Land Sector Package

Protecting the Pilbara

Biodiversity Fund Case Study

Location: Fortescue River, WA
Funding: $5,725,300 (excluding GST)
Partners: Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, Greening Australia

By focusing on fire and grazing management, this project will protect a vast area of the Pilbara and ensure this largely intact ecosystem is improved over time and threatened species can thrive.

Rangelands Natural Resource Management (NRM) is the largest NRM region in Australia, covering 85 per cent of Western Australia's land mass. It supports and encourages the sustainable use of natural resources with a focus on engaging communities with opportunities and threats in relation to natural local assets.

Dr Brian Warren is General Manager of Rangelands NRM. He says the Biodiversity Fund will allow them to target a large area of high conservation value along the Fortescue River Catchment, protecting the wetland systems, the Hammersley and Chichester Ranges, and the threatened species within them.

This is a project that redefines "large scale" with approximately three million hectares in the project area, running along a catchment 370 kilometres long by 75 kilometres wide, with pastoral properties either side.

"One of the reasons we're concentrating on this area is because it's the centre of the iron ore mining area in the Pilbara," says Brian. "The major mining companies control most of the pastoral leases within this catchment, along either side of the Fortescue River." Brian sees this as a huge opportunity, as they have a high level of environmental consciousness and are committed to working with conservation land managers.

Area where fire has gone through (near Karratha) In the field Dr Peter Russell, DAFWA (Left) explains the carbon sampling process to (L-R) Tim Wiley (Rangelands NRM), Jason Hastie (Pingandy Station) and Richard Watkins (DAFWA) The transect area on the Brockman land system at Yalleen Station. Here the soil has dried and cracked
By focusing on fire and grazing management, this project will protect a vast area of the Pilbara. Photos: Teresa Belcher

Biodiversity and cultural significance

The project area has some high value wetlands. These include the Fortescue Marshes at the top end of the catchment and the Millstream Ponds half way downriver, a collection of waterholes that hold cultural significance for the local Indigenous community and supply water to nearby towns.

The Chichester and Hammersley Ranges surrounding the river also have high biodiversity value with remnant plant vegetation and threatened animal and insect species.

"Our main focus is managing fire damage control within the catchment area through strategic burns during cooler months of the year," says Brian.

Wildfire changes and destroys native habitats, and regular high intensity burning can change the balance of species and ecosystems, resulting in the loss of particular species. "We've seen this happen in the Kimberley," says Brian. "Intense wildfires can take out tree species, impacting on birds and nesting."

Other project activities include managing invasive weeds and feral animals. Brian expects the feral animal control work to start in a few years, in partnership with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture and Food. "There aren't large numbers, but they can threaten many small native animals."

Positive working partnerships

As well as working with Greening Australia and the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, the project team will work closely with pastoral landholders along the catchment to improve grazing management. Through regeneration, this project has the potential to provide carbon sequestration, and in the future, generate revenue through carbon credit sales.

"Underlying the entire project is the importance of getting the community engaged and involved in working on these issues," Brian says. The project will also provide ongoing employment opportunities for the people of the Ngurawaana community. "They'll principally be involved in weed control and fire management," he explains. "We can develop their skills and enable them take ownership of land management activities themselves."

Challenges and opportunities in a unique landscape

"The biggest challenge will be finding the people," says Brian. "Getting people on the ground in the Pilbara is hard, with heavy competition from the mining sector. That's why it's so important to involve the Aboriginal community. They want to work on their own country - it's culturally important to them."

Monitoring such a vast area is an additional challenge.

"We'll use satellite remote sensing to look at the impact of wildfire and on-the-ground monitoring for changes in vegetation in pastoral areas. I'd also expect to see increases in numbers of threatened species. We may even find some new water dwelling species as a result of our surveys."

Brian says they'll run most of the key activities simultaneously over the five year project period, focusing on fire management first, as it's the most critical threat.

"If we can improve the management of pastoral leases on either side of the river, it will have a significant impact on biodiversity throughout the river system, including water quality. We should see changes in vegetation quickly, with more subtle changes in wetlands and marshes as they've been reasonably well cared for."

This project is more about protection than regeneration, with a primary goal of conserving a large area of high biodiversity value. However, in the long term, carbon storage could demonstrate economic as well as environmental benefits, providing extra motivation for the careful management of grazing and fire.