The Morrison government will pledge $50m to help rescue and protect wildlife affected by the bushfire crisis, with a promise of more to come, as environment groups warn some species may have already been driven to extinction.
The commitment, to be drawn from the government’s $2bn bushfire recovery fund, will be described as a downpayment to be spent immediately on priorities in burned areas and to start longer-term restoration of lost habitat.
Conservation groups wrote to the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, and her state counterparts on Thursday expressing concern for at least 13 animal species, and urging the government to use a review of national environment laws launched last year to boost wildlife protection.
The letter by five groups echoes earlier warnings by scientists in saying the fires may have triggered extinction events for some threatened species.
It sets out a recommended emergency wildlife recovery plan, including that scientists and conservationists be sent into the field immediately to identify and help at-risk animal populations as part of a coordinated national response.
Ecologist Chris Dickman, from the University of Sydney, estimates more than 1bn animals have been killed in bushfires that have burned more than 10.7m hectares (26m acres) across the country. According to a Victorian government report leaked to The Age, fires in that state have burned 31% of rainforests, 24% of wet or damp forests and 34% of lowland forests. Among the worst affected species was the eastern ground parrot, which was believed to have lost all its Victorian habitat.
Guardian Australia has been told the focus of the federal government’s pledge would be caring for and rehabilitating injured wildlife, securing species of threatened populations, controlling predators and other pests that are a major threat to vulnerable species after fires, and scientifically mapping the damage.
It will include a commitment to hold roundtables of environment groups, scientists, farmers and representatives from governments, communities, business, philanthropy and industry to develop medium- and longer-term plans for wildlife recovery.
In comments provided on Sunday, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, described the $50m as an initial investment in wildlife protection and restoration. He said it was a critical step in creating a viable future for animals that had survived.
Ley said it was too early to know the severity of the fire damage, but it was clear it was an ecological tragedy. “We know our environment has an enormous ability to recover and we need to engage communities, volunteers and experts to support that,” she said.
The letter from conservation groups says the government’s threatened species recovery hub could be used along with other experts to establish a priority list of species requiring urgent intervention.
It raises specific concerns for species that have had all or key parts of their entire habitat burned. It lists 13 animals, including three critically endangered species: the southern corroboree frog in the alps, the regent honeyeater in the Blue Mountains and the western ground parrot on Cape Arid in Western Australia.
Others listed are the greater glider and long-footed potoroo in East Gippsland, the Kangaroo Island dunnart and glossy black cockatoo on Kangaroo Island, the brush-tailed rock wallaby, Hastings River mouse and eastern bristlebird in northern New South Wales, the quokka in Western Australia’s Stirling Ranges, the Blue Mountains water skink and the koala in areas across NSW.
The letter says it is likely other species will have been catastrophically affected, particularly poorly studied amphibian, reptile and invertebrate species.
“The devastating impact of these bushfires highlights the need for an effective and responsive national environmental law framework to safeguard and recover our imperilled wildlife and heritage places,” the letter says.
“The current EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act review provides an opportunity to enact strong protections for critical habitats and climate refugia for species and ecosystems.”
It calls for the review, led by the businessman Graeme Samuel, to include the development and implementation of recovery and threat reduction plans. Two years ago there were formal recovery plans for less than 40% of nationally listed threatened species.
The letter, signed by representatives from Birdlife Australia, the Wilderness Society, WWF, the Humane Society International and the Australian Conservation Foundation, says the short-term fire response should include a rapid evaluation of damage to world heritage sites and Ramsar-listed wetlands. The Unesco world heritage centre expressed concern in November about bushfire damage to the Gondwana rainforests of northern NSW and southern Queensland.
Launching the review of EPBC Act last year, Ley stressed it would “tackle green tape” and reduce project approval delays. Hundreds of scientists have called on the government to use the review to strengthen the law to help address a worsening extinction crisis.