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A busy field season for the Birriliburu Rangers!

Published 17 Dec 2020 by Stella Shipway (Healthy Country Manager)

Despite a quiet start to the year due to COVID-19, the rangers have managed to get out on country and undertake a series of trips for fire management, Buffel Grass control, tourism development and  monitoring feral predators and threatened species.

The Birriliburu Rangers were able to share these successes at the Southern Desert Ranger Forum and at the Indigenous Desert Alliance conference, which were both online this year.

As Bush Heritage’s Healthy Country Manager for West Australian Deserts, I was lucky to get out in the field  to support the fire and threatened species monitoring trips to  continue our work with the Birriliburu Rangers on their Science and Monitoring Plan.

In between trips while in Wiluna we've also continued work on an exciting new bush tucker book and conducted training sessions for processing camera trap photos. 

Waru (fire) management

In July and August rangers visited two areas of the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) to conduct fire management activities – the East side around Eagle Bore and the Katjarra Priority management zone.

Fire is a big part of the desert landscape and has been used as a tool for tens of thousands of years. Fire is used for hunting, for communication and is synonymous with Tjukurrpa (the dreaming).

With the movement of Traditional Owners off Country there was a reduction in traditional burning practices that had created a mosaic patch burning regime.

This has caused larger and more frequent wildfires in recent years, which are very destructive, burning hotter and impacting larger areas. The Birriliburu Rangers have been reintroducing fire back into the landscape with burning done by the rangers in the cooler months to prevent large wildfires in summer.

The patchy burns that the rangers do in the cooler months help to protect special areas, sensitive plants and animals, and promote a diversity of fire ages in the landscape.

Threatened species that occur on the  IPA, like muntangalku (Bilbies), like a variety of fire ages for sufficient cover and food. Getting people back out on Country to conduct fire management is not only is beneficial for the Country but also for people's wellbeing.

The east side of the Birriliburu IPA is a very special place and is restricted from the public due to its cultural and heritage significance for the Martu people. The rangers have worked here less frequently than other areas and have made it a priority for management over the next few years. After a large fire in 2012 burnt 2.4 million hectares of this area it was seen as a priority to revisit to try to break up this area of continuous vegetation to prevent the same thing happening again. During one of these trips to the East Side we were also lucky to have senior Ngaanyatjarra Rangers.

The Katjarra priority management zone is an area that has been visited frequently in the last 10 years by the rangers team to conduct fire management. The ranger work within the Katjarra priority management zone has seen a reduction in the area burnt by hot season fires with prescribed burning stopping large wildfires, reduced distance to unburnt patch, increase cool-season fires and reduced average annual fire extent. 

Right-way fire — using both traditional and modern methods

While out burning, the rangers used both traditional and modern methods. Burning on the ground was done using matches, drip torches and traditional fire sticks. Aerial burning was also done using helicopters and aerial incendiaries.

While this technology is definitely not what was traditionally used by Martu people, it helps to cover large areas and creates a similar pattern of fire in the landscape to what was done by people walking the land.

The Birriliburu IPA is 6.6 million hectares and the team doesn’t have the time or resources to cover such a large area by foot

Before burning is done, there is lots of planning, looking at maps, discussing important areas to avoid and other areas to focus the fire. Elders are taken up in the helicopters before any burning to survey the area and approve all aerial burning activities. 

Threatened species and feral predator monitoring 

The rangers headed out to Katjarra for the last field trip of the season in October. On the drive out we were greeted with some puddles along the roads and even a little rain and a fantastic sunset on arrival at camp! It was a couple of long hot days of work around Katjarra doing predator and threatened species monitoring.

We set up 17 sensor camera traps across the priority management zone and are looking forward to picking them up next year to see what we find. Birriliburu Rangers found fresh muntangalku (Bilby) and tjakura (Great Desert Skink) signs and put up some cameras on the active burrows. We also put up cameras along the roads to monitor feral cats and foxes in the area in anticipation of trialling Felixer traps in the future. 

Bush tucker and data analysis workshops

While in town we've had time to progress the Bush Tucker book. For the last five years, Birriliburu Rangers have been collecting information about plants, their traditional names and uses, photos and stories. We're now working towards making this into a book! This is exciting as it will be a great resource for the younger generation and to keep the knowledge about bush plants strong.

After our trip to Katjarra in October, we had a workshop in town to look through some camera trap photos and learn how to ‘tag’ each photo with the species. This will help the Birriliburu Rangers in managing their own data in the future. 

What a great fieldwork season it's been. These trips were all big collaborations.

Thanks to everyone that helped out Desert Support Services, 10 Deserts Project, Rangelands NRM.

The team on the Katjarra burning trip. The team on the Katjarra burning trip.
Ernest Bennet watching ground burning east side. Ernest Bennet watching ground burning east side.
Aerial burning on the east side of the IPA. Aerial burning on the east side of the IPA.
An exciting discovery in the field. An exciting discovery in the field.
Ivan Wongawol, Jessica Chapman and Clinton Farmer setting up camera. Ivan Wongawol, Jessica Chapman and Clinton Farmer setting up camera.

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