Tasmanian devils and the recent bushfires
Published: 18/01/2013 At this stage, the precise impact of Tasmania’s New Year bushfires on Tasmanian devils is not known. However there is no threat to the overall survival of the species because of previous work undertaken by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program to establish an Insurance Population of over 500 devils.
The animals in the Insurance Population are being held in more than 20 zoos and wildlife parks throughout Australia and they have not been affected by the bushfires in Tasmania. In addition, none of the ‘Devil Island’ free range enclosures currently used by the Program at Bridport, Freycinet Peninsula and Bicheno have been impacted by fire, and no devils housed in any Tasmanian wildlife park, including the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park at Taranna, have died as a result of the recent fires.
The long term impact of the fires on wild populations of devils is a concern since keeping devils alive and well in their natural landscape is the key goal of the Program. It is expected that devils, along with other Tasmanian wildlife, have been killed, injured or displaced by the fires. We also know that important devil habitat has been lost to the fires and that local devil populations will have been affected. However, it is not possible to determine the extent of this impact until more detailed assessments have been undertaken in the fire-affected areas and it will depend on our prior knowledge of the devil populations and characteristics of the fire in each of the locations.
The size and intensity of the fire, for instance is an important factor for the survival of wildlife. In general, a cool fire that leaves a mosaic of burnt habitat along with patches of remnant bush is likely to have less impact on wildlife than intense wildfires of landscape size. Depending on such characteristics, devils may have fared better than some other wildlife species, particularly ground and tree-dwelling animals such as wallabies and possums. Devils may have been able to flee ahead of the fire front or shelter in rocks, dens or underground burrows during the fire episode.
In addition, being carnivorous, devils are likely to have access initially to an increased availability of food – either as burnt carcasses, injured animals or prey species moving into new areas. Once the fire-affected area has begun to recover and regrow, the prey population is likely to increase in response to ‘fresh new pick’. Devils tend to do well amidst this kind of disturbance because it provides attractive habitat for prey species. However, the time lag for the return of habitat may be critical and important den sites such as hollow logs may no longer be available.
The precise impact of the fires, therefore, will not be known for some time and will depend on the rate of recovery of each of the fire-affected landscapes. The loss of Tasmanian devils on Forestier Peninsula, for instance is expected to be low because of previous work by the Program to depopulate the area of both healthy and diseased devils, ahead of a project to establish a healthy protected population on the Peninsula. Some of the survey equipment being used to assess devil populations on the Peninsula has been destroyed but overall, the work will not have been significantly impacted.
The fire in the Bicheno region did affect some prime devil den habitat but patches of bush have remained, and the wildlife is likely to return in time. The healthy population of devils in the North West of the State may also have been directly affected by fire but the significance of this is unknown at present. Ongoing monitoring by the Program and surveys in established research sites will continue to provide information on local devil populations and hopefully, shed light on the movement of devils in response to some of the fires.
While the primary focus of the Program during the fires has been on supporting a whole of Government response for the people and communities directly affected, our attention is now turning to the recovery phase. At this time, there is a general concern for wildlife impacted by the fires, particularly orphaned or injured animals, and there is also a greater risk of devil road-kills as a result of increased activity by wildlife in fire-affected areas as they search for food and water.
For this reason, it is important that people drive carefully, particularly from dusk to dawn, so as to avoid wildlife on our country roads. Any sightings of road-killed devils can be reported to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program on-line at www.tassiedevil.com.au or call or SMS a photo and location information to 0427 733 511. More general wildlife concerns and any injured wildlife can be reported to the Department on (03) 6233 2520.
For landholders and people living in fire-affected areas, it is important to be patient with wildlife that has been displaced by the fire. This is particularly the case for devils which may move into adjacent farmland in search of food and shelter. Any concerns by landholders in this regard can be raised directly with staff from the Program on (03) 6233 2006.