Reintroducing locally extinct mammals

The NSW Government's innovative Reintroduction of Locally Extinct Mammals Project to reintroduce at least 13 mammal species currently extinct in New South Wales is now underway. This project is part of the Government's flagship Saving our Species program.

The project

The NSW Government has contracted the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to deliver the innovative project to reintroduce locally extinct mammal species into NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) reserves. This initiative, first announced in April 2014, will see the return of threatened mammal species. Most of these species have not been seen in their natural habitat in New South Wales for over 90 years.

The reintroduction of 13 locally extinct mammals is a significant component of the Saving our Species program, which aims to maximise the number of threatened species that can be secured in the wild in New South Wales over the next 100 years.

Nearly 180,000 hectares across three NPWS reserves are dedicated to the project. Within these areas, AWC and UNSW are establishing and managing large fenced areas of several thousand hectares where the mammals are being reintroduced following introduced predator and other pest animal removal. The partner organisations are also delivering complementary park management activities in collaboration with the NPWS.

Scientific research has shown these locally extinct mammals play a significant role in maintaining the health of ecosystems. Reintroducing them to exclosures in parks where introduced predators and other pest animals have been removed will not only reduce their risk of extinction but is expected to deliver significant benefits to many other threatened species as well.

Project partners

The project is managed using a new model for collaboration between the non-profit and public sectors to deliver conservation outcomes.

The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW), operating as Wild Deserts, have been contracted by the Office of Environment and Heritage to reintroduce locally extinct mammals to selected national parks. Both organisations have extensive experience in reintroduction programs and large-scale conservation management.

The partners have been contracted following an extensive selection process which began in April 2014. The initial partnership agreements span the next decade, subject to rigorous ongoing scientific monitoring and evaluation.

AWC are delivering their component of the project at Mallee Cliff National Park and Pilliga State Conservation Area, while UNSW is delivering the project in Sturt National Park.

AWC and UNSW are working in close partnership with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to deliver reintroduction activities and associated park management services.

Project funding

The NSW Government is committing over $40 million over 10 years to this scientific program that will explore the responses of native species to predator control programs, and which will leverage a multimillion-dollar contribution from Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and University of NSW (UNSW).

Funding for the project is in addition to the $100 million for Saving our Species projects and national parks funding.

Mammal extinction

Australia has the worst mammal extinction record in the world. Since European settlement, 25 mammal species have become extinct in New South Wales. Of the surviving mammal species, 59% are threatened with extinction.

The Action Plan for Australian Mammals, released in 2014, showed that we are at a critical turning point for many of our smaller mammals. We have lost more mammals in the last 200 years than any other group of species. It is crucial that we act now to halt this decline in NSW's mammal species.

The reintroduction of locally extinct mammals into national parks is an innovative new measure under the NSW Government's Saving our Species program. This is the first time in New South Wales that locally extinct mammals will be released into large introduced predator-free areas in national parks.

Which mammals are being reintroduced?

The mammals being reintroduced are listed as presumed extinct in New South Wales. While they survive in the wild elsewhere in Australia, almost all are listed nationally as threatened with extinction. The following locally extinct species are being reintroduced.

For some reintroduced species, animals may be sourced from wild populations interstate. Another source of reintroduced animals are other large fenced areas in conservation reserves and special captive breeding populations established elsewhere in Australia.

Park locations

Mammals are being released into introduced predator-free exclosures of several thousand hectares at 3 different parks. These are:

  • Mallee Cliffs National Park, just north of Mildura
  • Pilliga State Conservation Area north of Coonabarabran
  • Sturt National Park in the state's far north west.

These national parks include large areas of habitat which are suitable for the mammals being reintroduced and which also support a diverse number of other native animals and plants, including threatened species.

We have chosen national parks because we want to look at innovative approaches to improving the health of park ecosystems. Reintroducing locally extinct mammals to the parks is expected to help improve ecosystem health. The burrowing and other activities of the mammals will also promote healthy vegetation by retaining water and nutrients and helping seed dispersal. In addition, removal of introduced predators will benefit a range of other species, particularly ground-dwelling and ground-nesting species.

The sites were chosen because of their suitability for the installation of long lengths of exclosure fencings and because the construction of such fencing was not likely to interfere with existing park uses.

All activities are being undertaken in accordance with relevant legislation and park management policies and have been subject to a rigorous environmental impact assessment process.

When will the mammals be reintroduced?

The first step in the project was to undertake an environmental impact assessment in each of the relevant parks. This and detailed planning helped decide the final location of each exclosure. Fence construction commenced at Pilliga State Conservation Area in January 2018 and was completed in August 2018; and commenced at Sturt National Park in March 2018 and was completed in October 2018. Construction at Mallee Cliffs National Park is expected to commence in January 2019.

Mammals will be reintroduced once all introduced predators have been removed from each exclosure. The first reintroduction of greater bilbies to the Pilliga site occurred in December 2018. Reintroduction of other species and at other sites is expected to commence by mid-2019.

Protecting reintroduced animals

Large fenced areas of several thousand hectares each are being established in NSW national parks to exclude cats, foxes and other pest animals.

Once the fencing is built, all introduced predators are removed. Other pest animals such as goats and rabbits, which may have an impact on the habitat inside each exclosure, are also controlled. The mammals can then be reintroduced.

The fence is regularly checked and maintained, and the exclosure regularly monitored for any signs of pest animals.

A rigorous monitoring and evaluation program forms a fundamental part of the project and will help to detect any change in the size of populations, as well as the health of animals.

Predator-proof fences

In the absence of a pest animal-proof fence, almost every attempt to reintroduce small mammals has failed, largely through predation by foxes and cats. Because of the ongoing threat these introduced predators pose, release into unfenced areas is not currently possible for most species.

The 2013 Australian Senate Committee Report into the Effectiveness of threatened species and ecological communities' protection in Australia recognised the success of predator-proof sanctuaries in helping to protect and recover threatened species.

There are several examples where predator fencing has increased the population of reintroduced mammal species. For example, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) has used a pest animal-proof fence to significantly increase the populations of endangered species such as the numbat, bridled nail-tail wallaby and brush-tailed bettong in the Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary in western NSW.

Fencing areas is not seen as a long-term solution for all our threatened species, but one of immediate need to halt further decline and restore identified areas. This will see an improvement in the health of a range of species to prevent these from also heading towards extinction. Importantly, these projects will allow us to explore new ways to tackle the ongoing battle with key threats such as foxes and feral cats, as a step towards reversing local extinction of these mammals.

Other benefits

Successful reintroductions require intensive management to remove threats to the reintroduced species. Foxes and cats are a major cause of small mammal decline. Removal of threats will benefit other small mammals as well as many reptiles and bird species, including the iconic Malleefowl.

The focus on pest animal control may lead to improved strategies and techniques that can be shared with landholders and which will inform conservation strategies for many other threatened species.

In addition, small to mid-sized mammals act as environmental engineers that play a vital role in the health of ecosystems. Their burrowing and other activities help retain water and nutrients, as well as helping seed dispersal. This, in turn, helps to promote healthy vegetation.

The project is monitoring ecological impacts, such as soil erosion, whether vegetation can sustain the population of reintroduced mammals, and whether fencing will have any impacts on larger animals.

An environmental impact assessment at the start of the project has helped our understanding of which species may need particular consideration during operations and when constructing the fences.

The project represents a substantial investment in regional NSW. It will create new and unique visitor opportunities for the public to engage with these parks, for example, through guided nocturnal walks to see bilbies and other animals in the wild.