'Sliding into extinction unnoticed': conservationists battle to protect Black Summer impacted butterflies only found in East Gippsland

Researchers and ecologists from the Threatened Species Conservancy and Melbourne University are launching a ground-breaking drive to monitor dwindling populations and protect rare habitat for butterfly species. Photo: Luis Mata
Researchers and ecologists from the Threatened Species Conservancy and Melbourne University are launching a ground-breaking drive to monitor dwindling populations and protect rare habitat for butterfly species. Photo: Luis Mata

Two years after the worst bushfires in history tore through the region, conservationists are working together with land carers battling to save seven endangered butterflies, found only in East Gippsland.

Researchers and ecologists from the Threatened Species Conservancy (TSC) and Melbourne University are launching a drive to monitor dwindling populations and protect rare habitat for species including southern sedge-darter, large ant-blue and two-spotted grass-skipper.

Kicking off the initiative in Mallacoota, though eventually moving to multiple locations across the region, the plan will see local volunteers and land carers from Far East Victorian Landcare, and traditional owners collaborate to better understand butterfly ecology, identification and survey protocols while land managers will be educated with recommendations on the protection of host plants and butterfly habitat.

Abi Smith, CEO of Threatened Species Conservancy said with over $250,000 funding from Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery Grants, it's hoped these measures will prevent these species from "sliding into extinction unnoticed".

"As many threatened butterfly species have very localised ranges and unique habitat requirements such as specific host plants and ant associations, it is likely that the fires in East Gippsland will have severely impacted the seven threatened butterfly species that this project will focus on," Ms Smith said.

"However, the severity of these impacts are difficult to measure because there aren't any numbers. Literally no one has done any work in decades and even then, the work that was done was quite scattered. Very little is known.

Abi Smith pictured with a critically endangered Norfolk Island parakeet. Photo: Cassandra Jones.

Abi Smith pictured with a critically endangered Norfolk Island parakeet. Photo: Cassandra Jones.

"So without gathering baseline data and running scientifically rigorous monitoring programs these species will slide into extinction unnoticed. These seven butterfly species have such specific requirements that landscape scale actions are not going to prevent their local extinction," she said.

Ms Smith said it is not known what percentage of butterflies have already been lost to extinction.

"We are so lacking in information about threatened species, invertebrates and non-iconic species in particular," she said.

"There aren't monitoring programs, so some of these are quite ground breaking, we need survey protocols, there are no baselines."

Ms Smith said that while there's not enough going on in the threatened species field, there is some hope.

"There is a bit of a turn in the tide coming, people do care about this stuff," she said.

"TSC was set up to tackle some of these problems. We are quite new but are expanding quite quickly as an organisation and have had quite a lot of interest from government and NGOs," Ms Smith said.

"We want to work with those who have local information of the region, to create the data, work together to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and ultimately help us save these fragile butterflies from disappearing forever," Ms Smith said.

Additional actions will include investigating the potential for captive breeding and translocation, salvage operations for future fire events and mapping host plants.

Funded by the Australian Government, the $14million Landcare Led Bushfire Recovery Grants are supporting 111 projects in regions impacted by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019/2020.

This project will address seven threatened butterfly species of East Gippsland:

  • Southern Sedge-darter Telicota eurychlora (Vulnerable)
  • Large Ant-blue Acrodipsas brisbanensis (Endangered)
  • Orange-ringlet Hypocysta adiante (regionally extinct)
  • Silky Hairstreak Pseudalmenus chlorinda fisheri (Vulnerable)
  • Chequered Sedge-skipper Hesperilla mastersi mastersi (DD)
  • Two-spotted Grass-skipper Pasma tasmanica (vulnerable)
  • Common Pencilled-blue Candalides absimilis (DD)

Three of these species are listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1979 and another two of them are listed in the Australian Government Bushfire Recovery Package for Wildlife and their Habitat - provisional list of priority invertebrate species requiring urgent management intervention or on-ground assessment.

All seven species are listed under the advisory list of threatened invertebrate fauna in Victoria - 2009.

For further information visit: www.landcareledbushfiregrants.org.au

Those wanting to assist in the efforts of TSC have a couple of options.

"They can donate via our website. They can like, follow and share our social media pages. There are also opportunities for volunteering if they want to get their hands dirty," Ms Smith said.

"We have projects across Victoria and New South Wales and are planning on expanding into the other states.

"We are being a little bit exclusive at the moment with COVID restrictions impacting everything, so currently most of our volunteers are students in ecology and conservation. But when restrictions lift, anyone interested can get in touch."

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