In northern WA, Indigenous rangers are watching the desert springs – and seeing the effects of climate change.
A desert ranger team in northern Western Australia are using the cooler months to monitor jila (desert springs) and use right-way fire to keep its native title area healthy in the face of climate change.
The Ngurrara Rangers’ fire mitigation program is funded by the 10 Deserts Project and led by Indigenous Desert Alliance, which engages rangers across 10 desert regions in globally significant arid lands. The region is home to more than 80 threatened plants and animals, as well as 50,000 years of continuous occupation by Indigenous people.
The project’s wider aim is to build the capacity of Indigenous groups to look after Country. A critical part of that effort is spent on mitigating current threats, such as invasive exotic weeds and introduced pests, non-traditional fire regimes, climate change and Indigenous people moving off country. Those involved are combining traditional cultural and ecological knowledge with best-practice contemporary natural resource management. The benefits encompass a range of economic, social, cultural and environmental outcomes.
The region is home to more than 80 threatened plants and animals, as well as 50,000 years of continuous occupation by Indigenous people.
Ngurrara Rangers at Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation – made up of Walmajarri, Mangala, Wangkajungka, Jawaliny, and Mandijarra people – work in more than 77,000 square kilometres of land south of Fitzroy Crossing stretching into the Great Sandy Desert, to protect it from rising temperatures.
Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation country manager Kevin Tromp says climate change is a serious concern among rangers in the Kimberley.
He says some jila, which traditional knowledge records as having always contained water, had dried up in recent decades.
“Rangers monitor and clean jila to make sure its cultural and spiritual health, and its stories are talked about and passed on,” Tromp says. “Some have dried up in recent years. It’s quite worrying.”
Tromp says that as part of the fire mitigation program, conducted during the cooler months, rangers used right-way fire, a traditional fire regimen, to create “cooler”, small patches of fire, scattered through spinifex land. The practice has been used by Traditional Owners for thousands of years. Tromp says that burning this way reduces the risk of massive fires sweeping through Country later in the year during hotter months, by breaking up fire-prone areas into smaller patches.
Tromp says big fires produced lots of carbon, and early season burns lessened this impact. “It slows down the introduction of carbon into the air,” he says. “In the long run, it reduces emissions.”
In addition to climate benefits, the right-way fire burns also protects the habitat of native desert reptiles and marsupials. The region’s threatened species include the the warrana, or great desert skink (Liopholis kintorei); the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis); the kakarratul, or northern marsupial mole (Notoryctes caurinus); and Australian bustard (Aredeotis australis).
Burning this way reduces the risk of massive fires sweeping through Country later in the year during hotter months, by breaking up fire-prone areas into smaller patches.
“Animals can escape into these recently burned areas, wait for big fires to come past, and repopulate behind the fire front,” Tromp says.
Rangers use long-term biodiversity surveys to track and document animal movement in the region.
Fitzroy Crossing-based Ngurrara Ranger co-ordinator Tim Lyons says rangers lit managed fires along the Canning Stock Route in May.
The track stretches nearly 2000km north-east from Wiluna in the WA goldfields to Halls Creek. Before COVID-19-forced community closures, it was a popular drive for intrepid outback four-wheel-drivers.
Lyons says rangers want to help Country return to how it looked before modern human impact.
“The whole idea is to try and replicate how Country looked 100 years ago when indigenous people still walked around the desert, and before we started different burning practices,” he says.
Lyons says that rangers are dropped in by helicopter and conduct ‘fire walks’ across the landscape in small teams to find fire scars – land burned by fire in different years. A Raindance incendiary machine attached to a helicopter then puts more fire into some sections.
Lyons says most fire work would soon finish, allowing rangers to focus on mitigating wildfires as and when they occur and to be on standby if anything went wrong.
The availability of on-Country jobs continues to be important for Traditional Owners such as senior Ngurrara ranger Thomas Nnarda. Nnarda says he loves to look after Country and to be part of a team.
“The whole idea is to try and replicate how Country looked 100 years ago when indigenous people still walked around the desert, and before we started different burning practices.”Tim Lyons, Ngurrara Ranger co-ordinator
“I joined the team to look after grandfathers’ Country,” he says. “We look after plants, animals, and waterholes.”
It is a job Nnarda says gives him pride, particularly when cleaning important waterholes for his people and identifying native plants.
“You’re in a team and you’re good to Country,” he says. “We have a couple of young rangers, so they’re learning from us. We show them what we do out in the Country.”
The work of the rangers includes engaging with kids who are “in trouble”, and visiting schools to take young people out bush to learn about their home.
Ngurrara Rangers are among the more than 60 ranger groups in the Indigenous Desert Alliance that are deployed across Australia’s deserts.
Jimmie Cocking, principal consultant of Northern Possibilities and incoming Desert Knowledge Australia chief executive says it’s this program that created jobs for Ngurrara people on Country.
“As climate change increases the length of the hot season, we need to adapt rangers’ work practices over hotter summer months so rangers can keep working,” he says. “Rangers can do more training inside around technology use, [as well as] leadership programs.”
Indigenous Desert Alliance chief executive officer Lindsay Langford says that one of the alliance’s advantages was that it enabled ranger groups to share knowledge with each other about how they saw climate change affecting Country.
“Groups go out on Country with Ngurrara and learn from them,” he says. “Groups that have been around for 10 to 15 years and have advanced technology can pair with groups just starting out. Groups can also attend various events and forums that Indigenous Desert Alliance co-ordinates.”
Langford says when rangers shared knowledge, it helped them work collaboratively to manage Australia’s vast desert landscape.
Cocking agreed about the importance of rangers staying on Country, and emphasised that they needed to be supported in order to do so.
“Rangers are the people on the ground, and the frontline of climate change,” he says. “We have to make sure rangers are supported to stay on Country – they play an important role.”
Senior Ngurrara ranger Thomas Nnarda, for one, looks forward to a continuing role working on Country. “I’m ready for anything,” he says. “Whatever job we’re going to do next, like going out to the desert, I’m ready.”
Fierra Surrao is a writer for the National Indigenous Times.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.