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The conservation impacts of ecological disturbance: Time-bound estimates of population loss and recovery for fauna affected by the 2019–2020 Australian megafires

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posted on 2023-01-16, 05:28 authored by S Legge, L Rumpff, JCZ Woinarski, NS Whiterod, M Ward, DG Southwell, BC Scheele, DG Nimmo, M Lintermans, HM Geyle, ST Garnett, B Hayward-Brown, M Ensbey, G Ehmke, ST Ahyong, CJ Blackmore, DS Bower, D Brizuela-Torres, AH Burbidge, PA Burns, G Butler, R Catullo, DG Chapple, CR Dickman, KE Doyle, J Ferris, D Fisher, R Gallagher, GR Gillespie, MJ Greenlees, R Hohnen, CJ Hoskin, D Hunter, C Jolly, M Kennard, Alison KingAlison King, D Kuchinke, B Law, I Lawler, Susan LawlerSusan Lawler, Richard LoynRichard Loyn, D Lunney, J Lyon, J MacHunter, M Mahony, S Mahony, RB McCormack, J Melville, Peter MenkhorstPeter Menkhorst, D Michael, N Mitchell, E Mulder, D Newell, L Pearce, TA Raadik, JJL Rowley, H Sitters, R Spencer, R Valavi, M West, DP Wilkinson, S Zukowski
Aim: After environmental disasters, species with large population losses may need urgent protection to prevent extinction and support recovery. Following the 2019–2020 Australian megafires, we estimated population losses and recovery in fire-affected fauna, to inform conservation status assessments and management. Location: Temperate and subtropical Australia. Time period: 2019–2030 and beyond. Major taxa: Australian terrestrial and freshwater vertebrates; one invertebrate group. Methods: From > 1,050 fire-affected taxa, we selected 173 whose distributions substantially overlapped the fire extent. We estimated the proportion of each taxon’s distribution affected by fires, using fire severity and aquatic impact mapping, and new distribution mapping. Using expert elicitation informed by evidence of responses to previous wildfires, we estimated local population responses to fires of varying severity. We combined the spatial and elicitation data to estimate overall population loss and recovery trajectories, and thus indicate potential eligibility for listing as threatened, or uplisting, under Australian legislation. Results: We estimate that the 2019–2020 Australian megafires caused, or contributed to, population declines that make 70–82 taxa eligible for listing as threatened; and another 21–27 taxa eligible for uplisting. If so-listed, this represents a 22–26% increase in Australian statutory lists of threatened terrestrial and freshwater vertebrates and spiny crayfish, and uplisting for 8–10% of threatened taxa. Such changes would cause an abrupt worsening of underlying trajectories in vertebrates, as measured by Red List Indices. We predict that 54–88% of 173 assessed taxa will not recover to pre-fire population size within 10 years/three generations. Main conclusions: We suggest the 2019–2020 Australian megafires have worsened the conservation prospects for many species. Of the 91 taxa recommended for listing/uplisting consideration, 84 are now under formal review through national processes. Improving predictions about taxon vulnerability with empirical data on population responses, reducing the likelihood of future catastrophic events and mitigating their impacts on biodiversity, are critical.


This study was supported with funding from the National Environmental Science Program through the Threatened Species Recovery Hub. Thanks to Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment staff for discussion and support, especially the team at the Protected Species and Communities Branch; Sue Fyfe, Fiona Woods and team at Geospatial and Information Analytics Branch; Sally Box, Fiona Fraser and the BushFire Taskforce. Unpublished mapping/observation data were provided by Reid Tingley, Stewart MacDonald, Stephane Batista, Andrew Baker, Justin Welbergen, Harry Moore, Tim Page, Rosie Hohnen, Tarmo Raadik, Michael Mahony et al. Photos provided by Phil Zylstra.


Publication Date



Global Ecology and Biogeography






20p. (p. 2085-2104)





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© 2022 The Authors. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not used for commercial purposes.