Rewilding: a review of risks and benefits

Ross McDonnell, Treasurer, NPANSW

The NSW Government announced in February 2021 that a form of rewilding would be introduced into 4 NPWS reserves in addition to the 3 previously announced locations. What does it mean and should the community support the concept? 

In the Winter 2021 edition of Nature NSW, NPA Executive Officer Gary Dunnett wrote about the NPWS plans for the identified 7 reserves and the contracted partners University of NSW (UNSW) and Australian Wildlife Conservancies (AWC).  Additional new partners have been announced and include “local communities and Aboriginal groups, Rewilding Australia-WWF, universities, the Federal Government and other State Governments as part of an emerging national approach to rewilding”.

This article aims to explore the ‘rewilding’ concept with its risks and benefits.

From a terminology perspective, it is worth noting that the NSW Government has not used (apart from the quote above) the term rewilding in any media release or NPWS plans to date. Instead, terms such as ‘wildlife restoration project’ or ‘feral predator free areas’, or ‘reintroduction of locally extinct mammals’ are used. One reason for this may be that while rewilding has many definitions, its complete application within NSW would have many hurdles. Therefore, it appears that what is proposed is a subset of what a complete rewilding program would entail.

The differences between a complete application and the current NSW approach may also be reflected in how rewilding is considered, advocated, or criticised by the wider community.  

An opportunity to consider how the NPWS is approaching the matter is to look at current Plan of Management amendments for the involved reserves. Those amendments amount to providing the NPWS with a legal capability to construct the infrastructure (fencing and fire trails) to support rewilding. However, the amendments do not provide any justification or supporting information on what is planned or how it will be monitored and accessed over time. For that information you can look at two Reviews of Environmental Factors (REFs) produced by the original partners UNSW and AWC for two of the initial reserves: Sturt NP and Pilliga SCA. 

The REFs show that a high level of policy, science and practical land management considerations have been assessed. They also show that certain project risks or restraints have been reviewed and potential solutions identified.

In reviewing the NSW approach, it is worth comparing it with international guidelines.

In 1948, UNESCO facilitated the creation of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and today there are over 1400 government and NGO members. The NSW NPA is an associate member. The IUCN is well known for publishing the Red List of Threatened Species, and its mission is to ‘influence, encourage and assist societies to conserve nature’.

The reason for mentioning IUCN is that it has produced a variety of peer-reviewed papers involving extensive consultative phases with titles such as ‘Rewilding Principles’, ‘Proposed Principles for Ecosystem Restoration’, and ‘The Benefits and Risks of Rewilding’. Rewilding and ecosystem restoration are considered as linked concepts as rewilding can be a tool used in ecosystem restoration. It can be implied that undertaking rewilding is an admission that ecosystem restoration is necessary. A question that follows is ‘why is ecosystem restoration required?’ and if so, is that an accurate reflection of the locations where rewilding is being introduced into NPWS reserves. 

The IUCN papers recommend that management authorities (i.e., NPWS) should recognise and incorporate certain principles in designing ecosystem restoration and rewilding projects. The IUCN definition of rewilding is:

The process of rebuilding, following major human disturbance, a natural ecosystem by restoring natural processes and the complete or near complete food web…… as a self-sustaining and resilient ecosystem using biota that would have been present had the disturbance not occurred’

The IUCN papers promote 10 principles which projects should encompass including:

  • Relies on accommodating predation, competition, and other biotic and abiotic interactions to sustain ecosystems that self-regulate populations,
  • Employs landscape planning that considers core areas, connectivity, and co-existence,
  • Focuses on the recovery of ecological processes, interactions and conditions based on ‘reference’ ecosystems,
  • Is informed by science and considers local knowledge,
  • Recognises that ecosystems are dynamic and constantly changing,
  • Should anticipate the effects of climate change, and
  • Is adaptive and dependent on monitoring and feedback.

One key concept involves the creation of core areas, buffer zones and linked corridors. The benefits of corridors are that they allow biota to move across a broader landscape and are a climate change mitigation strategy. In NSW, the 7 announced rewilding areas within NPWS reserves is a good start in creating core areas, some with surrounding NPWS managed buffer zones, but no mention has been made of identifying or creating corridors. 

However, it is easy to question the validity of including, as announced, the two small nature reserves in western Sydney. Even the recent draft Plan of Management amendment for the two reserves acknowledges the challenges of maintaining habitat corridors and genetic interchange within the highly fragmented landscape of the Cumberland Plain.  

The IUCN papers also provide examples of both successful and failed rewilding projects. One feature that some failed projects have in common is where authorities reintroduce herbivore species which when hemmed in to ‘island’ areas, do not have their populations regulated, and eventually overgraze and die leaving degraded lands. 

For NSW this raises the concept of ’total grazing management’ which is the combined grazing pressure of introduced and native herbivores.  This matter was partially addressed at Sturt NP as the REF states that artificial watering tanks should be closed and that kangaroos should be herded out of the constructed predator-proofed enclosures. Nevertheless, the concept of reintroducing mammals into an enclosed area and what occurs if their numbers rise above carrying capacity, needs to be addressed.  

Of note is that some jurisdictions have produced rewilding guidelines which outline the vision, policies, actions, targets, and monitoring measures being employed. One good example is by Parks Canada and its overarching Conservation and Restoration Program. The NPWS does not appear to have a similar approach instead relying on Ministerial media release, Plans of Management amendments, and some publicly available REFs. 

At a policy level there appears to be two considerations. One argues that leaving protected areas open to external influences on balance leads to positive outcomes. Linkages via open wildlife corridors allow for species to move. A species’ future ideal habitat may not be where it is located today. An additional argument against rewilding is a growing concern that new infrastructure is continually being promoted into protected areas either to support more visitation, to facilitate commercial opportunities, or in this case the many 100’s of kilometres of predator proof fencing and linked fire and management tracks.

The other side of the policy approach is to be open to and facilitate management interventions. This is based on accepting that active rather than passive management is needed to arrest species decline and that many protected area habitats require ecosystem restoration.

In each of the NPWS areas proposed for rewilding an argument can be mounted to support the need for ecosystem restoration. Generally, the control of pest species can be seen as sporadic and inconsistent. The failure of agencies and landholders to protect a full suite of ecosystem services is recognised as society advances towards ever increasing uses of our natural capital, and the slow naturally occurring evolution of species, habitats and ecosystems is increasingly being subjected to disturbances. In addition, the ability of habitats to bounce back from major fire events is reduced when there are too many wildfire events in short succession, as appears to be occurring.

If the argument is accepted that the natural values within protected areas are under threat, the question then is what can or should be done, and should rewilding be supported?  

An answer may lie in considering the management spectrum with do-nothing at one end, and applying multiple scientifically designed, monitored, and adaptively managed interventions with wide community consultations and transparent regularly reported results at the other end. While it is not suggested that the do-nothing option applies, and while the other end of the spectrum would be ideal, the reality is that we are currently, and always will be, somewhere in between with a limited rewilding approach being tested. The timing may be right given the United Nations is promoting 2021-2030 as the decade of ecological restoration.

Environmental Trust rewilding map Credit: DPIE

Further reading

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