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NSW government's $10m koala plan a recipe for extinction

By Sue Arnold - posted Friday, 6 January 2017


In December, 2016, the NSW Chief Scientist, Mary O'Kane, proudly announced the NSW government's $10m bid to save koalas with the publication of an "independent review of the decline of Koala populations in key areas of NSW ".

In fact, the so-called "independent review committee" is dominated by NSW bureaucrats ( including the leading destroyers of koala habitat, the Forestry Corporation and Roads and Maritime Services) together with the Australian Museum, a Queensland scientist who is a consultant to Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) , and Profesor Kathy Belov of Sydney University.

There are no koala community or NGO organisations represented. Qualified Koala experts with relevant field experience have been completely excluded.

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The review completely fails to address the primary cause of catastrophic Koala decline in the state: government mismanagement and a failure of legislation and enforcement to properly protect a state and federally listed vulnerable species.

Apart from the Pilliga Koalas, which appear to be headed for early extinction, the review fails to examine key populations in northern NSW that are in substantial decline and provide case studies of Government mismanagement. These are some of the highest carrying capacity areas in the State and critical to overall Koala survival. For example, the NSW Scientific Committee Report, published in May this year, which declared Koalas from Tweed Heads to Brunswick River to be endangered, has been dismissed by Government and ignored by the "independent review."

The NSW Scientific Committee Report is an important document. The findings of this Committee, which unfortunately provide no legal injunction for mandatory changes in policy, provide an example of the perfect storm which Koalas are enduring throughout the state.

The estimated number of Koalas remaining in the area is approximately 144 individuals. The report details a smorgasbord of threats with the most significant being habitat loss and fragmentation due to urban development. In 2006, Tweed local government area contained around 83,000 residents. In 2025, the estimated population will exceed 120,000. The report concludes that TheTweed/Brunswick population is facing a very high risk of extinction in New South Wales in the near future joining other populations which are now considered extinct as a result of habitat loss.

The NSW independent review population estimate of koala populations can only be described as dodgy. Unless koalas are breeding like rabbits, the estimates are contradicted by the Federal government's data.

According to the review:-

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Current estimates suggest there are now approximately 36,000 koalas in NSW, representing a 26% decline over the past three koala generations (15-21 years).

However, the Federal Department of the Environment in their Species Profile and Threats Database (SPRAT), the most current information available on EPBC listed species, states that the decline in NSW is 33 per cent with an estimated population of 21,000 as at 2010.

It would be biologically impossible for the one and only identified increasing population in the review to have enlarged the state population by l5,000 animals. In the years since 2010, habitat destruction, logging, road kills and disease have escalated not declined.

Only four case studies have been selected by the NSW review panel and the colonies with the highest densities on the North coast have been ignored.

According to the SPRAT data, koala populations in the North East are down to 7,500 with higher densities in forests available for logging by the Forestry Corporation.

The nine populations estimated to be in decline are not listed in the NSW Review. Of particular concern is the plight of the Ballina Koala colony which is recognized as a nationally significant population. It is unacceptable for the RMS to be included in the review panel given the looming extinction of the Ballina sub-population as a result of the Woolgoolga to Ballina Pacific Highway Upgrade.

In the Koala Plan for the Ballina section of the Upgrade, protection strategies for koalas, are presented by the RMS as "…a comprehensive approach to protecting, mitigating and rehabilitating" koala habitat.

But in direct contradiction of these protection strategies, the review states :

...a population viability analysis for Ballina koalas indicates that irrespective of the upgrade to the Pacific Highway, the Ballina koala population will decline over the next 50 years due to a high mortality rate and low fecundity.

Yet one of the experts cited in the review, Professor Clive McAlpine, writes in a published research paper that:

The implementation of policy to conserve remaining koala habitat and restore degraded habitat is critical to the success of koala conservation strategies." Apparently, the RMS believes that a highway construction through the middle of important koala habitat is the solution for a successful koala conservation strategy.

As the upgrade is designated as a State Significant Infrastructure any legal challenges are disallowed under state and federal legislation.

David Milledge, an experienced local ecologist, has authored a review of the RMS's koala plans for the Ballina upgrade. He says:

This section of the Upgrade will destroy Koala habitat, bisect the population and cause its early demise. So called mitigation measures are untested and likely to accelerate the destruction. With curious logic, the construction is heralded by the RMS as beneficial to Koalas, claiming the road- works "will slow the rate of eventual extinction."

David Milledge's review concludes that Ballina's koala eastern sub-population will suffer a combination of impacts caused by the construction. This sub-population will be isolated by the upgrade, placing the animals on an extinction trajectory from which the population is unlikely to recover.

He says:

…the eastern sub-population will have half or more of its foraging habitat destroyed by clearing for road construction and special disruption is likely within the eastern sub population resulting from the breakup of Koala " cells" that are likely to contribute to population breakdown.

The potential for mortality by vehicle strike and dog attacks will be increased with exclusion fencing which will funnel Koalas into the Wardell urban area with increased risks.

Of major concern is the intention by RMS to use an untested experiment to drive Koalas from their home range trees which are to be felled. The RMS will collar and ring-bark feed trees to " encourage" Koalas to move to other areas. These "other areas" are not identified.

Local ecologists indicate serious problems for koalas forced to move from their home range. Displaced koalas will be disoriented and stressed. Accustomed to their home range, knowing their environment, many of these koalas are not likely to survive in the long term.

Connectivity structures which are a key plank in the RMS protection strategies are condemned by the Milledge review.

If the effectiveness of connectivity structures had been seriously addressed, then road viaducts would have been proposed for Koala hotspots and for existing movement corridors rather than mainly drainage culverts.

Although an alternative route was suggested to the RMS, which offered protection to the Ballina Koala population, it was rejected on the grounds it was " too expensive". Yet another ramification of Australia's unique wildlife having zero value economically when animals conflict with development.

Milledge sums up the major issues:

The review fails to deal with the ramifications of the Baird government's Biodiversity Conservation and Local Land Service bills. The Threatened Species Act which provided some protection for koalas is repealed. Under the new legislation, offsets can now be made in dollars.

The review fails to explain how the NSW government can provide habitat protection for Koalas under the new laws when its Chief Scientist claims that there is insufficient information to identify all habitats and colonies.

A cursory examination of records held by community organisations, environmental groups and published papers would demonstrate that there is sufficient information to identify all habitats and colonies. Protecting these habitats is the primary issue.

At the Federal level, the Government undertook to develop a National Recovery Program which was to commence in 2014.

As of January, 2017, there is no Recovery Program and the politically driven destruction of koala habitat continues unabated.

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About the Author

Sue Arnold is the co-ordinator for Australians for Animals International, an International Whaling Commission NGO, working internationally on marine issues, particularly whales and dolphins. She is a former Fairfax investigative journalist who regularly lobbies the US government in Washington DC, as well as the European Parliament and Commission on whale issues. She can be contacted at suearnold25@icloud.com.

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