Two years on, the Monaro dieback isn’t getting any better. Is there any hope for this devastated landscape?

Two years ago I started this blog with a 3-part story about my honours work on eucalyptus dieback in the Monaro region of NSW. While I wasn’t able to give a clear answer about what was causing the dieback, my research has sparked a lot of interest in the issue and led to real action being taken to try to restore the affected areas.

I recently attended a forum run by Kosciusko to Coast (K2C) that brought together researchers, government, NGOs, Landcare and landholders to discuss the issue of dieback in the ACT and surrounding region – what we know, what we need to know, and what to do about it. Over 50 people attended, and it was really encouraging to see so many concerned people together in one room trying to solve this problem.

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Over 50 people attended the K2C forum

The bad news

Many of the forum attendees had observed very worrying trends in the Monaro dieback – not only is it not improving, but it seems to be spreading to other species including Apple Box (E. bridgesiana), and into new areas outside the extent that I identified during my study. Most concerning is the expansion of the dieback into large reserve areas to the east towards Numeralla, and even into the southern parts of Namadgi National Park. In all cases the dieback is still associated with the eucalyptus weevil (Gonipterus sp.).

Chris Allen (NSW OEH) gave a talk about his work monitoring the Koala population in the Numeralla area, where he has observed some dieback in the Ribbon Gums in recent years. This is particularly concerning given that Ribbon Gums are one of the preferred species for Koala habitat. Chris has started documenting the health of these trees using the scoring system I used in my survey, which will provide excellent information on tree health and how the Koalas are responding over time.

Many people also expressed concern about the Blakely’s Red Gums (E. blakelyi) around Canberra, which seem to have been declining in health in recent months. One of the big questions is whether this decline is part of a ‘normal’ cycle of attack by lerps or christmas beetles to which E. blakelyi is particularly prone, or if this is the early stages of serious dieback which could result in widespread mortality.

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My supervisor Cris Brack and I checking out the dieback last year – no apparent improvement since my honours project in 2013

The good news

While it all seems like doom and gloom, the thing that was really positive for me was just the fact that so many people showed up to discuss this issue. When I started my honours project, no one was really talking about the problem except some of the local residents. But now my study has been getting attention in the media (see further reading section below) and people are really starting to take notice.

The local Upper Snowy Landcare group have done some fantastic work in the last few years, applying for grants and trying to get a project started to tackle the dieback. They even hired a dieback manager – Lauren Van Dyke – who also gave a talk at the forum.  Although most of the grant applications have been unsuccessful, the Landcare group has established six plantings in dieback affected sites along the main road between Cooma and Berridale. These sites are highly visible to people travelling through the region, and hopefully will act as demonstration sites for further restoration work. The sites have been planted with a range of local species with a 50/50 mix of trees and shrubs, to create a diverse community that will hopefully be more resilient to dieback and other impacts in the future.

Nicki Taws from Greening Australia also gave a talk about the ‘Monaro Tree Comeback’ project, which was announced last year. The project is a collaboration between Greening Australia, Upper Snowy Landcare and CSIRO, and has received $500,000 of funding from the NSW Environment Trust over the next 10 years. The project will include trials of seedlings sourced from different provenances with warmer and drier climates, which we hope will make them more resilient to future climate change. There will also be a series of cultural burning workshops, working with local indigenous groups and landholders to reintroduce traditional burning techniques. And of course Greening Australia will be working with the local community to replant and restore some of the areas that have been lost, and hopefully create patches of woodland that can act as ‘stepping stones’ for wildlife in the area.

Students from Berridale and Cooma have already been involved with plantings at Camp Cooba. For many of these kids, they do not remember a time when these trees were alive, so they have grown up thinking that the dead trees are normal.

Where to from here?

At the end of the workshop, we had a very productive discussion and brainstorm to come up with some ideas for further research directions and possible action we could take. The most important thing we identified was the need for leadership, or some kind of organisation that can act as a central contact point for anyone with questions or information about the issue, and to apply for funding for research or rehabilitation projects. Since the story has been in the media we have had so many people contact us with observations of dieback happening in their area, so it would be fantastic to have a place where people can submit their photos.* This ‘citizen science’ data could help map and monitor dieback around the country, and improve our ability to predict and maybe even prevent dieback in the future.

*Edit Sep 2017 – You can now use the Atlas of Living Australia citizen science tool to submit observations of dieback around Australia. This will help us to identify problem areas, and hopefully take action before it is too late. If you have seen signs of tree decline or dieback in your area, please take the time to submit your photos here.

Further reading –

The published study based on my honours project is available here:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00049158.2015.1076754

Media stories, articles and presentations:

Tim the Yowie Man (2013) ‘Mystery Predator’: http://www.traveller.com.au/mystery-predator-2fc4p

Friends of Grassland Forum (2014) ‘What’s killing the trees? Investigating Eucalyptus viminalis (Ribbon Gum) dieback in the Monaro region of NSW: http://www.fog.org.au/Articles/2014%20forum/Ross,%20Dead%20Manna%20Gums,%20Talk,%20FOG%20forum,%20hi%20res.pdf

Tim the Yowie Man (2015) ‘Mystery on the Monaro’: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/tim-the-yowie-man-mystery-on-the-monaro-20150224-13n2pq.html

Radio national (2015) ‘Climate change likely to be responsible for eucalypt dieback in south-east NSW: ANU PhD candidate Catherine Ross’ : http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-09/nsw-monaro-dieback-climate-change/6290900

The Conversation (2015) ‘Death of a landscape: why have thousands of trees dropped dead in New South Wales?’: https://theconversation.com/death-of-a-landscape-why-have-thousands-of-trees-dropped-dead-in-new-south-wales-48657

ABC News (2016) ‘Decade-long effort begins to replace Eucalyptus tree “graveyard” on Monaro Plains in New South Wales’: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-15/eucalyptus-conservation-project-begins/7091706

ABC news (2016) ‘Monaro dieback brings science and Aboriginal knowledge together’: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-11/monaro-dieback-brings-science-and-aboriginal-knowledge-together/7034204

Wildlife Australia Magazine (2016) ‘A Landscape Transformed’:monaro-dieback-wam-spring-2016

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