WildCountry Tasmania is an exciting new approach to conservation of Tasmania’s unique and important landscapes. It aims to present a long-term blueprint for preserving biodiversity by maintaining critical ecological processes.
Tasmania is not immune from the worldwide extinction crisis and potentially catastrophic collapse of ecosystems. Ecological threats include climate change, coastal development, industrial forestry, land clearing, large dams, feral species and diseases.
Tasmania comprises one large and numerous small islands that have a remarkably diverse range of ecosystems. Many of Tasmania’s plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. For example, up to 70 per cent of Tasmania’s alpine plants are endemic to the state (more information). Tasmania’s burrowing crayfish are unique in the world, and several new species have recently been described.
Over 600 species of plants and animals are listed on the Tasmanian threatened species schedules as rare, vulnerable, endangered or extinct (more information). Dr Peter McQuillan of the University of Tasmania warns that “habitat loss and habitat fragmentation are the two major causes of species loss”.
25 per cent of Tasmania is protected inside reserves such as national parks. An additional 15 per cent has a lower form of protection and is open to mineral expoloration, mining, 4WDs and other developments.
Outside reserves, many parts of Tasmania are seriously degraded due to decades of unsustainable land management. Regions with fertile soils such as the Midlands and north-west coast have been largely cleared of native vegetation. Dieback of the remaining trees in the Midlands is threatening to turn what was once productive and diverse woodland into a desert. Many natural processes occur on a larger scale than the small island-like reserves which presently are the main mechanism for biodiversity conservation in northern and eastern Tasmania. Large well-connected areas of protected land are needed.
Animals, plants and forests will have to migrate or evolve to survive in response to climate change. Small isolated reserves will be like sinking ships for the animals and forests they contain. Healthy, interconnected populations of animals and plants will maintain the genetic diversity which allows for adaptation to new conditions. It is a long term vision.
“Climate change impacts will vary considerably between species and will be very hard to predict. Therefore probably the best approach to minimise loss will be to make sure many different types of habitat are protected. This way even if the ecosystems and habitats change, a wide range of environmental conditions will be available to help native species survive. Larger areas of habitat, and more of them, will also be required to help species adapt to changing conditions.”
“Connectivity between habitat patches has emerged as one of the most important principles in landscape management and conservation in recent years.”
Dr Peter McQuillan, University of Tasmania.
Established conservation projects such as the Wildlands Project in North America and Gondwanalink, in south-western Australia, are implementing this concept of connectivity on a huge scale.
A similar approach to conservation planning has commenced in Tasmania with the establishment of the national WildCountry Science Council and the Tasmanian Expert Group, comprising of experts from a broad range of ecological sciences. The aim is to develop a WildCountry plan to identify ‘biodiversity hotspots’ and wilderness areas connected by habitat corridors and buffered by areas of sustainably managed economically productive land.
This approach to landscape conservation has been applied with the ‘Linking Landscapes’ project in the north-east of Tasmania. Linking Landscapes, initiated by the North East Bioregional Network, has developed a new reserve design which expands and connects the existing small, isolated reserves in the region.
Brendan Mackey, Professor of Environmental Science at the Australian National University, says the nation is experiencing an ‘extinction crisis’. ‘We can’t turn the continent into a national park,’ Mackey says. But joining up patches of bush on private land makes a big difference to the viability of species.
In a recent paper Mackey wrote the following:
"Landscape-wide planning and management is needed to better buffer and link existing protected areas through mechanisms such as creation of protected areas over important intact linkages, whether as national parks or conservation covenants on private land, changes to land management such as through leasehold conditions, or allowing regrowth of native vegetation.
"In this way, biological permeability can be enhanced at scales commensurate with the likely impacts of global warming."
Tasmania’s marine waters are much less protected than our terrestrial environment, with only 3.5 per cent of the state’s waters in marine reserves.