Seeds of change

Published 12 Jun 2020 

Fire can be as harmful as it is essential in the Kimberley of Western Australia. Maintaining that fine balance is at the heart of the Bunuba Rangers’ fire program, bringing right-way winthali back to country.

Bunuba Elder Joe Ross can recall seeing hundreds of Gouldian Finches flying in rainbow flocks across his country as late as the 1970s.

A Gouldian Finch (Erythrura gouldiae). Photo by Martin Willis.
A Gouldian Finch (Erythrura gouldiae). Photo by Martin Willis.

Located in the central-west Kimberley region of Western Australia, Bunuba muwayi (country) contains ideal habitat for the finches with its sandstone ranges and grassy savanna woodlands. But today, these colourful birds, which were once common across most of northern Australia, have all but disappeared.

“Since about the 80s, their population has really dropped off dramatically and now there are just small pockets of Gouldian Finch colonies left on Bunuba country and elsewhere,” says Joe.

The decline of Gouldian Finches is believed to be primarily due to changes in fire regimes. As Aboriginal communities right across northern Australia were forced off their land, they were no longer able to continue their traditional burning.

A cool burn smouldering in Spinifex Grass. Photo Peter Taylor.
A cool burn smouldering in Spinifex Grass. Photo Peter Taylor.

These deliberately-lit, early-dry season fires, known to Bunuba people as right-way winthali (fire), not only reduce the extent and severity of uncontrolled bushfires, they also create a diverse mosaic of older and younger vegetation that provides habitat for many different animals, including Gouldian Finches.

Now, Bunuba people are working to bring right-way winthali back to their country, with support from Bush Heritage and a $250,000 Australian Heritage grant from the Australian Government.

“The grant is continuing the work that we started with Bunuba back in 2018,” says Bush Heritage National Fire Program Manager Richard Geddes, who works closely with the Bunuba Rangers to plan when and where their burning will happen.

Over the past two years, Bunuba’s burning has been restricted to Yaranggi (Leopold Downs), one of three pastoral stations that Bunuba regained control of in an exclusive possession native title recognition in 2012. The Australian Heritage grant provides the funding for Bunuba to manage fire and protect natural and cultural values across their entire 502,000 hectare exclusive possession native title area.

“We're working to protect places that younger generations have never been to before the project started and the older generations wouldn’t have visited some of these areas in over 30 to 40 years,” says Richard.

Gouldian Finches. Photo Alec Brennan.
Gouldian Finches. Photo Alec Brennan.

One of the areas they will be focusing on is miluwindi, the rocky, sandstone hills of the King Leopold Ranges in the north of Bunuba muwayi.

During the late dry season, when food is scarce, Gouldian Finches flock to miluwindi to breed in the hollows of smooth-barked Snappy Gums (Eucalyptus brevifolia) and feed on spinifex grass seeds.

The seeds are critical to their survival at this time of year – without them, they can starve. But spinifex grass will only produce seed if it hasn’t been burnt in the last three years, so when big wildfires burn through large areas of country, it can have a catastrophic effect on the birds’ food source.

“Unmanaged hot fires at certain times of the year will basically burn all the grass so there’s no regrowth and no grass seeds,” says Joe.

“For the past few decades, unmanaged hot fires have destroyed the food source for Gouldian Finches in that Snappy Gum country.”

The Northern Quoll is among species impacted by wildfires in northern Australia. Photo Steve Parish.
The Northern Quoll is among species impacted by wildfires in northern Australia. Photo Steve Parish.

Gouldian Finches aren’t the only species impacted by uncontrolled wildfires. Many other grass seed-eating birds and mammals are in decline right across northern Australia, including Northern Quolls, Partridge Pigeons, Golden-shouldered Parrots and Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens.

“Gouldian Finches are sort of like the canary in the coal mine,” says Richard. “We focus on them because they're a really clear indicator of whether or not the country's being managed well for fire.”

In an average year, Bunuba Rangers – accompanied by Elders and young people – will aim to strategically burn about 15% to 20% of their land through right-way winthali, while taking care to avoid long-unburnt spinifex and fire sensitive areas.

Over the coming years, the rangers will conduct regular surveys to determine the impact their work is having on plants and animals. With any luck, they’ll be spotting flashes of rainbow colour amongst the grasses very soon.