The Mountain Pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus) is one of our iconic alpine species. It lives in rock screes and boulder fields, and is also the only Australian mammal restricted to alpine habitat. There are only three main populations remaining.

It faces a number of threats: habitat destruction, climate change and predators. The construction of ski resorts in the alpine regions in which the mountain pygmy possums inhabit has been one of the greatest factors attributed to population decline.

This recent story from the ABC by Lucy Barbour outlines an innovative program which aims to protect the species from feral cats.

Sniffer dogs helping fight to save endangered mountain pygmy possums from feral cats

Cute, cuddly spaniels are becoming one of the best weapons in the Federal Government’s war on feral cats.

The Office of Environment and Heritage and the Department of Environment are using the sniffer or “detector” dogs to help save endangered species, like the mountain pygmy possum.

The mountain pygmy only exists in two Australian alpine parks, and feral cats have been putting a major dent in the population.

Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews said the possums, which weigh just 45 grams when fully grown, were no match for cats.

According to Mr Andrews, snow in the mountain pygmy’s habitat has been melting earlier in the season, meaning food for the animal has not been ready when they wake from hibernation, and cats have been able to target them when they are hungry and weak.

“They’re knocking them off one-by-one as they wake up from hibernation,” he said.

There are only about 2,500 mountain pygmy possums remaining in Australia, while the feral cat population is estimated to be close to 20 million.

Last year Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt allocated $140,000 to help endangered animals, like the mountain pygmy possum, survive that threat.

The money was pooled with grants from the NSW Office of Heritage and Environment to fund a program called Saving our Species, with the focus on using detector dogs to save the possums.

Andrew Miners has been hired as a cat trapper as part of the program and relies on the help of his English springer spaniel, Dottie, to search for cats in areas where they have been active.

“It just lets us know that a cat’s been there quite recently, and then I can come through and put my soft jaw traps in and hopefully a cat turns up,” he said.

The cats are shot once they are caught.

Mr Andrews said it was too early to say whether the program was helping to increase possum numbers, but he was confident it would mean the species would not be wiped out altogether.

“I want more Australians to become aware [of the issue] and part of that is loving our wildlife enough to tackle the invasive species that are causing so much damage,” Mr Andrews said.