Clarence Valley emus under threat

IF nothing is done to stop the declining population of the coastal emu in the Clarence Valley, our region's unique nomadic bird could soon disappear forever.

The big question is: Have we left it too late to save the endangered bird?

According to annual figures collected by the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS), the population of coastal emus left in the region, and therefore the world, has dropped below 100.

NPWS ranger Gina Hart has been monitoring the coastal emu population since 2000 and can confirm the species is now at threat of extinction.

The reach of the nomadic bird, once widely seen across the NSW North Coast, has shrunk to a thin coastal strip in the Clarence Valley comprising of three main regions: Yuraygir and its surrounds, Bundjalung and Iluka, and a small population at Main Camp, near Bungawalbin.

However, according to sightings recorded by NPWS, the Bundjalung/Iluka population may have disappeared.

Only one bird was sighted in the area in the past year (in January ’09) and none have been seen in Iluka since January 2008.

Consequently Yuraygir National Park and its surrounds has become the stronghold for the population and, according to Ms Hart, is likely to be the last bastion for the bird in the future.

Each year Ms Hart oversees an emu survey weekend which involves NPWS staff and volunteers heading out into emu territory to count the birds.

She admits it was not a scientifically robust method of estimating the population, but it was the best tool they had given the resources at hand and the diverse range of habitats the birds utilised.

“Obviously we can’t get an accurate estimate given the mobile nature of these birds, but by undertaking regular surveys focusing on seasonal foraging hotspots we can monitor any drastic changes in numbers and range,” Ms Hart said.

In recent years the survey has highlighted a steady decline of the population.

Compared to 2008’s population of 118, the 2009 result was a shock at 68.

But Ms Hart was quick to explain that the figure was distorted because of the Brooms Head and Wooli bushfires that burned more than one third of the Yuraygir National Park in the lead up to the survey.

She predicted a more realistic population estimate would be about 90 birds.

“There’s possibly more out there but we certainly haven’t seen the large clutches we normally see in the coastal towns at this time of the year so we may have lost some young in the fires,” Ms Hart said.

The survey found 62 chicks in the region in 2006, 32 chicks in 2008 and 13 this year.

“Whether this is related to predation of chicks/eggs or just smaller clutch sizes due to inbreeding is still an unknown because nests have not been located in order to monitor the impacts of vertebrate pests,” Ms Hart said.Feral pigs, dogs and foxes, land clearing, domestic dogs and cars have been blamed for the declining population.

Another threat hanging over the fate of the coastal emu was the route of the proposed Wells Crossing to Iluka Road Pacific Highway upgrade.

The proposed dual carriageway route would cut through a large section of the emus remaining habitat, including the Pillar Valley, Tucabia, Tyndale and Shark Creek.

The route would fragment the emus’ reach even further, as pointed out in the RTA’s own ‘Terrestrial Ecology Working Paper’:

“The main concern for the Yuraygir sub-population of the coastal emu is the fragmentation of habitat and the impact on movement corridors particularly where this affects access to seasonally important wetland habitats and refuge habitat during fire.

“The separation of the Coldstream wetlands on the western side of the preferred route corridor from known habitat on the eastern side through to Yuraygir National Park is of particular concern.”

In the same RTA report it stated that specific measures should be considered for the emu, including appropriately designed passage structures.

But according to Clarence Valley ecologist Greg Clancy, who worked on the RTA’s working paper, specially constructed underpasses and fences may not be an appropriate solution for the emu and highway to co-exist.

“Emus do not often handle fences very well and are known to charge a fence and get entangled,” Mr Clancy said.

“The possibility of designing underpasses for emus is venturing into unproven territory.

“The motorway is most likely to create a further barrier to the emus’ seasonal movements so is likely to further threaten this species.”

With the population in decline, did Mr Clancy think it was too late to save the coastal emu?

“I don’t believe that it is too late but urgent action is required to study the species locally and further threats such as the Pacific Highway route and the ongoing clearing in its habitat, such as east of Gulmarrad, need to be stopped,” he said.

Ms Hart agreed that more needed to be known about the bird, including seasonal movements, nesting locations and threats to nesting birds, their clutches and chicks.

Over the next 12 months, NPWS will attach a satellite tracker to an emu in care, complete a pilot study to determine whether there was any genetic difference between the coastal emu and its inland counterparts and establish contacts with cane farmers who regularly see emus on their properties.

Despite the population decline, Ms Hart said it wasn’t too late to save the coastal emu from extinction, especially if residents of the Valley joined in the fight to save the bird.

What you can do
  •  Slow down on coastal roads and encourage others to do the same.
  •  Control domestic dogs in coastal communities where emus frequent.
  •  Maintain awareness when you see signs in villages during nesting season.
  •  Report all sightings to NPWS on 6641 1500, including farmers.
  •  Assist with surveys.
  •  Instigate community action and lobbying.

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