Earlier this week I set up an open container, with 5 litres of water in it, at a location where previously, the home ranges of a female and male koala overlapped. There were some possum scats at the base of the tree, but when setting up the camera, I came across some recent koala pellets.

The following day I went to check the camera and found a fresh koala pellet beside the tripod. Putting one and one together, I looked up the tree and there was a koala. It seems the beast had seen me first and was moving slowly toward the top of the tree. So I departed and came back a few hours later. Just visible in the photo below, the koala had moved back down the tree and appeared to be asleep, with one large and very furry ear pointing skywards.

 

It was gone the next day, with no indication it had an interest in the water. However, what I came across on the way was a pair of foxes, copulating on the road. The car appearing lead to a rapid decoupling and they both dashed into the bush.

The location of this sighting is about 50 metres from one of the NPWS’s 1080 bait stations. In this case, there was no sign that the bait had been dug up. The NPWS made a small change to Forestry’s baiting, moving the bait locations some metres back from the road. While there is no information to suggest this minor change may have reduced the number of foxes finding the baits. It does raise again, the issue of how effective the baiting program is and how it could be improved.

On the shotgun issue, Bega Shire Council has advised that the Bermagui Shotgun club are attempting to double the number of days they shoot at the Murrah range. Currently they are constrained to 12 days a years and a previous Council rejected an attempt to increase the number of shooting days.

While there has never been much support for the club in the local community, there is no certainty about which way the new Council will go. Rather it may be a question of how many councilors agree with the suggestion’s, particularly the one about koalas, on the shotgun clubs website, pasted below.

” . . . Protesters continued with personal attacks; claims of damage to habitat of non existent koalas and sooty owls; ingestion of lead by wildlife and stock; claims that 11.5 tonnes of lead would be washed into the Murrah River 1km away. “

Following up on the National Koala Conference, with thanks to Cheryl for providing the link, a detailed blog post has been written titled ‘Koalas are being driven towards extinction’.

While convincing me that the Federal government’s listing should have applied to all koalas. I am also supportive of the suggestion that ” . . . for koalas to survive, protection of their habitat has to be the top priority.”

The only problem being, understanding what is happening to koala habitat is not straight forward, even when it’s supposedly protected.

For example, at Gunnedah, where 25% of koalas died during a heatwave in 2009, researchers have been providing water to koalas, from ‘blinky drinkers’, designed by a local farmer.
They have found koalas are regularly drinking water during winter, when the research began. This departure from the general perception, that koalas get all their water from leaves, could reflect a reduction in soil fertility, including Soil Water Holding capacity.

Another threat to this population is the proposed Shenhua Watermark Coal mine. The NSW government has recently bought back the rights to 51% of the coal exploration area. Unfortunately, this area is largely cropping land and the areas occupied by koalas remain under threat.

Also speaking at the conference was James Fitzgerald, about the growing koala population on the southern tablelands and their bark chewing. According to James koalas are drawn to particular trees that have a higher sodium content in the bark. Hence, they are raking around the base of these trees to protect them from fuel reduction burns.

Another approach, given trees can only lose so much bark before they die, would be to provide ‘salt licks’ for koalas. These are readily available at any stock feed outlet and could help both koalas and trees.

There isn’t reference to the talk about south coast koalas in the article. Although with regard to fuel reduction burning, the timber in the photo below is from dead Silver-top ash, the main eucalyptus regrowth after integrated logging. All of this biomass, taken from a 10 x 10 metre plot, would be consumed in a fuel reduction burn.

The next shot is shows the timber from particular live and dead Allocasuarina littoralis trees, in the same plot. Most of these trees would die in a fuel reduction burn, largely cancelling any benefit from the burning.

The benefits from removing some of the trees include, actually lowering the potential impact of wildfire on live eucalyptus, maintaining soil cover and habitat for ground dwelling species, along with providing woody biomass for other more useful and less polluting purposes.

All up, just over 1 cubic metre of of woody biomass, equating to something above 100 tonnes per hectare, has been removed from the plot. If this growth had all gone into eucalyptus trees, the Forestry Corporation could rightly claim its management works. Shame about that.

The Bega District News recently published a couple of articles titled “National parks slash and burn: ‘Ridiculous amount of years of experience’ lost” and ” Murrah flora reserves work toward rebuilding koala population on the South Coast.”

The first article quoted a former NPWS employee suggesting job losses had reduced the capacity to undertake general duties, let alone deal with emergencies. He suggested structural reform of NPWS is aimed at privatizing the service.

The second article, from an unnamed NPWS spokesperson, indicated there was no additional funding for the reserves but the ” . . . original allocation of $2.5 million in March 2016 has allowed the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to make the first steps in the right direction.” Among these steps and in addition to the secret koala surveys, is the suggestion that ” . . . Koala habitat rehabilitation within the reserves is being researched by the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program.”

Exactly what this means isn’t clear, but it may mean the proposed management plan for the reserves, may not be released in the short term.

Not surprisingly the article doesn’t refer to the greatest threat to koalas – dieback- just ‘land clearing for urban development and logging’. Despite this omission ” . . .The hope is the koala population will grow and sightings of the native animal will increase in time.”

Of course the potential for koalas to increase in numbers is largely dependent on management that provides for this outcome. So the answer to Dawn Walker’s question on notice, pasted below is notable.

According to the EPBC Act, fire prevention activities that may require federal approval include –

one-off fuel reduction burns in remnant forest that is important habitat for nationally threatened species and has not been previously subject to burning regimes.
and
trial or experimental ecological burns, on a significant scale, in habitat for nationally threatened species or areas that form part of a nationally threatened ecological community.

I wonder whether a privatized NPWS may be more accountable, so key threatening processes are given due consideration. The areas subject to recent burning for example, have Bell-miners in most of the gullies. Then there is the loss of large woody debris, that may be burned, or in the case of the trees in the photo above, cut up for firewood despite the prohibition on timber removal.
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1592 – Lands and Forestry – MURRAH FLORA RESERVE
Walker, Dawn to the Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Regional Water, Minister for Trade and Industry representing the Minister for Lands and Forestry, and Minister for Racing
In relation to the $2.5 million allocated from the NSW Environmental Trust to Forestry Corporation of NSW for a haulage subsidy to source alternative logs following the declaration of the Murrah Flora Reserves:
how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2015-16?
how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2016-17?
Does the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 apply in State Forest flora reserves such as the Murrah Flora Reserves?
Answer –
Forestry Corporation has received revenue of $425,603 in 2015-16 and $413,085 in 2016-17 (July to December) from the Environment Trust under the “Protection of Koalas in Murrah Mumbulla Tanja Bermagui” project.
Yes
Question asked on 24 May 2017 (session 56-1) and published in Questions & Answers Paper No. 109
Answer received on 28 June 2017 and to be printed in a Questions & Answers Paper on 8 August 2017

As reported on the ABC this week, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC)” . . . has asked political leaders to actively consider using organic matter as fuel as an option to bolster the baseload energy supply.” CEFC chief executive, Paul McCartey, stressed that “forests or plantations used for the biomass had to be certified under a recognised brand as sustainable.”

Of course this includes all native forests certified under the less than adequate Australian Forestry Standard. So there was a less than supportive response from the conservation movement.

While open to the use of biomass from plantations, Greens’ forestry spokeswoman, Janet Rice said ” . . . There are just far too many potential holes in the legislation which would allow wood from native forests to be able to be used.” NCC chief executive Kate Smolski said ” . . . Instead of considering feeding what remains of our forests into power plants, all public native forests should be protected following the expiry of the RFAs and the industry transitioned to 100 per cent plantation.”

While this sounds all very well, the notion that native forests are protected under NPWS management is a tad unrealistic. Indeed, based on current information the volume of CO2 pumped annually into the atmosphere, from the NPWS’s counter-conservation burning, must be very close to forestry’s contribution. From that perspective and given the negative impacts most fire has on forests, alternative management methods are required.

In particular, reducing the wildfire hazard in regrowth forests through low impact biomass removal. So the biomass can be used for gasification and power production while the carbon, in the form of charcoal, can be sequestered in the soil. The regrowth forest management issue was raised at the recent forest forum, both by myself and a representative from East Gippland. So the message may get through, eventually.

Home-sized biomass gasification unit

Last week the NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton announced more funding for koalas indicating ” . . .This $10 million investment is in addition to the $2.5 million allocated for the creation in March 2016 of flora reserves totalling 120 square kilometres on the South Coast, run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to protect the last known local koala population.”

Last month NSW Legislative Council Greens member, Ms Dawn Walker asked the questions on notice pasted below, with answers due by 28 June. While the distribution of the $2.5 million logging subsidy is of interest. The NSW government’s response to the last question may be more useful.

1592 LANDS AND FORESTRY—MURRAH FLORA RESERVE—Ms Walker to ask the Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Regional Water, Minister for Trade and Industry representing the
Minister for Lands and Forestry, and Minister for Racing—
(1) In relation to the $2.5 million allocated from the NSW Environmental Trust to Forestry Corporation of NSW for a haulage subsidy to source alternative logs following the declaration of the Murrah Flora Reserves:
(a) how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2015-16?
(b) how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2016-17?
(2) Does the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 apply in State Forest flora reserves such as the Murrah Flora Reserves?

Among those speaking at the recent forest forum in Tathra was NPWS’s Chris Allen, giving his ideas about koalas and their management.

In addition to his unsubstantiated belief that burning will protect koalas from wildfire, even though he apparently hasn’t seen the outcome of the fires. Allen claimed that the areas burnt were determined by the Bega Valley fire plan and the Biamanga management plan.

What he didn’t mention was the NPWS’s Enhanced Bushfire Management Program and its zoning and works map below. The map delineates areas (pink lines) the NPWS has somehow determined to be ‘preferred koala habitat’.

A clearer version of the map, indicating a large proportion of the flora reserve is not considered to be preferred koala habitat, is available at the NSW environment.gov website. It says pre-burning koala surveys may be undertaken within ‘preferred koala habitat’ or activity cells. Hence, areas with koala records or potentially koalas can be burned without undertaking any surveys.

Allen also re-iterated his logically inconsistent belief that koalas on the tablelands are an endemic population, despite the genetic differences. In order to believe this claim it is necessary to believe there was no historic interaction between coastal and tablelands koalas.

 

Thankfully, most of the speakers did provide realistic information and I agree ending the RFA’s and getting rid of forestry are sensible ideas.

Unfortunately, the basic assumption, that forests will keep growing into the future, is what forestry and the NPWS assume too. So its difficult to escape the conclusion that the conservation movements’ goal may be more difficult to achieve.  While the threats to forests aren’t fully acknowledged or understood, it seems likely governments will do what they want.

In that regard it was a little ironic that the trees around the Tathra hall are subject to Bell-miner associated die-back, an issue that along with extensive canopy die-back, should be on the conversation movement’s agenda.

Chris Allen also suggested that the management plan for the flora reserves will be made available for public comment. I’m assuming, given the predicable response from the NPWS pasted below, some explanation will be provided to justify its change from supporting biodiversity reconstruction, to opposing it

Dear Mr Bertram,

Thank you for your email. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is now responsible for the management of Murrah Flora Reserve.

Forestry Corporation has provided NPWS the following information about the fence;

  • The fence was erected without consent of Forestry Corporation commencing in 2002.
  • Forestry Corporation has never provided an occupation permit to construct or maintain the fence.
  • Forestry Corporation has requested you to remove the structure in 2013 (see attachment).

Illegal encroachments will be part of the Murrah Flora Reserves Working Plan.  The current version on the Forestry Corporation website is an interim plan.

It is NPWS intention to remove illegal encroachments and infrastructure from the Murrah Flora Reserve.

Your sincerely,

Kane Weeks

 

Coinciding with the National koala conference this weekend, the ABC has unearthed documents indicating logging prescriptions will be relaxed in NSW. So “… For koalas in north-east NSW, Forestry Corporation proposes a “reduced survey effort” and the dropping of a longstanding rule applying 20 metre buffers to “high-use” areas.” In reality this translates to – if we see a koala up a tree, we may not cut the tree down.

Several other constraints will also be relaxed to ensure unsustainable native forest logging can continue, until the trees run out. This outcome would not be so bad, if native forests and catchments weren’t declining across the state, but they are.

While forest decline is seemingly not directly on the agenda at the koala conference, there is one speaker talking about climate change. However, as Eleanor Stalenberg pointed out in her thesis ‘Nutritional ecology of the Mumbulla koala‘ – ” . . . human-induced climate change could have long-term negative effects on the suitability of leaves for koalas.”

In the short term, an increase in the number of very hot days is likely, along with a reduced availability of leaves with sufficient water and nutrient content. So it was interesting to read about research at Gunnedah, finding koalas are regularly coming down from the trees to drink water from artificial water stations.

According to the article, ” . . . Researchers think the koalas’ newfound thirst is because the leaves that used to keep them hydrated are drying out as Gunnedah gets hotter and drier. The leaves used to provide enough water for the koalas that they didn’t need to drink in addition. In fact, prior research suggests that koalas reject leaves with water contents less than 55 to 65 percent.”

The only issue is that the research was undertaken during winter. To me this suggests, if leaf water content is the main factor, other factors, rather than the weather, may be influencing its availability, as in these forests.

Tragically, getting NSW government agencies to acknowledge these issues is difficult, to say the least. So I was a little surprised to receive the flyer below, from Bega Valley Shire Council. I’m pretty confident that groups like the OE&H’s koala recovery team wouldn’t invite Professor Tim Flannery to attend one of its meetings.

Bega Valley Shire Council has recently released its ‘Understanding Our Place’ report, said to be “Phase 1 of Council’s adopted Community Engagement Strategy for the upcoming Bega Valley Community Strategic Plan 2040.” The report is based on a survey where 40.5% percent of respondents indicated the natural environment sets ‘our place’, apart from other places.

Closely following the report, Council called for the community’s feedback because ” . . New Coastal Management Programs (CMPs) are currently being developed for Wallaga Lake, Bermagui River, Merimbula and Back Lake, and Eden’s Lake Curalo.”

Although Council has previously requested feedback on the Bermagui catchment. On that occasion Council, its consultants and the OE&H were involved in the process  This time, consistent with previous recommendations, the UNSW Water Research Laboratory, part of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is also involved and appears to be taking the lead role.

Among the project objectives is idea to “Identify all issues and pressures currently impacting, or with the potential to impact, Bermagui River and its catchment.” While there seems little doubt the major pressure in this and other catchments is eucalyptus die-back. Another objective is to “Describe all legislative instruments relevant to management of the Bermagui River study area.”

This is where things become uncertain as indicated in the OE&H map of the local area above. While the map purports to show ‘sensitive lands’, being predominantly endangered ecosystems, rainforests, river banks, lakes and wetlands.

Apart from the river banks, these areas are only identified on private land, rather than across tenures. Then there is the issue of the rainforest layer, given it remarkable similarity to the one employed for the Regional Forests Agreements, 20 years ago.

As I understand it, the latest round of federally funded koala surveys have been recording the presence of Bellminer colonies near plots.
Given current legislative instruments tend to exclude consideration of key threatening processes. I wonder whether the OE&H will be voluntarily passing on information about BMAD in the catchment/s.

It would be reassuring to know that all of the issues have been adequately identified.

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