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View from Mount Kerang on Nardoo Hills Reserve. By Belinda Lees
View from Mount Kerang on Nardoo Hills Reserve. By Belinda Lees

Mapping our future

Location: Across the country
Words by: Amelia Caddy
Published 13 Jun 2023

The ‘Climate Futures’ project helps Bush Heritage stay one step ahead of the climate curve.

In January 2014, something unprecedented occurred on Dja Dja Wurrung Country in north-central Victoria: temperatures soared to over 40 degrees and stayed there for five consecutive days. A month later, it happened again.

The woodlands might have recovered if it had just been those two heatwaves, but that year, the usual autumn rains never arrived to rehydrate the stressed trees. In the proceeding months, around 100 hectares of Grey Box and Yellow Box eucalypts on Bush Heritage’s Nardoo Hills Reserves died, leaving behind barren hillsides and less habitat for the region’s woodland birds.

Tree dieback at Nardoo Hills Reserve. By Amelia Caddy.

For Bush Heritage, it was a wake-up call. “Until then, climate change had seemed like something that would affect us far into the future,” says Kate Fitzherbert, Bush Heritage’s former science manager. 

“The tree deaths at Nardoo led us to start thinking laterally about how we could prevent something like that from happening again.”

And so began the ‘Climate Futures’ project, a long- term analysis of how the climate is likely to change in Bush Heritage’s 19 priority landscapes (the parts of Australia the organisation has assessed as being in most need of protection), how those changes will impact vegetation communities, and the implications for native plants and animals.

Kate and her team worked with CSIRO to analyse their data on predicted temperature ranges, rainfall patterns, fire seasons, wind speeds and even cyclonic conditions. These projections were combined with models that show predicted shifts in vegetation communities over time to map a picture of what Bush Heritage reserves may look like by 2050. The projections were focused on a warming scenario of ‘RCP8.5’, the earth’s likely scenario if society continues as it is now, without making concerted efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Kate Fitzherbert. Photo by Bee Stephens

For some regions, the picture isn’t pretty. The Lesueur-Eneabba landscape north of Perth, for example, is predicted to experience a 95% vegetation changeover. That is, only 5% of the vegetation currently found in the region is likely to still be there in 2050. 

In south-eastern New South Wales, the predictions are more uncertain – anywhere from 30% to 75% of vegetation could be affected.

“One of the things that became obvious through the project was that ‘business as usual’ was not going to cut it when it came to some of these massive changes that are forecast to occur,” Kate says.

She resolved to take project one step further by mapping the impacts of climatic and vegetation shifts on each priority landscape’s conservation targets – the ecological and cultural features within those regions that are priorities for protection. 

To achieve this, Kate opened the project to future scientists from across the country through what is now known as Bush Heritage’s ‘Seeding the Future’ program, which supports conservation learning and career pathways.

Nick Hutcheson, a conservation and wildlife biology student at Deakin University, first came on board for an 80-hour work placement. A year and a half later – and now a volunteer – he is finalising his analysis of the Bulloo priority landscape, which straddles the western New South Wales-Queensland border.

“This project allows you to say ‘okay, if rainfall changes here, this is what that will look like in this particular landscape’. And, for me, that makes it more tangible. More daunting and depressing sometimes too, but it means you now have the information to start doing something meaningful,” Nick says.

Flooded channels on Naree Reserve. By Justin McCann

Bulloo is considered a ‘resilient’ landscape largely because the species that live there are already adapted to the ‘boom-bust’ cycle of droughts and floods that is expected to continue through to 2050. Even so, there will be losses. 

Longer droughts and more extreme floods are predicted to result in a 75% decline in Lignum, a wetland plant native to inland Australia. Given that dense Lignum swamps are the primary nesting habitat of the endangered Bulloo Grey Grasswren (Amytornis barbatus barbatus), the bird is considered to have a poor chance of survival. 

“It’s sobering stuff, especially when you look at things where the risk of extinction is pretty high,” Nick says.

Bush Heritage doesn’t currently own any reserves in the Bulloo priority landscape, but now, it knows to pursue potential reserve acquisitions and partnerships that protect Lignum swamps. Then, land managers will be able to control other threats to Lignum, such as feral goats and invasive weeds, to slow its decline.

Elsewhere, ‘Climate Futures’ analyses allow planners to discuss ideas that are far more interventionist than traditional conservation would usually entertain. At Nardoo Hills, land managers are considering watering the woodlands ahead of significant heatwaves. 

In southern New South Wales, ecologists are looking into using artificial watering points and insulated nesting boxes for Greater Gliders to help reduce their mortality rates in extreme heat waves. 

In some regions, it might even be appropriate to translocate species as climates and vegetation communities shift.

Monitoring the Climate-ready Reveg Project at Nardoo Hills. By Will Sacre.

“These are out there ideas, and they might not be appropriate or even viable, but they’re the kind that we need to think through now. We are doing the homework to give us options to implement should the conditions call for it,” Kate says.

For Kate, Nick and the dozens of other students, staff, partners and volunteers who’ve been involved in the project, this solutions-focused thinking is what keeps them going.

“I like that Bush Heritage is going out there and saying: ‘okay, let’s be realistic – these ecosystems are going to change, so let’s find out how they’re going to change, and figure out what we can do about that’. You have to focus on the positives,” Nick says.

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Thank you

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