Cool island: Why Wilsons Prom is a perfect climate refuge

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The road into Wilsons Promontory National Park winds past ancient dunes, tannin-stained rivers that snake through deep valleys veiled in mist and rolling coastal health land studded with granite boulders.

It’s so otherworldly that it’s easy to imagine you have travelled back in time and are about to cross paths with megafauna like the powerful, hippo-sized Palorchestes emerging from the rainforest, or a wombat-like Zygomaturus feeding on the river flats.

Endangered creatures like bristlebirds, southern brown bandicoots and New Holland mice are set for a new life in a native sancutuary at Wilsons Prom.Credit: Jamie Brown

Well, hold that thought. It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but over the next few years a 10-kilometre predator-proof fence will be built across the sandy Yanakie Isthmus – the narrow strip of land that connects Wilsons Prom to the mainland.

This custom-made fence, designed to keep out feral species such as deer and foxes, will likely include a low-voltage electrified entry gate that rubber-wheeled cars will pass through with ease but that will deter wily feral cats and foxes. (Bare-footed surfers might need to slip on a pair of thongs.)

This fence will be the most visible element of an extraordinary project underway at Wilson Prom: its transformation into a “climate refuge” at the most southerly point in Australia. The prom sanctuary will become home to both existing and relocated populations of critically endangered species from south-eastern Australia, including eastern bristlebirds, southern brown bandicoots, ground parrots and New Holland mice.

Surrounded on three sides by the Southern Ocean, Wilsons Prom, also known as Yiruk or Wamoon to First Nations people, is enveloped in cooling winds much of the time and buffered from heat waves, keeping it about five to 10 degrees colder than surrounding Gippsland.

The 50,000-hectare peninsula is renowned for its diverse landscapes, including mountains, temperate rainforests and fern gullies, sheltered coves backed by coastal dunes, heath land and swamps. Even the creeks and rivers here flow freely from their source to the ocean, and, unusually, there are no introduced fish or other species in the waters.

“It’s a no-brainer – all the ducks line up to make it a perfect climate refuge,” says Dr Mark Norman, the chief conservation scientist at Parks Victoria. While there have been various iterations of fences at the park before (none standing now), the concept of a prom climate refuge has only gathered pace in the past decade.

“We’ve been talking about trying to do this at scale for many decades but probably in the last five years, with the speed of climate change and the reality of how badly things are going everywhere, it makes this place just stand out,” says Norman. Australia’s climate has warmed by an average of 1.48 degrees since national records began in 1910.

The prom sanctuary project is being led by Parks Victoria with other partners including Zoos Victoria, Museums Victoria, the Royal Botanic Gardens and volunteer citizen science groups like Friends of the Prom.

A view from above of an area where the fence line will go. Credit: Eddie Jim

A climate haven

In total, there are 152 known endangered terrestrial species at the prom, including the broad-toothed rat and eastern ground parrot. More than 300 species of native animals and 1000 native plants have been found there.

The rugged mountain chain that forms the backbone of Wilsons Prom once stretched all the way down to Lutruwita/Tasmania until sea levels rose about 12,000 years ago.

Three First Nations groups have a connection to Wilsons Prom – the Boonwurrung, Bunurong and Gunaikurnai – and these groups have agreed to work on programs and relationships with Parks Victoria as part of the prom sanctuary.

Dr Mark Norman with Norman Bay in the background.Credit: Eddie Jim

Wilsons Prom is hugely popular. It’s in the top five Victorian parks visited annually with about 450,000 visitors each year – a third of whom are visiting for the first time. “You’ve got an interface with nature in a way that’s not commodified – it’s not all condos and destroyed with trails and tracks,” says Norman. “And you’ve got a captive audience who really gives a damn about nature in troubling times.”

First, Parks Victoria staff will look at species that already live at the prom but are in trouble, such as the broad-toothed rat, swamp skink and the swamp antechinus.

Next, they will figure out which species could be restored through reintroduction, for example species that have been lost from the prom but used to exist there, such as the quoll or rufous-bellied pademelons.

Already, 17 critically endangered eastern bristlebirds were captured in the Booderee and Jervis Bay national parks in NSW in early April, and driven 850 kilometres via the coastal highway to Wilsons Prom to establish a new population, which appears to be thriving.

Native heath lands like this one are home to critically endangered species like the eastern bristlebird. Credit: The Age

A third, highly conceptual stage in the prom sanctuary plan would see native species introduced that had never lived at the prom but might be a useful addition, such as “ecosystem engineers” – animals that aerate and loosen the soil.

An advisory group of parks staff and academics will oversee all decisions, including reintroductions.

The fence

The 10-kilometre fence will be as linear as possible because turns or corners can become concentration points for animals.

A horizontal “skirt” at the front will stop foxes (or wombats) from burrowing underneath, and a floppy “lip” hanging over the top will stop climbing animals like cats. The vehicle gateway for cars is likely to include electrified concrete, which is widely used for deer and bear control in the United States.

“If you’re driving through something like an electrified portal, it’s almost a bit Jurassic Park: right from the entrance you’re getting the sense you’re on special ground,” says Norman.

An eastern bristlebird is released from its travelling box into the fresh air at Wilsons Prom.

There have been other iterations of fences at the prom (none still standing) with the first built in the early 1900s and a second in the 1980s, along the alignment where the proposed sanctuary fence will go. These older fences were built for largely agricultural purposes.

Feral species control has already increased, with registered contractors killing more than 800 of the 2000 hog deer inside the park, as well as a few sambar deer.

An older iteration of a fence at Wilsons Prom, date unknown. Credit: Parks Victoria

Nobody enjoys killing animals, and it’s a fine balance between doing the minimum of culling for the maximum benefit of vulnerable native species, says Norman.

“When you think a cat can take 800 native animals a year, to stop the scale of death that’s happening for species that are already on the brink is absolutely critical.”

While prom visitors might think they’re seeing unspoiled ecosystems, the reality is that invasive species have spread through the whole peninsula, including feral cats.

This year, rangers tramped through dense vegetation to deploy 100 motion-activated cameras to capture footage of cats, using a stinking concoction of chicken necks and tuna oil as bait.

A remote camera images of a fox on the Yanakie isthmus.

They found about 45 percent of cameras had cats walk past them, which works out to about 0.7 cats per square kilometre, says Parks Victoria invasive species planning officer Emily Green. Happily, they also picked up elusive species like long-nosed bandicoots and potoroos.

An aerial baiting program will soon be established: “We hope to see a change in the abundance and distribution of cats and hopefully an upward trend in some native, critically endangered species,” says Green.

Changing times

Jim Whelan, 71, remembers halcyon summer days at the prom spent camping atop the dunes behind Norman beach, and cooking potatoes in campfires along the edge of Tidal River. “Playing in the river and the bay – the prom was so free for kids, you could go anywhere,” he says.

At age five, Whelan told his mum he wanted to be a ranger at Wilsons Prom when he grew up, and an extraordinary 52-year career followed, from humbling beginnings in 1971 as an 18-year-old track maker to the top job as head ranger for 14 years.

Whelan, who lives just a few kilometres from the park entrance, is now officially on long-service leave and then retirement, but he will continue to be involved in the prom sanctuary as a volunteer with Friends of the Prom.

Jim Whelan has worked at Wilsons Prom for more than 50 years. Credit: Eddie Jim

As we drive south along the isthmus, he points out the wall of thick scrub that hems in the road where it used to be open, grassy woodlands, dotted with banksia and casuarina trees.

Over the decades, the introduction of cattle, rabbits, an exploding population of kangaroos (and the absence of predators like dingoes), means grazers have eaten the grasslands to the ground and only the unpalatable tea tree has flourished.

Whelan and his team have trialled different ways of using fire to safely burn the highly flammable tea tree and encourage the return of native grasses and herbs. Tourists are curious about these ecological burns, with rangers setting up an education program for a burn on heath land near Tidal River.

“We were taking tours out to the fire in the park bus. They loved it. Absolutely loved it.”

Before European colonisation, big fires burned the prom every 200 or 300 years, Whelan says. But in the first half of last century, they averaged a large fire about every eight years, with 80 per cent of those caused by humans.

“After a large bushfire in 1951 burnt 70 per cent of the park, everybody got scared and said no more fires. So, fires were stopped … but eventually Mother Nature said ‘well, time’s up’,” he says.

Invasive species planning officer Emily Green checks on a remote camera in the bush.Credit: Eddie Jim

In 2005, the bottom half of the park burned, and in 2009 a fair chunk of the top was consumed by flames. The solution, rangers say, is the regular application of ecological and planned burns.

Unsurprisingly, Whelan believes most Australians will agree the biological diversity and natural beauty of the prom make it ideal for a climate refuge, pointing out that big protests in the 1970s about the flooding of Lake Pedder and damming the Franklin River galvanised people near and far.

A remote camera image captures a feral cat at night. Credit: Parks Victoria

“The vast majority of those people had never been to those places, but they had been to places like the prom and it gave them a connection to nature,” he says.

“It would be very easy to get depressed about climate change, but we have to do the best we can to cater for these plants and animals. Organisms that will be affected by a heating climate have more chance of surviving at a spot like the prom.”

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