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New national park won't save possum

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 29 April 2015


Last week, the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt, shifted Victoria’s Leadbeater’s Possum to the ‘critically endangered’ list after detailed recommendations were provided by a panel of biodiversity experts known as the Threatened Species Scientific Committee.  This announcement prompted a flurry of calls for the immediate declaration of a huge new national park that would supposedly save the possum by closing-down most of Victoria’s valuable native hardwood timber industry. This has raised some interesting questions.

Firstly, the quality of advice provided to Minister Hunt by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee is somewhat questionable. It runs to 52-pages and is said to have been based upon a careful appraisal of the large accumulated body of science on Leadbeater’s Possum. However, most of this material has emanated from just one scientist and it has often been contentious, particularly in relation to firIn addition, this scientist is both a vocal opponent of timber harvesting and the figurehead of a political campaign for a new national park to save the possum.

At odds with the possum’s ‘critically endangered’ listing is that the most recent estimate of its population by Victorian Government scientists is somewhere between 4,000 to 11,000 individuals living within a 5600 km2 area at a wide range of altitudes. Recently increased survey efforts also suggest that its population has been underestimated, including recorded sightings in young fire regrowth and also in 25 year old logging regrowth.

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Comparing the relative distribution and abundance of Leadbeater’s Possum with the populations of other ‘critically endangered’ listed species, such as the Orange-Bellied Parrot (less than 50 individuals) or the Helmeted Honeyeater (just 130 individuals at only one site), surely raises some serious doubts about the appropriateness of its new listing.

Secondly, those who are calling for the creation of a new national park specifically as a means to end timber harvesting need to explain how this will actually save the possum. There is considerable doubt as to whether it would help at all.

Most of the forest is not even currently available for timber harvesting. Sixty-nine percent of the montane ash forest type preferred by Leadbeater’s Possum is already contained in various national parks, closed water supply catchments, and other reserves where timber harvesting doesn’t occur. The possum is most under threat in sub-alpine woodland and lowland swampy forest that has never been subject to timber harvesting. Its greatest threat is not logging, but the temporary loss of habitat suitability due to frequent bushfires.

In addition, the net harvestable area within the wood production forests is almost entirely comprised of 76-year old regrowth where the possum is rarely found due to a lack of tree hollows and preferred food sources. Any patches of suitable habitat that are occassionally found amongst this regrowth are delineated and protected from harvesting.

According to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee’s advice, it takes 190 years for montane ash forests to develop hollows suitable for nesting by Leadbeater’s Possum.This means that even if these 76 year old wood production forests were to be placed in a new national park and not harvested, it would take at least a further 100-years before the possum could colonise them.

The Committee has also advised that Leadbeater’s Possum will have lost more that 80% of its population within the next 16 years due to a lack of tree hollows. They claim it will be close to extinction by 2031, by which time the unharvested former wood production forests within the new national park, would still be at least 80 years away from developing the hollows needed to help save it. 

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On this basis, it is pertinent to ask: How will creating a new national park specifically to end timber harvesting make any contribution to saving Leadbeater’s Possum in the foreseeable future?

Declaring this new park would simply close down a substantial industry which contributes $ hundreds of millions to the state economy each year and is responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of workers and their families. All of this while making no difference to the possum’s survival. 

There are other conservation strategies that are rarely mentioned and occassionally maligned by those who perhaps fear that their success may undermine campaigns for a new national park. These include the erection of nest boxes and artificially accellerated hollow creation which can counteract the lack of suitable tree hollows.

These were key recommendations of the government’s Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group which reported in early 2014.  They are positive initiatives that require funding. To ensure this funding it makes far more sense to maintain a timber industry that generates economic activity and taxation revenue from its employees, than to end it on spurious grounds.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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