Two weeks ago, three members of QAECO – Cindy, Jose and I – attended a series of workshops on the adaptive management of Malleefowl as part of the National Environmental Science Program (NESP). The workshops, held in Perth and Mildura, brought together more than 20 land managers from over a dozen land management agencies from all corners of southern Australia. They were a huge success and demonstrated how multiple agencies can work in parallel to help solve large-scale conservation problems. But first some background.
Malleefowl is a much-loved ground dwelling Australian bird about the size of domestic chicken. Populations have declined over the last hundred or so years as a result of habitat fragmentation, livestock grazing and predation by foxes and cats. The current approach to managing Malleefowl is to control predators through fox and cat baiting. However, the effectiveness of these measures is unclear. Some studies, for example, have examined long-term Malleefowl datasets and concluded that fox baiting has little benefit on Malleefowl, while others highlight foxes as a major contributor to population declines.
So to resolve this issue, the Malleefowl Adaptive Management project was formed a couple of years ago. Its QAECO members – Jose Lahoz-Monfort, Cindy Hauser, Mike Bode, Libby Rumpff and Rosanna van Hespen – collaborated with the National Malleefowl Recovery Team (NMRT) to design an ambitious landscape-scale experiment that aims to test the effect of predator baiting on Malleefowl mound activity. I say Malleefowl mound activity because the population dynamics of this species is difficult to observe directly, so ecologists tend to measure the number of active mounds as a proxy for how well the species is doing (Malleefowl construct spectacular mounds in which to lay their eggs).
The idea of the adaptive management project is to set up a large-scale experiment to test the effectiveness of predator control. At various locations where Malleefowl are known to occur, the experiment involves setting up ‘clusters’ of what we call ‘control’ and ‘treatment’ sites. The plan is to control predators in and around treatment sites, while purposely avoiding predator management at the control sites. By positioning clusters of control and treatment sites nearby one another (but not too close), we hope to isolate the effect of baiting from other factors that might influence Malleefowl activity, such as rainfall and/or fire. Volunteers will monitor the number of active mounds each year so that we can begin to understand the relationship between predator control and Malleefowl activity. Motion triggered cameras will also be deployed at most sites to measure any changes in predator activity.
Over the past few years Tim Burnard and Joe Benshemesh from the NMRT have done a fantastic job identifying 41 potential control and treatment sites across southern Australia. At the same time, the University of Melbourne team conducted a series of power analyses to better understand 1) how many cameras might be needed at each site to confidently detect a change in predator activity if a change occurs, and 2) how many years we might have to monitor sites to confidently detect a change in mound activity, if a change occurs. In a nut shell, the analyses suggests around 8 – 10 cameras should be deployed at a site, and that it might take up to 5 years to gather enough data to reliably detect a small-to-moderate change in mound activity.
So what was the point of the workshops? Well, setting up an experiment like this requires a lot of collaboration with various land managers. Setting up the control and treatment sites, deploying cameras, and ensuring there are enough volunteers to monitor mound activity are mammoth tasks. The aim of the workshops was therefore to gather all of the land managers to discuss what is needed to get the experiment up and running. The good news is that they are all very keen to participate and in some cases, are actively collaborating together. Many have already conducted LiDAR searches for mounds on their land and will shortly define the boundaries of their sites and deploy cameras. Some managers have already done this and have started collecting data ready for analysis by the University of Melbourne team.
Although the Malleefowl adaptive management project is still very much in the set-up phase, it won’t be too long before data starts streaming in from other sites. This will give us a clearer understanding of the importance of predator control for managing Malleefowl, and depending on what we find, will inform us how to adapt our management in the future. Perhaps more importantly, this project is a rare example of adaptive management in practice. It demonstrates how management and monitoring can be coordinated at a national scale to help better understand landscape level processes.