Bilby populations are climbing over the land
Australia’s version of the Easter bunny, the bilby, is on the comeback path after being pushed to the brink of extinction.
The small marsupial, which has soft gray fur, long ears, and a pointed snout, is classified as vulnerable to extinction in the wild.
But it is experiencing population growth in a series of predator-free refuges, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy says.
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Nocturnal animals have grown from about 1,230 last year to about 1,480 in five protected areas across the country.
AWC protects about 10 percent of Australia’s remaining bilby population, estimated to be about 10,000 individuals.
Once found as two species before the 1960s, the omnivore inhabited an estimated 70 percent of the continent before European settlement.
But it has been decimated by wild foxes and cats and habitat loss, with its range reduced to less than a quarter of that area.
AWC’s annual census surveyed sanctuaries north of Perth on Mt Gibson, Yookamurra outside Adelaide and Scotia, Pilliga, and Mallee Cliffs in NSW.
Increased rainfall during La Nina’s second year has replenished parts of Australia’s arid interior and created good breeding conditions.
There is also some evidence that the rise in bilby numbers reflects the success of AWC’s rewilding program.
In October 2019, Bilbies made a historic return to his 9,570-acre site in Mallee Cliffs National Park in southwestern NSW.
Before the move, the mammal had been absent from the area for over a century, but the population was thriving in its former range, doubling within six months to 108 individuals by July 2020. It currently stands at 116.
Mt Gibson in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia joined the battle to save the species in 2016. Between 2016 and 2018, 56 individuals were released into the 7,800-acre harbor.
Bilbies returned to the Pilliga State Conservation Area in northern NSW in late 2018 after being absent from the landscape for over 100 years.
Sixty were released in the 680-hectare area and more than doubled to an estimated 155 animals by the end of 2021.
“We expect the population to continue to grow because conditions in the Pilliga are so good with all the rain we’ve had recently,” ecologist Vicki Stokes said.
“Seeing all the bilby digs and dens as you walk through the woods is such a joy.”
Bilbies are important ecosystem engineers. A single animal can knock over up to 20 tons of topsoil in a year when they dig burrows up to three meters long.
They eat a broad diet of insects, seeds, bulbs, fruits, and fungi.
Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary in western NSW is home to the largest population of bilbies in the AWC Reserves.
The population on the 8,000-hectare site regularly exceeds 1000 animals during boom periods when conditions are optimal.
Bilby numbers have remained stable for the past 12 months at the Yookamurra Wildlife Sanctuary in South Australia, with an estimated population of 80 individuals compared to 83 individuals 12 months ago.
AWC expects to be able to protect up to 5,000 bilbies within ten years.