Project BD1: Baselines, drivers and trends for species occupancy and distribution

The Forest Monitoring Steering Committee commissioned a team of scientists from leading universities, NSW agencies and the private sector to develop baselines, drivers and trends for species occupancy and distribution forests across NSW Regional Forest Agreement regions.

The researchers have now delivered a final report.

Assessment outcome

This work is recognised as the largest and most significant project of this type in the history of NSW forest management. The report is a benchmark in terms of data collation, methodological approach and outcomes. The methods and datasets developed by the researchers provide a critical repository of knowledge, data and tools that advance knowledge of flora and fauna in NSW.

Researchers delivered a comprehensive suite of models to baseline species occupancy and distribution and help explore drivers in change. In summary, researchers delivered:

  • nearly 450 fauna models, using data collected over 5,700 sites
  • over 170 flora models, using data collected at nearly 5,250 sites.

This research delivers:

  • new spatial datasets that can serve as baselines of future comparison for certain species and regions
  • baseline information that identifies data gaps for many species
  • tools to explore and identify changes to species occupancy from disturbances such as fire and invasive species.

Key findings

Researchers found a scarcity of large-scale, long-term monitoring programs since the early 1990s to establish reliable trends in species occupancy from data alone. Instead, species occupancy models provided the most useful metrics for reporting on the status and trends of fauna species, including measures of detectability and occupancy.

The researchers found that that the combined effects of climate change and fire represent the most significant threat to biodiversity in eastern NSW forests. Identifying appropriate fire regimes and mapping the shifting mosaic of fires across the forest estate to conserve biodiversity remains a major challenge. Climate projections suggest that potential occupancy of 54 of 78 threatened fauna species will decline by 2070, including the Powerful Owl and the Greater Glider.

Species exhibited a range of divergent responses with some more or less sensitive to changes in forest structure, climate, and other disturbance events. For example, between 1988 and 2011 in the forests south of Eden, the Powerful Owl and Sooty Owl recovered significantly after several major disturbances from a near-zero base in 1988 when monitoring surveys began. During the same period, the Greater Glider declined significantly and did not recover in the survey period. The results of the long term analysis is consistent with the literature that hollow dependent fauna species in particular are sensitive to timber harvesting.

Researchers also found that few plant species have been adversely impacted by native timber harvesting, although many species were recorded too infrequently for rigorous analysis. Nine rainforest and wet sclerophyll forest species were identified as likely to be sensitive to timber harvesting.

The researchers made a series of recommendations to improve monitoring with broader set of fauna survey methods, adoption of new technology, prioritisation of species most at risk of climate change and changing fire regimes, adequate resourcing and integration of monitoring programs.

The full findings and analysis are available in the final report. Project data and models are available on TERN

The approach

This project drew on disparate historical data – including data from the Comprehensive Regional Assessments (CRAs), Forestry Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Biological Surveys, and North East Forest Biodiversity Study (NEFBS) – along with indicators and modelling from the NSW Biodiversity Indicators Program.

Key steps included:

  • assessing baseline datasets for 520 native fauna species (mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians) and over 2,800 native vascular plant species, along with 11 species of introduced mammals and over 300 introduced plant species
  • developing species distribution models for nearly 450 fauna species (based on over 5,700 systematically surveyed sites) and over 170 flora species (based on nearly 5,250 survey sites)
  • undertaking species occupancy modelling for 28 priority fauna species in the North East RFA region, and for 16 of these priority species in the combined Southern and Eden regions – for example, for Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) and Greater Gliders (Petauroides volans)
  • using environmental niche models to model historical status and habitat suitability for around 340 fauna species and over 120 priority flora species
  • performing trend analyses for seventeen selected mammal, bird and frog species at various times from 1988–2019 in various parts of the eastern NSW forests
  • developing preliminary projections of landscape capacity and habitat suitability (up to 2070) for about 150 species of fauna and flora to demonstrate the likely response to climate change.

Papers and reports