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Thursday, 30 June 2022

Restoring habitat for the Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mount Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board has been busy expanding and improving habitat for the critically endangered Mountain Pygmy-possum. A few years ago, the Tunnel of Love was constructed to safely link possum populations above and below the Great Alpine Road at Mount Higginbotham.

Now, the habitat restoration at Mt Little Higginbotham has further increased habitat and connectivity to support the local Mountain Pygmy-possum populations.

Mt Little Higginbotham’s boulder field was historically quarried, with the rocks mainly used for road and building materials. While the quarry operations ceased before the 1980s, gaps in what would have likely been Mountain Pygmy-possum habitat have remained.

In 2019, alpine resorts, environmental organisations, and leading researchers, with the support of the North East Catchment Management Authority, developed a plan to restore the quarry. The plan considered the needs, opportunities, and challenges to restore the site – how to bring tonnes of rocks back up the mountain without causing more damage than good?

The construction of new access tracks would disturb remnant vegetation well-established at the site and increase landslide risks. The successful operation called for an innovative approach: a 130-tonne crane, which would be established on the Great Alpine Rd and be able to place the boulders at the site without disturbances. Trucks transported the rocks for the crane loads up to Mt Little Higginbotham from a local source to avoid contamination risks, including introducing weeds or pathogens like the Chytrid fungus, a severe threat to frog populations. The operation included multiple loads, with 600 tonnes of rocks carried over five days.

The habitat restoration, however, involved more than the additional boulder placement. First, the site required preparation by removing willows, a weed species that threaten alpine environments and compete with possum’s critical native plant food resources. And once the boulders were added, the next step for the habitat restoration was to boost the vegetation at the site, complementing the connectivity of the new boulders by providing shelter and more food resources for the Mountain Pygmy-possum population, including Mountain plum-pine fruits.

While we know the main components of the possum’s diet, there is still a lot to learn about the topic. Research is underway to understand their dietary requirements and foraging habits better, ensuring that any rehabilitation works cater to the possum’s needs in changing environments and conditions. Recent findings suggest that during periods when Bogong Moth numbers are low, the possums move further to the fringes of their boulder habitat in search of food. The habitat restoration works at little Higginbotham Quarry will support possums in utilising their surroundings and allow them to spread out and find more food collectively.

Mount Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board also works hard to eliminate pest predators that may otherwise threaten the Mountain Pygmy-possums. Consistent pest control of foxes and cats for 

the past four years has shown positive results. The combination of management actions to control threats, improve habitat quality and connectivity, and the ongoing research and monitoring of Mountain pygmy-possum populations is part of a joint commitment to the species recovery. We feel comforted knowing that the Mountain pygmy-possum population at Mt Hotham are safe and sound in their new and improved habitat.

A video that shows the restoration works in action is on this website at https://bit.ly/3yx0ntB

The Mountain Pygmy-possum Recovery and the Bushfire Recovery in the Alpine Environment projects are supported by the North East CMA and delivery partners, through funding from the Australian Government.

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