Cattle around bore, country near watering points are heavily grazed

Pigeon Hole Station, Northern Territory. A number of cattle on the property are being fitted with high-tech collars that contain a global positioning system. Data will be logged on cattle movement so researchers can better understand cattle grazing activity.

For the full story, see the Savanna Links story, link below.

Biodiversity monitoring

Leader: Alaric Fisher, Parks & Wildlife Commission NT, Darwin

Full title: Monitoring biodiversity health in tropical savanna rangelands
Project 1.2.3

Summary | Objectives | Links | Progress | Approach and methods | Outputs | Project team |


There are well-established programs in all rangeland States and the Northern Territory for monitoring pasture condition (or landscape health), but none of these programs attempt to monitor trends in biodiversity status in the rangelands. Existing monitoring programs are based largely on ground-based measures of landscape function and vegetation characteristics, complemented by interpretation of satellite imagery.

This body of monitoring work suggests that there may be some widely-applicable indicators of landscape health or pasture condition, most notably (in the northern rangelands) the extent of native perennial grass cover, Landscape Function Analysis (LFA) score, and the value and temporal stability of reflectance scores or indices.

In the lack of any other information, there is a widespread supposition that these measures may also relate to biodiversity and hence provide surrogates for biodiversity trends. This project seeks to test the validity and utility of these surrogates and therefore contribute to the development of robust protocols for monitoring biodiversity ‘health’ in the tropical rangelands.

During the project, biodiversity attributes and measures of landscape health will be sampled at sites in a range of conditions, in several representative rangeland regions in the tropical savannas. The project will help to develop, validate and provide mechanisms for biodiversity monitoring within rangelands, an important tool for improving adaptive management and ecological sustainability of the rangelands.

During 2002–03 sampling will continue at Northern Territory study sites and begin at selected sites in northern Queensland; data collected in the first year of sampling will be analysed and monitoring methodologies revised; and a workshop involving a wide range of stakeholders will consider potential approaches to biodiversity monitoring in the tropical savannas.


The project addresses the TS–CRC’s objectives to develop scientific principles about the ecological functioning of savanna landscapes; and to facilitate better management through the development of essential monitoring tools. The project will directly contribute to Key Result Areas regarding indicators and attributes of savanna health and landscape monitoring systems; and will feed into projects concerned with predictive models of landscape function, and environmental management systems.

It will:

  • Establish the extent to which widely-used measures of landscape health or pasture condition also act as surrogates for trends in biodiversity, and which of these measures are most predictive for which components of biodiversity;
  • Establish which components of biodiversity are most susceptible to deterioration in landscape health;
  • Incorporate a detailed consideration of biodiversity condition into general assessments of landscape health and assessments of ecological sustainability, at various scales;
  • Provide a framework and methodology for monitoring biodiversity in the northern rangelands, recognising that some biodiversity components may be most efficiently monitored through surrogates from existing pastoral monitoring programs, but that others will need more explicit targeted additional monitoring.


This project received partial funding from Land & Water Australia for three years. There are also important links to the National Land & Water Resources Audit and the developing Australian Collaborative Rangeland Information System, which involves Commonwealth, State and Northern Territory Natural Resource Management agencies.

The project will help develop assessment and monitoring tools for evaluating the biodiversity component of ecological sustainability, and hence provide a framework suitable for incorporation into the application of ISO 14001 criteria or other Environmental Management Systems.

The project will directly involve staff from PWCNT, QPWS and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems. However, there are strong links to staff within all the NRM agencies responsible for tropical rangeland areas in Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, including the WA Dept of Agriculture; NT DBIRD (ex-Dept of Primary Industries); NT DIPE (ex-Dept of lands, Planning & Environment); and Queensland Department of Primary Industries.

This project will contribute data to and/or use information from a number of other TS–CRC projects: Predicting outcomes of savanna management (1.1.1); Soil biota, nutrients and water in savannas (1.1.3); Best-practice grazing land management (2.2.1); and Biodiversity on grazing lands (2.1.2)

Progress 2003–04

  • Biodiversity sampling continued for the ‘Pigeon Hole’ project, a property-scale R&D project investigating the economic and environmental impacts of intensification in the Victoria River District (NT) in collaboration with other research agencies and Heytesbury Beef. One hundred permanent sites for monitoring biodiversity were established and initial sampling for plants, vertebrates and ants was completed. Small on-farm ‘conservation areas’ were tested to see if they can help maintain biodiversity.
  • The project team continued to work closely with regional and catchment management groups to provide information and advice on the incorporation of biodiversity conservation in regional NRM plans. The main groups worked with in 2003–04 were the Roper River Landcare Group, Victoria District Conservation Association, Northern Gulf Resource Management Group, Southern Gulf Resource Management Group, Burdekin Dry Tropics Resource Management Group and Desert Uplands Build Up and Development Strategy Committee.
  • Biodiversity studies were undertaken in two grazing trials run by QDPIF: the 'Wambiana' grazing trial in the Burdekin Rangelands, and the “Toorak” grazing trial in north-western Queensland. Results show clear patterns of change in fauna and flora composition, with many increasers and decreaser species apparent under different grazing treatments. Climate variation, changes in the fire regime, and significant within-treatment variation, even in small paddocks, also contribute to the patterns.
  • The first stage of a study examining the implications for biodiversity of tree-thickening in the Desert Uplands was completed. Sampling for birds, reptiles, mammals, plants was undertaken at 60 sites representing five treatments: cleared vegetation, thickened vegetation, thickened vegetation; and vegetation that has been recently (two years) thinned and less recently (five years) thinned. The response of birds to thickening will form a Masters Preliminary project for Adam Tassicker (JCU).
  • A study of the effectiveness for biodiversity conservation of riparian fencing, by PhD student Nicole Cranston, continued to make good progress. Nicole has undertaken a comprehensive survey of landholders in the Victoria River District, to quantify their perceptions of the benefits and costs of riparian fencing. Biodiversity sampling has also commenced in areas with different histories of riparian fencing and grazing management.
  • Another PhD student, Juliana McCosker (QEPA, Emerald) has continued work on a study investigating the relationship between biodiversity health and land management regimes in ironbark woodlands in the Desert Uplands. Biodiversity values of sites in a range of condition states are compared, based on the level of development and grazing intensity, but also incorporating landholder perceptions of land condition.
  • In collaboration with DBIRD staff in Tennant Creek and funded by an Envirofund grant obtained by the Barkly Landcare and Conservation Association, project staff developed a biodiversity component for the Barkly Rangeland Management Course. This on-station course reaches most properties in the Barkly Tableland and has a high demand from station staff.
  • A constructive relationship continues to develop with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, a private organisation that purchases land for conservation management. During 2003/4 TS-CRC project staff provided assessments of the conservation values of several properties, as well as advice relating to management and biodiversity monitoring at 'Mornington' in the central Kimberley.

Approach and methods

The project will be undertaken in three regions in northern Australia. Sampling has already begun in the Victoria River District (NT) and investigation of potential sites in the Dalrymple/Burdekin region (Qld) is under way. A third study region will be selected during 2002–3, with consideration being given to the east Kimberley (WA) and northern Gulf regions (Qld).

The selected regions will incorporate a wide range of rangeland types, land-use intensities and landscape conditions; are the subject of broader land management studies by the TS–CRC; and portions of each area have been subject to remote-sensed assessment of land condition, as well as conventional plot-based pastoral monitoring.

In each of these areas, sites will be selected for intensive sampling of biodiversity and conventional measures of landscape health. Sites will be stratified to incorporate ‘poor’, ‘good’ and ‘intermediate’ levels of condition; and by major land types in each of the regions, with three land types selected according to their importance for pastoral use and biodiversity values. Where practical, sites for biodiversity sampling will coincide with existing pastoral monitoring sites. Approximately 90 sites will be sampled in each region, representing 10 replicates within each land-type/condition class combination.

Fauna and flora sampling will follow the systematic methodology used by PWCNT for biodiversity assessment in northern Australia for the past decade. Taxa sampled at each site will include vascular plants, all terrestrial vertebrates, ants, termites and possibly other invertebrate taxa. At each site, land ‘condition’ will be assessed using comparable methodology to that of existing plot-based pastoral monitoring schemes, including frequency of perennial species and Landscape Function Analysis. For each site, a set of 'condition' variables will also be derived based on the value and temporal stability of reflectance indices from existing remote-sensed data. Additional variables will be derived to describe the context of the sites in relation to spatial patterns of landscape condition.

Multivariate analyses will be used to examine dissimilarities in species composition of sites of different condition and identify species, guilds or functional groups most susceptible to deterioration in landscape condition. Generalised linear modelling will be used to examine the strength with which variables describing land condition are predictors of biodiversity and landscape function, including measures of species richness and abundance at various functional or taxonomic levels, and the presence or abundance of individual plant & animal species.


  • Assessment of the validity of commonly-measured parameters describing landscape condition to act as surrogates for biodiversity status;
  • Assessment of the capability of existing pastoral monitoring programs to monitor biodiversity status;
  • Refinement of a framework and methodology for monitoring trends and status of biodiversity in Australia's northern rangelands;
  • Evaluation of the susceptibility of different components of biodiversity to land condition and management in the northern Australian pastoral regions.
  • Methodology for incorporating biodiversity monitoring into Environmental management Systems
  • Information to NRM agency staff, NRM policy makers, pastoral managers and other rangeland stakeholders about biodiversity monitoring and ecologically sustainable land management
  • Dissemination of results to scientific community through publications and conference proceedings

Project team

Alaric Fisher, DIPE (PWCNT)
Jenni Risler, DIPE (PWCNT)
Damian Milne, DIPE (PWCNT)
Alex Kutt, QPWS
QPWS Rangers, QPWS
Murray Whitehead, QEPA
Tony Morrison, QEPA
Sharon King, QEPA
Mal Lorimer, QEPA
Jeanette Kemp, Q Herbarium
Alan Andersen, CSIRO SE
Tony Hertog, CSIRO SE
Lyn Lowe, CSIRO SE
Tracy Dawes-Gromadzki, CSIRO SE


Dr Alaric Fisher
Senior Scientist
NT Dept Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts & Sport
Tel: 08 8995 5000

Fax: 08 8995 5099

PO Box 496