opportunities for across-agency staff networking, best-practice workshops and programs with tangible outcomes are also key. Future challenges include responding to climate change, water and fire.

Kev Cosgriff: (Ranger Team Leader Bogong Management Unit, Alpine National Park, Parks Victoria) In Kevin Cosgriff’s view, without the MOU there’d be no network opportunities, no perspective of the Alps as a whole, no unity. “The Alps Program helps you get outside your immediate area, it unites people across a landscape. We’re all a small part of a really big landscape. We all have common values and goals and that helps build the co-operation, the sharing of ideas, the working towards consistency. Alps people are great people and it’s great to work with them. The Program’s also a way to experience different areas within the Alps, to go to all of these places which remind us why we’re here. How good is that.”

Megan Bowden: (Ranger with the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service) “To me the key to the Alps Program is the people you meet, the contacts you make with others across the Alps who all manage the same issues and challenges. At meetings, workshops of over even a beer we’re able to make contacts and form networks that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And this is so necessary as we all know that management issues don’t stop at the borders. “And this is natural as people have been moving across borders, migrating, walking these tracks for a very long time, and in some ways the Program is helping to keep those pathways going for the good of the landscape.”

Brett McNamara: (former Alps Program Manager and now Manager Rural District, ACT Parks & Conservation Service) “Without the MOU and the Alps Program, people would have operated in silos. It’s a cliché, but perhaps we would have focused on our own patch; the blinkers would have been on without looking at the big picture. Put rather simply, I’m yet to meet a feral pig who recognises state political borders, so if feral animals don’t why should we as park mangers – it’s all about working in partnership and in a spirit of cooperation and goodwill. The Alps Program reminds us that we have colleagues dealing with the same issues and that we’re all working towards a common outcome – sustainable conservation landscape management.”

Gill Anderson: (former Alps Program Manager and now East Region, Victorian Services Program Manager) “The MOU gives the Program a high level of approval and recognition, Government support that I think is really important to have. The Program also gives people involved with the Alps a sense of being part of a team and a connection to something bigger than our own organisations, parks and communities. For me the absolutely wonderful thing has been the sharing of skills and knowledge that flowed in through the Program, not only from across our borders but also through connections made internationally with other mountain protected areas.”

Anthony Evans: (Current Austraian Alps Program Manager) “It allows us to focus on issues or projects which individual agencies wouldn’t have time or resources to do. Such as the whole alps horse surveys. Or the education resource, after all, if you grow up knowing nothing about the Alps, how can you appreciate their value as an adult? A kit like this helps people appreciate their importance, and it’s something that would not likely be produced by the individual agencies.”

Rod Atkins: (former Alps Program Manager and now employee of the Federal Environment Department) As Rod Atkins points out, the relationship between the Program and the Commonwealth is in some ways different to that between the Program and the state and territory agencies. While the Commonwealth has no onground management function, it has had a role in facilitating two major initiatives recently. “I believe the National Heritage listing and the National Landscapes Initiative – two significant events – would not have come about if the agencies had not been able to demonstrate that they were managing co-operatively across borders. With these co-operative mechanisms already in place, there was support for both the Listing and the Initiative.” The former Program Manager sums up saying, “The MOU is the thing that brings people together to talk about the matters from which all else flows.”

Lois Padgham: (Visitor Services Coordinator for ACT Parks and Conservation Service) “The Program underpins my association with the Alps, which began in 2004 when I joined a working group. It was a steep learning curve – trying to work out what was going on – and I met these fantastic people. Over the years we’ve been able to visit the far flung reaches of the Alps and I think that if you’re going to manage something, you know your own patch but you also need to have that overall broader perspective. Without something like the Program people’s daily lives would get in the way of making time to get together regularly. It’s good to hear what’s happening – to help each other or commiserate – and that wouldn’t happen without the MOU.”

Ian Weir: (Assistant Director of Parks in Victoria at the time of the MOU signing) “The MOU has been a success because it has had a lot of people committed to it over the past 25 years. Like a relay race where each of the runners has a passion, this is partly why it’s survived, but there are other reasons. The document they first stitched together was a very good one based on protection of parks and co-operation. There was support from Canberra where a great many people – scientists and politicians – have been genuinely interested in the alpine environment.” And then there was the magic. “In my view the MOU did things that really mattered: greater access to expert knowledge and resources; developed a framework for co-operative arrangements; created new opportunities beyond the status quo. And it was the enthusiasms that came of all this – the spark of magic – that I think has sustained the Program to this day.”

Janet MacKay: (Director of international tourism planning consultancy firm TRC Tourism) “My involvement in the Alps was within six months of funds being committed and the need for a Program coordinator to set up systems for the agencies to work together and manage a joint budget. There was real excitement at field level about the opportunities to work with our counterparts across the border, and everyone wanted to be involved. It became clear early on that staff working together would be easy, but defining consistent policies would prove harder. This has continued. Early in the Program, and still today, staff at field level work alongside each other as though there are no borders and ring each other for help and advice. This was one vision that has been achieved. Sharing information has been a valuable role of the Program. “I still have friends across all states. Only the other day I was in Victoria on a project in my current business and met three people who remembered me, and I them, from my ‘Alps days’! We shared some great memories.”

Letter from the editor

Welcome to the 42nd edition of news from the alps, where we recognise the significance of 25 years of the Alps Program. It’s been said before, but how many other examples exist – in Australia or even worldwide – of a program like this? Government supported, held together by an MOU and set up to assist people work towards a common goal, it’s no wonder the Program has survived and thrived for 25 years. A quick calculation shows that there have been 12 changes of government in the four jurisdictions since the establishment of the Alps Program back in 1986, and through all of this, the Program has been relatively unchanged. This is a testimony to staff – in varied roles and across the four organisations – who have supported this Program. Governments may change, but people’s commitment and passion for this most beautiful part of Australia does not. For me, I am into my second of three years in the role of Program Manager – some goals have been met but there is a lot to do, hence the 20 projects to implement this year. But most importantly the Alps Program will continue to do what it does best – offering opportunities to allow operational staff from across the agencies to benefit from each others knowledge and experience.

Anthony Evans | program manager & editor

GLORIA on the mountain

GLORIA plots range in size from a 10x10cm square to just under 5,000m2, requiring three kilometres' worth of walking at random to collect the information needed. Pictured here are some of those who did the work (L to R sitting): Dr Ken Green and Dr Susanna Venn (both NSW NPWS), Sarah Butler, Associate Professor Catherine Pickering, (L to R standing): Craig Hyde and Nicole Beutel (all from Griffith University).

GLORIA plots range in size from a 10x10cm square to just under 5,000m2, requiring three kilometres’ worth of walking at random to collect
the information needed. Pictured here are some of those who did the work (L to R sitting): Dr Ken Green and Dr Susanna Venn (both NSW
NPWS), Sarah Butler, Associate Professor Catherine Pickering, (L to R standing): Craig Hyde and Nicole Beutel (all from Griffith University).

As we’re often reminded, by sharing planet Earth’s ultimate landscape – the little blue ball spinning in space – we are all linked. At a slightly more intimate scale, this virtual joining of hands stretches across not only our Australian Alps, but it also ties together the passion and work of researchers of mountain landscapes across the globe – thanks in part to GLORIA.

The Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments is an international program which began 12 years ago in Austria and now stretches over all of Earth’s continents (bar Antarctica). Guided by the coordinators in Austria, participating research teams from 41 regions head out every five to ten years to collect the type of survey data which is priceless. Those 41 different sites are dotted around the globe, the one in Kosciuszko National Park representing the Australian Alps. Regardless of where or who is collecting the information, the strict protocols and standardised methods produce information on vegetation, soils and climate – for comparison purposes locally and world wide.

The last time the Australian survey team collected data was in 2003. In January, they returned thanks to funding support from the New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Australian Alps Program. As Associate Professor Catherine Pickering (Griffith University) explains, “GLORIA allows us to see how climate and vegetation may be changing, and we’re already seeing the answer: yes it is.”

While the data from the most recent surveys is still being entered – no small feet given there are 300,000 individual records for 95 plant species alone – Catherine is happy to leak the fact that 16 new plant species were found across the five Australian summits that were not there last time time ’round – a case of species moving up the mountain in response to a warmer climate. “Of course this isn’t unexpected given what we know – that the average snow cover at the highest snow course (Spencer’s Creek) in the Snowy Mountains has declined by 30 per cent overall, and 40 per cent in spring over the last 50 years.”*

And there are other signs of change. “We weren’t looking forward to making the surveys on one of the summits, given the last time we were there we could hardly record the data for all the ants attacking us. This time round there were hardly any.” For more information: Catherine Pickering, c.pickering@griffith.edu.au

*Green, K. and Pickering, C.M. (2009). The decline of snowpatches in the Snowy Mountains of Australia: importance of climate warming, variable snow, and wind. Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research. 41: 212- 218. Nicholls, N. 2005. Climate variability, climate change and the Australian snow season. Australian Meteorological Magazine 54:177-185.

Feral horse update

The Bundarrah mob - since caught and rehomed - pictured here with a molasses salt block at the Mount Jim trapping yard.

The Bundarrah mob – since caught and rehomed – pictured here with a molasses salt block at the Mount Jim trapping yard.

Talk to Peter Jacobs or Steve Horsley about feral horses, and one thing leaps up – it’s not a simple challenge and it’s not going to be sorted fast. But as you learn more about the ins and outs, it’s also obvious that those involved in developing strategies to set up a balance between horse and Alps are going about it with care and respect.

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Manager Steve Horsley describes what’s been happening in the New South Wales sections of the Alps where last year’s trapping season brought in 350 horses.

“The biggest issue we have is what to do with them, since only 20 per cent of those trapped were able to be re-homed. That’s why we’ve been keen to raise the awareness of the need for support, encouraging expressions of interest from potential re-homing organisations. I’ve been dealing with around ten groups, working to establish relationships.” The demand from re-homing groups cannot match the current available supply of wild horses.

The Cobberas Trail damaged by feral horses literally eating the salt in the road surface. Parks Victoria ranger Rudi Pleschutschnig (who is well over six feet tall) stands in the hole.

The Cobberas Trail damaged by feral
horses literally eating the salt in the road
surface. Parks Victoria ranger Rudi Pleschutschnig
(who is well over six feet tall) stands in the hole.

Given the Alps-wide population of horses is estimated at 11,000 (from data produced by an aerial survey), finding homes for trapped horses is essential. Not that the aim is to trap all these horses, but it gives a reasonable idea of the rehoming support necessary to back up the current trapping program. “We’re hoping for interest, especially in areas close to Kosciuszko National Park.”

However Steve explains that control is only part of an effective pest management plan. Information is also key. “Ultimately we’re looking at managing horse numbers to minimise negative environmental impacts. To do that we need information: from aerial surveys – three to date – which give us an idea of population numbers and the rate of increase. We’re also studying density levels in particular locations to gain a better understanding of the relationship between density and negative impact.” As well as this, broader pest species impact work is being carried out to judge the role of a range of pests. A riparian impact assessment, just completed in New South Wales and the ACT, and soon to be completed in Victoria, has involved 97 sites across Kosciuszko National Park. The aim is simple, to understand what is impacting on the landscape.

The cultural values which are wrapped around the feral horse in the Alps, also need to be taken into account. “There is a range of view, with people at both extremes. We have to be mindful that for these programs to work we need to find a workable balance, to have community support.” Information is helping to achieve this. “Twelve months ago there was a lot of opposition from the general public as the perception was that we were exaggerating the population numbers. Since then there has been a slow trend of acceptance of the need to manage horses in the Alps.”

Peter Jacobs, Chief Ranger, Parks Victoria’s Alps District also understands the need to balance the cultural and natural values. Alongside their cultural value, there is a growing recognition of the physical effect feral horses have in the Alps. “They are heavy, hard-hooved animals which have a negative impact on soft and sensitive vegetation, especially the wetlands and the alpine bogs. Our role is to manage negative impacts on biodiversity, and given our parks are also being impacted upon by factors such as climate change and fire, we need to reduce other stresses – such as feral horses”. It’s a case of fixing what you can in order to build the Alps’ resilience.

Parks Victoria’s approach is very similar to that of NPWS – gather information to inform management decisions – which isn’t surprising since there is much information sharing between agencies.

“Thanks to the Alps Program funded monitoring, we have a handle on the numbers. We know that the horse population is growing and that if we are to simply cap their growth we need to take about 2,000 horses out of the Alps each year.”

Currently in Victoria, feral horses are removed from the Alps with the help of the Victorian Brumby Association and the Alpine Brumby Management Association. “These partnerships are critical to the way forward, but we’re still not removing near enough horses if we’re serious about population control – and by that I mean just keeping it steady.”

“We also know we’ve work to do on methods and re-homing. And key to everything is the fact that we need a feral horse management plan – one already exists in New South Wales – something which is critically being addressed in Victoria soon.”

In the ACT, feral horse management is framed by two factors – low numbers and a direct relationship with the effect they have on the landscape. Brett McNamara, Manager Rural District, ACT Parks & Conservation Service explains that despite relatively low numbers as compared with elsewhere in the Alps, feral horses still manage to have a proven negative effect on the landscape. “We’re effective at removing feral horses from the Cotter region – literally a handful each year. And we do this because they have a proven negative effect on the spaghnum bogs.” Not only are these high altitude wetlands valuable habitat for threatened species such as the Northern Corroborree frog (Pseudophryne pengilleyi), but their condition affects water quality and supply cities like Canberra via the Cotter Dam.

For more information on feral horse management, download the fact sheet.

Hidden possums | Watch the video

Rough Creek where five females with young were caught last December. Image | Andrew Sheargold, Canberra Times

Rough Creek where five females with young were caught last December.
Image | Andrew Sheargold, Canberra Times

‘Possum Lady’ Dr Linda Broome received a wonderful gift late last year as she celebrated 25 years of work centred on the Australian Alps endangered mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus)…

Given Linda’s position with the New South Wales Parks – which involves ongoing long term Burramys monitoring – she is concerned about the numbers. “The total population of this species in NSW and Victoria has declined significantly from just over 2,600 adults when we began surveying in 1986 to around 2,000 today.”

For anyone who works or lives in the Alps this is probably not news. What is news is the fact that Linda and those working with her, have made a fabulous discovery.

Of course fabulous is not a word likely to appear on any of the scientific documents produced to describe what has happened, but that’s exactly what it is. The very fact that three colonies of possums have popped up where they weren’t expected has given everyone new hope for this species’ ability to adapt. But we’re getting ahead of the story.

Early in her career, Linda spent time enjoying Wyoming’s awe-inspiring winter landscape as she radio tracked small mammals in the astonishing cold. By the time she returned to Australia she was a seasoned hand in winter-field-research in alpine regions, happily carrying out similar work on the mountain pygmy-possum, gathering information to help determine what factors boost population numbers and what do not. What began in 1986 as a specific study has evolved into 25 ongoing years, supported by students and their projects as well as a dedicated team of volunteers.

Haijing Shi (PhD student, University of NSW ADFA campus) with one of the new possums from a site near Cabramurra.

Haijing Shi (PhD student, University of NSW ADFA campus) with one of the new possums from a site near Cabramurra.

At least once a year in Spring, traps are carefully laid. “We put 100 aluminium box traps out on each site, lined with bedding and supplied with walnuts – bed and breakfast – covered with plastic to keep them dry.” The next morning any trapped animals are run through the usual identification and condition checks as part of a process which adds information, beyond just population estimates, to the building data base. Alongside this, other factors are recorded – such as snow depth and duration, and the abundance of bogong moths, mountain plum-pine seeds, cats and foxes. The idea is to build a picture of what’s going on so that informed steps can be taken along the way to help support Burramys populations.

Understandably keeping this monitoring cycle going takes up time, leaving little spare time to go searching for new populations. However last year Linda was lured from her usual test sites – 30 kilometres further north – to an area which did have characteristic habitat (boulder fields and mountain plum-pines) although it was at a lower altitude, and so unlikely – very unlikely – to be a mountain pygmy-possum stronghold. At the encouragement of a colleague – Keith McDougal, botanist with the Office of Environment and Heritage – plans were made to go back to take another look and in the meantime, seeds gathered from under Mountain Plum-pines, one of the possums key food sources, were sent to Linda for examination – when she had time. “We were looking for control sites for a couple of PhD projects that ticked all the habitat boxes but did not have possums – but – you know – I had this niggling feeling that there could be possums there”.

Data loggers were set up in the area over winter to record temperature and the presence of snow, and plans were made to arrive with the traps in late spring when the usual core ongoing monitoring work was out of the way. Then something unexpected happened.

“I had a phone call from a consultant (Martin Schultz) carrying out surveys for rehabilitation work in the new area saying he’d caught an animal which he thought might be a Burramys. He sent the image through and it was. I then went straight to my shopping bag of stored seeds and by one in the morning had came up trumps with a dozen seeds showing evidence that possums were eating them.”

With both photographic proof and the distinctive marks on the seeds, it was very likely that a population of possums would be found that spring – and they were, on three completely new sites. Of course it’s not the possums numbers alone which are so heartening, but the knowledge that they are living at lower altitudes and in locations which don’t necessarily tick all their prerequisite niche boxes.

“I’ve been surveying and trapping these animals every year for years and to suddenly find such an apparently robust population well outside the area we have focused on for all that time, and especially at altitudes down to 1200 metres, is very exciting. It means that it’s possible the Mountain Pygmy-possum is living in other parts of the park and even in areas where there is less snow and for much shorter periods. The densities at the new sites so far appear quite low – so we need to figure out what it is that is restricting their numbers. Our working hypothesis (and the focus of 3 current PhD projects) is an interaction between climate extremes, food supply and predation from cats and foxes.”

“We have always held fears that this species was at real risk of disappearing completely with a receding snowline, but finding them at much lower altitudes give us cause to believe that the Mountain Pygmy Possum may be more resilient to climate change than we had first thought.” So to sum up, this is good news as population numbers may very likely be greater than previously thought; snow cover may in fact play less of a role than had been thought; and there is now an opportunity for animals to live in wild or managed captive-bred release colonies at lower altitudes.

Burramys facts

First fossil
The Mountain Pygmy-possum Burramys parvus was first described following the discovery in 1894 of jaw bones in a fossil deposit at the Wombeyan Caves in central New South Wales. More fossils were later found at Buchan, Victoria in the early 1960s.

First live specimen
In August 1966 a living Burramys parvus was found in a ski lodge at Mt Hotham, Victoria and was described as an animal that had ‘returned from extinction’ and one of the few Australian species that had been given ‘a second chance’. In the years that followed more were found living in the wild in southern NSW and eastern Victoria.

Habitat
Possum colonies occupy widely scattered boulderfields lying on or below rocky mountain peaks, typically at altitudes above 1400 m, the lower limits roughly being in line with the lower limit of the winter snowline.

Food and shelter
The seasons heavily influence possum food and shelter. Single litters of four are born after the snow melt in spring, growing rapidly to fatten extensively in late summer and autumn. Winter, when food is in short supply, is spent in hibernation.

In summer the boulderfields provide a cool, moist environment, well protected from cats and foxes. During hibernation in winter, daily temperature fluctuations (which can be as low as minus 20 degrees) are virtually eliminated under a protective cover of snow.

The migratory bogong moth (Agrotis infusa), which gather in their millions in the boulderfields during the snow-free season,form a major part of the possums diet along with the seeds and fruits of the mountain plum-pine (Podocarpus lawrencei), snow beard-heaths (Leucopogon spp.) and rice flowers (Pimelia spp.). These foods may also include other plants’ fruits and seeds, nectar, caterpillars, beetles, spiders and other arthropods.

Resort to resort

Bogong high plains

Bogong high plains

Some of the best ideas are the most obvious, and surely this is one of them – a walk between the alpine resorts of Falls Creek and Mt Hotham.

It’s a great concept – to walk between these two resorts in the warmer months. Of course anyone can currently access a series of tracks to get from A to B, and it’s already a walk that appeals to bushwalkers who have the gear and are prepared to carry it. What’s special about the yet-to-be-launched Falls To Hotham Alpine Crossing is that it will open up the experience to everyone – bushwalkers to Sunday strollers.

Ranger team-leader Kevin Cosgriff with the Bogong Management Unit explains. “We wanted to break down barriers, to make this peak and rolling high plains experience available to more people.” The result is an achievable five star 60 kilometre walk over three days and two nights – a remote wilderness experience that’s easy to do. “The walk will start at the resorts, where there is plenty of accommodation; the packs will be carried; it’s fully catered and an experienced guide helps visitors appreciate their setting. The experience they get should be mind blowing.”

With this as the end goal, much has and still is taking place to achieve it. Firstly the walk has received three significant ticks of support: from the Victorian Nature-based Tourism Strategy, the Board of Alpine Resorts Tourism, and the National landscapes Initiative. Further support has come from Tourism Victoria, the resorts involved, Parks Victoria and the Department of Sustainability and Environment. Actual works began on the existing network of tracks earlier this year upgrading surfaces to make the walk more comfortable. An estimated 25 kilometres will need intensive work, scheduled for completion next year.

The official launch may still be some time away, yet tours are likely to be up and running by the end of the year. For more information about the operators offering to take people on the Falls To Hotham Alpine Crossing, contact Parks Victoria on 13 19 63.

Pests in snow

fox2The Australian Alps is a landscape that undergoes a dramatic seasonal transformation. When snow arrives, it brings with it a series of shifts, and one of these is the way canids (foxes, wild dogs) and feral cats interact with the altered landscape. For those involved in effective pest management in and around the Alps, it’s all about understanding these changes and making the most of them…

Fox baiting Parks Victoria rangers Ron Riley and Iris Curran fox baiting on the Bogong High Plains.

Fox baiting
Parks Victoria rangers Ron Riley and Iris Curran fox baiting on the Bogong High Plains.

Mel Schroder (Environmental Management Officer, Kosciuszko National Park) is ideally positioned to describe the yearround fox and feral cat control programs which, in winter, focus around the ski resort areas. “A study undertaken by Tania Bubella in the early 1990s demonstrated that the typical fox home range in the warmer month’s breaks down in winter to centre on the resorts, as these settings offer a reliable food source and shelter.” Having the foxes on your doorstep isn’t the only advantage to a winter control program. “In winter there are a limited number of species which forage in the snow, reducing the potential for non target species to remove baits.”

Winter fox baiting programs began back in 1999, coordinated by climate ecologist Dr Ken Green. Each season work starts once there is enough snow to allow staff and researchers to cross-country ski. Following established transects, fox tracks are counted before and after the winter baiting program to gauge the results. (The current rate of reduction is 75 per cent.) The baits are then buried and checked weekly until there are no further signs of activity.

Mel points out that to get the best view of any pest control program it’s important not only to keep an eye on the reduction in pest species but also the population numbers of the native animals that the program aims to protect. In the case of both foxes and cats, the vulnerable Broad-toothed Rat (Mastacomys fuscus) is a favourite. “Fox and cat scat and gut diet analysis at different times of the year has shown that Mastacomys is very common, almost a preferential species amongst both pest species.”

With the players identified the efficacy of the control programs needs to be constantly evaluated, “…to determine whether the pest population is decreasing and whether the threatened species are benefiting. It’s about meeting your objectives.”

Dealing with the cats is less straight forward as less is understood about their behaviour. “One 2004 study undertaken by Karen Watson which radio-collared cats around the Perisher ski resort showed that they did live in the resort infrastructure as well as in dens made at tree bases and in boulder fields. It is likely that they could be responding to winter in the same way foxes do.”

What’s also not confirmed is feral cat impact on other species such as the mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus). Some believe that the boulder fields occupied by the possums offer a good habitat for cats. “In 2002 the population at Mt Blue Cow had a major crash, prompting some action to reduce stress on the remaining population. In that first year 30 feral cats were trapped from the ski resorts , and in subsequent years, 85 in total. It’s a case of feral pests being something we can control, where we can’t control other factors which may be impacting on this species, such as climate change.”

Judging efficacy has been tricky. Unlike the foxes, estimating overall numbers of cats isn’t possible. “We can detect their presence with infrared cameras, but we’ve no idea of their abundance.” However looking at indicator species such as the possum and rat populations is useful. Up until recently there has been no significant increase in the population of possums or broad-toothed rats, but with the introduction of soft jaw trapping in 2010 and its subsequent success in removing 12 cats and 14 foxes from possum habitat, it’s hoping that this year’s population monitoring may start to show some positive effect.

The best approach seems to be had making use of every tool in the box, making sure you know about as many potential control techniques and tips as possible and re-evaluating the success of a program along the way. “We share our knowledge through field days or yearly pest officer group meetings.”

The notion of the varied ‘toolbox’ is obviously an approach shared across borders as Nicola Webb, echoes, “The more tools you have, the more techniques, the higher your success rate.” For Nicola, (Vertebrate Pests Coordinator, ACT Parks and Conservation Service), gathering those tools – and potentially others – is helped by the fact that she’s a member of the National Wild Dog Management Advisory Group. “I’m one of the agency representatives meeting with farmers, rural industry representatives and the top wild dog scientists.”

At Namadgi National Park, foxes are managed as part of the wild dog control program using a combination of baits, M44 ejectors and trapping. It’s also about timing and getting neighbouring stakeholders to join the dance. “We do an intensive control in Spring to pick up the pups, and then in Autumn when the adults are out and about looking for mates, the aim being to lower the numbers of breeding animals before winter.” Research* has shown that given there is reduced dog traffic along tracks in July when they have pups in the den, that’s also when the essentially year-round baiting control program takes a break.

A full time trapper, Mick Clarke, acts as a buffer for the baiting program by trapping foxes and wild dogs that simply don’t take the baits. Added to this is the constant effort being made to bring neighbouring landholders into the picture. “The ideal is to have everyone carrying out control measures at the same time.”

In Victoria, ranger Rudi Pleschutschnig is usually the one setting the traps and laying baits, explaining that fellow ranger Iris Curran does the phenomenal amount of work necessary to manage the data. Rudi’s approach to pest control is coloured by a mix of straight-up logic and what he experiences in the field. “We still don’t know enough not to be doing this stuff… we’re continuing to learn all the time. I go out and find something unexpected, something that’s not in a text book, and that’s not surprising because the canid has a problem solving brain. They educate both themselves and their offspring to survive, so we have to stay one step ahead of them.”

Much of Rudi’s way of operating is thanks to actively gleaning methods and personal philosophies from trappers who’ve been around a very long time – people who worked for the old Lands Department or Soil Conservation Authority. Foxes are the focus year round, and in winter especially, the bait stations are set up around known mountain pygmy-possum habitat.

Baiting takes place monthly in summer, but in winter, travel becomes easier thanks to the snow which allows weekly checks and even the extension of the baited area. And there are other benefits. “It’s completely different working in snow as the track and trail signs are easier to read.” To the experienced eye it’s a little like reading a storybook – the snow offers up information about what animal has passed by, or even a moment where one caught and killed another. “Being really observant is the key.”

All monitoring generates data (which is then fed back into a loop to inform future programs). “We started with good baseline data and the results since show that we are knocking the fox numbers down, but not out. There will be a spike in spring and then a dramatic crash.” And like the programs running across borders, another tool is being tested this year. “Using adaptive experimental management we’re looking at using a pulse trapping program to knock out problem animals.” The process is ever-changing and ongoing…

* data gathered by Lee Allen and Ben Allen (Biosecurity Queensland) from radio collared wild dogs.