Endangered Australian woylies make a comeback

Western Shield was initiated by the Department of Biodiversity and the Conservation and Attractions of Western Australia has recorded the greatest-ever frequency of woylie sightings this year.

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Image Credit: Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions

After government conservation efforts, the endangered marsupial is being seen in higher numbers in Australia. The woylie, an herbivore native to the state of Western Australia, are one of Australia’s native ecosystem engineers.

After being overhunted by feral foxes and cats, a conservation program, Western Shield, was initiated by the Department of Biodiversity and the Conservation and Attractions of Western Australia has recorded the greatest-ever frequency of woylie sightings this year.

“There are a lot of challenges for our native fauna and flora across Western Australia and Australia due to the threats to biodiversity, but these kinds of results are really promising,” Ashley Millar, program coordinator at Western Shield, said.

One of Australia’s native ecosystem engineers, woylies are known to dig up soil, searching for food like roots and tubers, which aerate the soil and spread seeds. The species is also known to feed on truffles.

“[Woylies] like the nice food and they’re very keen to dig [truffles] up which is fantastic for them, and also for the greater ecosystem and the forest,” Millar said.

In 2019 when the conservation program began, only two woylies were found in the Batalling State Forest. But this year, 34 woylies were trapped and tagged with GPS tracking anklets this year, which is a record number.

“[In] areas where we’re not managing foxes and feral cats, we’ll struggle to catch any woylies, so I think the fact that we’re catching 34 in the past year is significant,” Miller said. “The trend there is upwards, which is positive.”

Western Shield manages wild foxes and cats, which were brought to Australia by European settlers, as to not overhunt the the ground-dwelling marsupials. Woylies “never needed to evolve the speed or stealth to escape such successful predators as cats and foxes” so management of such predators is key, Miller said.

“We haven’t necessarily expanded the footprint of what we’re doing, but we’ve increased the intensity of what we’re doing in managing foxes,” Miller said. “There is an increase in the use of feral cat management at both Western Shield sites and other sites around the state with private land holders to protect our native species.”

Miller said he is hopeful for the future of this program and is working hard with his team to sustain the growing number of woylies through ongoing management of predators.

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