Operation Bounceback taking a giant stride forward
For 23 years ‘Operation Bounceback’ has been fighting feral animals in the Flinders Ranges. Imagine seeking an annual budget for the same project 23 times! That takes vision, commitment, determination, quality and the support of about 10 different Ministers.
At the 20 year celebration, it was highlighted ‘SA Government, staff, volunteers, landholders and local communities work together to reverse some of the impacts of the last 150 years’, and by the logos on the report cover, the Australian Government is probably also a partner-organisation.
It is a classic example of a trusted partnership for conservation.
Controlling foxes has been a priority since 1993 and Grasswrens, Pythons and the Yellow-footed Rock-Wallaby are already benefiting. The current fox-baiting effort covers 5,500 km2.
Twenty years of feral animal control has laid a platform for the reintroduction of long-lost species. After an amazing Ecological Society of Australia conference I was lucky enough to get up to the Flinders Ranges and briefly check-out the reintroduction projects for the Western Quoll and Brushtail Possum…
We broke the 6 hour trip with an overnight stay at Port Augusta – surely the only Port in Australia with nowhere to eat overlooking water? The pizza was pretty good though and the Botanic Gardens were awesome.
The next day we were off to the Flinders, past Snowtown, famous for nothing other than a giant Wind Turbine Blade, over the Pitchi Richi railway (which lots of SA-peeps seem to know about), checking on some agri-ruins of the day (a symbol of a different future for the Flinders), and then into the Wilpena Pound resort.
Our connection with the reintroduction team was hours away, so we checked out some Aboriginal art and carvings, some very fearless goats, and a couple of look-outs. We encountered on the side of the road what is surely the least-respected piece of hitch-hiking taxidermy and viral social media in the landscape…
A quick sortie into gorges country and we were able to locate the flagship species for Operation Bounceback – some Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies – clearly not-too-fussed with us as they started to wake up. Not wanting to push the hire car too far, we headed back to Wilpena, and although blessed by a Wedgie at ground-height on the way, were pleased to be finally out of the sun.
At dinner we met some of the reintroduction project team; ‘Pat-the-ultimate-eco-bushman’ and ‘Possum-Hannah’[i]. After musing on what the morning’s trap clearing might bring, we buckled up for a quick sortie of late-night spotlighting and were lucky enough to pickup a roadside Western Quoll in rocky country in the Pound (there is some contention amongst the team over whether there was one or two quolls). Regardless, that was the first quoll I have seen in the wild & probably less than 50 people have seen free-ranging quolls in the Flinders Ranges.
Clearing traps from 5:00 am – it’s always easy to get up on the first day – eager to see the first animals of the trip, know that the feral animal control is working, and hope that the natives are going well.
Pat-the-ultimate-eco-bushman had put out a bunch of traps the night before, mostly to check some of Possum-Hannah’s Brushtail Possums that were wearing radio-tracking collars. We picked up a couple of possums that were in their right spots, and even a Western Quoll that was a ‘newie for the season’ – a good sign that breeding had occurred since the last trapping. Sparkles the possum was about 1.5 km off the road, but worth the walk in and the testing of the bona fidaes of Pat-the-ultimate-eco-bushman – who back-packed-out three traps whilst profiling survival tactics for end-world scenarios.
Later that morning we met the indefatigable [and charming] ‘Boss Lady’[i] and had the full briefing with the reintroduction team, as volunteers, workers, partner-organisations, and students had turned up for the full week of trapping [btw we had been undertaking the ‘prelude’ to-date]. The subsequent afternoon was hazy – with post-conference fatigue, early morning jet-lag, the heat and bait-preparation coming together to provide a Snowtown-esque reflection of predator ecology.
Later in the afternoon we set about 36 traps, for cats, possums and quolls, across two main transects, in the Pound and around the edge. My specific job in the:
team-work rhythm was expertly shaping and placing the tuna/oil/oats/blood bait ball, and then strategically with the utmost of ecological intellect [often tested by Boss Lady], placing the ‘five-day-old-chicken-and-kangaroo-blood’ cocktail at locations that would maximise the attraction of predators [I just hope the cats and quolls didn’t both come to the same trap at the same time].
The thing about that ‘five-day-old-chicken-and-kangaroo-blood’ cocktail held in my lap – when you got a waft of it, it wasn’t clear whether you were actually eating it or drinking it, such was its pungent potency (a quality product of Pat-the-ultimate-eco-bushman).
Fingernail biting was clearly off the menu that afternoon.
Up fresh again for the trap-clearing the next morning, with much anticipation of many quolls [and possums]. Boss Lady had me on the:
- ‘jump-out-of-the-car-and-find-the-trap-and-tell-us-if-there-is-an-animal-in-it-and-if-not-close-the-trap-and-get-back-in’ job.
The first official morning is often slow with trap-shy animals reluctant to ‘take-the-bait’. On our first run outside the Pound [out beyond the glamping tents – do those tourists know how special this place is] we picked up one Quoll (another ‘newie’) and once fully processed it was quite pleased to check us out before going on its way.
Inside the Pound we picked up another Quoll in the rocky country and one of the ‘trap-prone’ regular possums. An errant blue-tongue that had eaten the whole bait-ball was also a welcome distraction from empty traps.
All-in-all a good sign for a more fruitful trapping week ahead. Unfortunately we did find some cat tracks along the sandy road near some of the traps, presenting in equal measure opportunity to capture it, and risk that it might take some of the new entrants to the quoll population.
Having cleared our day-one lines, immensely grateful for the opportunity to be involved in this amazing Bounceback project (even in the most minor of ways), we had to check-out and head back to Adelaide for our 4 pm flight to Canberra for work the next day (including working on species reintroductions at Mulligans Flat). We snooped around Snowtown on the wayback for a very short amount of time –it was a pretty quiet place on a Sunday. To consume the road-time back to Adelaide we spent an hour googling ‘Australia’s worst serial killings’ to pass the time. It turns out, poor old Snowtown only housed the crime for a few months, but somehow became the showcase for the 7-year crime story.
Checking in with Boss Lady later that week, it turns out a bunch of quolls (50+) were trapped through the week, amazing news, clearly the reintroduction is well-in-progress, and providing irrefutable evidence to support budget allocations for the Bounceback program for the next 23 years.
Bravo to the vision, commitment, determination, quality and the support of about 10 different Ministers, and a bunch of passionate SA Government and partner-agency people who have laid an amazing platform for a biodiverse future (whom I don’t know – but you certainly deserve credit).
Yours in quoll-bait for another Reintroduction providing Inspiration…
50 hours in 19 seconds:
[i] I can’t reveal their real names because I don’t have any permissions to write anything