Prior to European settlement the Malleefowl established a sustainable foothold in the dry Australian mallee scrub and survived quite readily in a balanced ecosystem. It was well adapted to the harshness of it's environment.
However, since white settlement, pressure to survive has increased. Habitat has shrunk, predator species have increased, and competition for land use has become very fierce.
Nationally, the Malleefowl is regarded as Vulnerable by current criteria for threatened species, as populations have declined by at least 20% over the past three generations (estimated as 15 years each), and it is likely that populations will decrease by at least another 20% over the next three generations.
The Malleefowl is also regarded as endangered in New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria. It may already be extinct in the Northern Territory, although there may be some in the south west. The prospects for long term conservation are poor.
Clearing of the mallee for wheat and sheep production has been the major factor in the decline of the Malleefowl in southern Australia. Up to 80% of habitat in the wheat belts of western and eastern Australia has been cleared.
Clearing of Malleefowl habitat has also had the effect of threatening remaining habitat due to fragmentation and dryland salinity. Clearing continues to be a threat although controls on the clearing of mallee on private property have been imposed in Victoria.
Stock grazing severely reduces the quality of the habitat for Malleefowl. In Victoria, this is not so much of a problem as it is in other parts of Australia as much of the Malleefowl habitat is on public land where stock grazing is banned.
Feral goats are known to occur in large numbers in some areas of important Malleefowl habitat. Again, this is more of a problem in other parts of Australia than Victoria, although there are significant feral goat numbers in the Murray Sunset country in Victoria's north west.
Wildfire, where extensive, can have a devastating effect upon Malleefowl conservation. The effects can be twofold. Firstly, the birds themselves may not be able to escape the fire and may be eliminated. Secondly, even if nearby areas have the potential to provide replacement birds, badly burnt areas can require up to 60 years to recover to the point that they can sustain Malleefowl breeding.
Habitats in eastern Australia which have not been burnt in the last 30 years are quite rare. Burning severely reduces, and in some cases eliminates, ground litter. Ground litter is an essential ingredient of nest construction and provides much of the combusting material needed for heat generation in the early part of the breeding season.
Foxes are known predators of Malleefowl of all ages. Whilst there is little evidence to suggest that Malleefowl breeding densities are increased by reductions in fox populations, the long term effects is likely to be beneficial. Foxes are not the only predators. Cats, dingoes and wild dogs are also relevant predators in some areas.
Raptors are also known to prey on Malleefowl.
The interactions between predator species is also a factor in the equation. Foxes suppress feral cat numbers and dingoes suppress both fox and cat numbers. The baiting of foxes is also likely to reduce dingo numbers, where they exist in the same habitat, as they are likely to take the same bait. The exact nature of the relationship between predators is unclear.
Fortunately, Malleefowl are highly resistant to 1080 poison, the usual fox bait.
There is no information on disease in wild Malleefowl. However, the species is susceptible to a number of common diseases in captive situations.
This is an issue for captive breeding programs and where domestic fowl are located near Malleefowl habitats.
Fragmentation and Isolation
Prior to European settlement, mallee habitats were nearly contiguous across Australia. Clearing for farming has not only reduced Malleefowl habitat, but has fragmented the remaining areas. This reduces the opportunity for dispersal of the remnant populations.
Clearing and fragmentation of the habitats can also exacerbate others threats. For instance, foxes are probably more abundant near cleared land, and the recolonisation of burnt habitat may not be possible.