Unable to escape the clutches of devastating summer bushfires, some native creatures such as brush-trail possums and bandicoots are feared to have been wiped out across parts of northwest NSW, a wildlife survey has found.
Species of skink are among the ground-dwelling animals which have suffered losses of some 90 per cent, the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia revealed on Monday.
Other species typically found in the region have not been detected at all.
The study examined two sites in the Torrington State Conservation Area in February and five sites within the Gibraltar Range National Park in March by Eco Logical Australia.
Ecologists found the number of ground-dwelling species detected was less than 10 per cent of what would normally be expected.
Fire had burnt ground cover and canopy, with only high-mobility species such as kangaroos and wallabies found on a regular basis, researchers found.
Two small mammals and five skinks were the only low-mobility, ground-dwellers located during the search while typically ground-dwelling birds such as the quail-thrush and scrubwren went undetected.
Eco Logical principal ecologist Dr Frank Lemckert told AAP some of the more well-known species previously detected that went unseen in this survey included greater glider and brush-trail possums, bandicoots, lace monitors, and pink-tongued lizards.
Deakin University ecology and conservation expert Dr Euan Ritchie said the WWF’s study confirmed his “grave” fears that wildlife populations may have been decimated in areas where fire had been severe and widespread.
“One hopes any areas of unburnt or less severely burnt habitat may be serving as refuges for animals that survived the fires and can assist them to recolonise burnt areas as the vegetation and habitat recovers,” Dr Ritchie told AAP on Monday.
“Some habitats will recover with time, but important structures such as tree hollows and logs are typically already rare in the landscape and can take decades to over a century to form, so species highly dependent on these may be in dire trouble.
“If fires become more frequent and severe, as predicted under climate change…even previously resilient species and ecosystems may not recover, and the most fire-sensitive species and ecosystems may be destroyed entirely.”
Dr Ritchie said it was important to control feral herbivore populations – such as deer – that can hinder vegetation recovery, as well as feral cats and foxes that prey on wildlife.
Professor Mike Letnic, an ecosystem restoration expert from the University of NSW, said his major concern relating to wildlife following the bushfires was a lack of refuges in the state.
“The damage is not irreparable if there’s refuges and animals can recolonise,” Dr Letnic told AAP on Monday.
“But it’s all contingent on there being animals that survive the fire in meaningful numbers.”
A royal commission into the summer’s bushfires was last month told that more than 300 nationally-listed threatened plant and animal species were in the path of fires around Australia, putting them at risk of extinction.
Academics have suggested more than 800 million animals were killed in the unprecedented blazes across NSW alone.