The OE&H has released its koala recovery proposals for the period 21017-2021. Topping the 12 issues proposed to be addressed is ” Loss, modification and fragmentation of habitat In areas of known koala significance”. Actions proposed include – Existing degraded koala habitat restored and better connected – New koala habitat established and maintained and Permanent landholder agreements established for private land containing occupied koala habitat.

Regrettably, only the first of these is relevant to this area, because attempts to establish new habitat failed miserably and this failure confirmed why there aren’t many koalas on private land. So the disagreement is about how one restores modified and fragmented habitat, including whether there is any benefit dropping and monitoring Woollybut seed-balls.

Another threat the OE&H have cottoned onto is ” Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy”. Given this admission, with luck future NPWS intense prescribed burns may not be in areas with koalas.

Thankfully the threat of a brown forest and associated increased wildfire potential has temporarily passed given recent soaking rainfall. Although far less rainfall was recorded south of Bega, seemingly consistent with the findings in Lunney etal. – ‘Extinction in Eden identifying the role of climate change in the decline of the koala in south-eastern NSW’.

While addressing climate change is a low OE&H priority, I understand the current NSW Environment Minister would like to see a whole of government approach to the koala issue. The problem being that business as usual is still perceived as being consistent with helping koalas. For example and as indicated in the photo above, Bega Valley Shire Council has recently shredded a large number of trees along Benny-Gowings road, where it passes through the Murrah Flora reserve.

This is the first time Council has shredded vegetation along this road and it seems unfortunate that preferred koala feed trees, like the Woollybut, reduced to the large stump in the middle of the shot, were not retained. Of course the same goes for all the other feed trees council shredded, in this area of known koala significance.

While it is difficult to see how this loss of habitat sits with the state government’s proposals, it highlights – again – the difficulty achieving any sort of change to forest management in south-eastern NSW.

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Following up on the koala taken into care, it wasn’t fitted with a radio collar when released, several kilometers from where it was found. This omission isn’t the result of a constraint on the OE&H. Indeed, last year the OE&H radio-collared and tracked 20 koalas on the southern highlands. Rather, it reflects the conservation movement’s low interest in koalas, which the OE&H is happy to go along with.

Hence in an article on About Regional, OE&H threatened species officer Chris Allen talks of ‘Small, fragile, and very precious communities of koalas ‘, rather than an endangered population.
Allen also repeats his claim that climate change and fire are the biggest threats to koalas, extensive canopy die-back doesn’t get a mention. This too is mostly a result of of the conservation movement’s desire to ignore the real issues.

After the predictable failure to grow primary tree species on private land, Allen is now suggesting the secondary feed species Woollybutt (E. longifolia), ‘ is really struggling to regenerate’.  So ” . . . Thirty small research plots have been established throughout koala country where a range of bush regeneration techniques are being trialled – one of them is the use of seed balls. “Seed balls are made up of the seed of the target species, clay is mixed with peat mulch and Cayenne pepper,” Chris smiles. “The Cayenne pepper is the magic ingredient that stops ants and other critters eating the seed.”

At this point it seems necessary to believe insects that eat seed are also a threat to koalas, rather than the notion that soils are no longer conducive to tree germination and growth.
The following chart shows the percentage of Woollybutt trees from the first survey data, stratified by size classes. Although the data is poor, it doesn’t reflect trees struggling to regenerate, rather what would be expected from heavily logged forests. What Allen neglects to mention is the increase in non-eucalyptus species and the fact that they can grow where eucalyptus trees no longer can.

Also in the news was the Forestry Corporation, regarding data on firewood NSW Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair provided to the NSW parliament. The data indicates firewood production rose from nothing in 2002, to 2,365 tonnes in Eden and 38,926 tonnes in Southern during 2016.

The article was followed by a letter to the editor, from forestry manager Danial Tuan, suggesting the information had been misrepresented because forestry have always sold firewood and ” . . .  the timber was previously sold and reported in a different residue category.”

However, according to Forests NSW 2005 ESFM plan, 4,500 tonnes of commercial firewood and 1,579 tonnes of domestic firewood were sourced from the South Soast region in 2002-2003. This volume, signed off by then Minister Ian Macdonald, is 48 times greater than the recent information.

It does seem prudent to take the information, stemming from public forest managers, with several grains of salt.

As reported in the Bega District News, Wapengo lake oyster farmers Brian and Carol Orr were surprised to find a koala last week, hanging on to a oyster bag, in the lake. It seems likely that the young koala is the same animal sighted on the Bermagui- Tathra road back in September.

On this occasion Brian was going to let the koala loose, after it was brought back to shore. However, he rang WIRES and they suggested taking it to a vet for a check up. The vet found the animal was dehydrated and underweight and it was then taken to Potoroo Palace to recuperate.

The article quotes NPWS’s Chris Allen saying ” . . . It is probable that he had been pushed out by older males while trying to find his own territory.” Hence the animal is ” . . . to be released back to an area where he is less likely to be confronted with aggressive males. ”

Of course there is no evidence that the koala was confronted by any other koalas and a female koala is just as unlikely to welcome another koala in its home-range as male is.
The issue is whether the habitat in area proposed for the release is any better than the forest in Mimosa Rocks NP, where the koala has seemingly been for the past month.

The photo shows one of the views looking east from the Bermagui-Tathra road, into Mimosa Rocks NP, where the koala was first sighted. Along with a microwave oven, plastic bags etc, there are also broken bits asbestos cement sheeting and just next to this toxic rubbish a couple of dozen old truck tires. While these features may not reduce the quality of the habitat, it does say something about park management.

According to the results from the 2012-14 koala surveys, ” . . . it will be essential to ensure that the population does not experience any further loss and that provision is made for its expansion into apparently unoccupied but suitable habitat.”  The question is whether the NPWS, or anyone else, can tell what is suitable koala habitat, just by looking at it. This would seem to be an important consideration, because if all of the suitable habitat is occupied, releasing the koala could well be a death sentence.

While it isn’t ideal for the koala to remain at Potoroo Palace, a precautionary approach would be to radio track the animal, so it can be rescued again, should perceptions of suitable koala habitat prove incorrect.

Coupled with this uncertainty is the fact that local forests are starting to die due to a lack of rain. While 20mm has fallen this month, another 50-100mm is required to fully re hydrate the soils and avoid another extensive canopy die-back event.

Four years after SE Forest Rescue raised concerns about logging of rocky outcrops in Glenbog state forest, the Land and Environment court has found the Forestry Corporation guilty of the charge.

According to the Harvesting Plan, the Supervising Forestry Officer was supposed to be looking for rocky outcrops, but this didn’t occur. Rather, the Forestry Corporation developed and relied on an ” . . . operator select methodology whereby Wiltons Logging was briefed about the difficulty in marking-up the area and was told to use their discretion when harvesting. ” The Harvesting plan alludes to this situation indicating ” . . . # SFO/Contract coordinators will continue to conduct onground mark-up & searches and report back to foresters/ecologists any features requiring further investigation.”

In addition to rocky outcrops and cliffs, contract coordinators were also to be on the look out for rainforest, wetlands, heath and scrub, as well as the endangered ecological community, Montane peatlands and swamps. The Harvesting plan also indicates a koala record in one of the compartments. However, Forestry decided the record was invalid and didn’t implement the required searches.

On sentencing, one of the aggravating factors is ‘whether the offence was committed for commercial gain.’  Strangely, the judge indicated ” . . . I find that, although there may have been an element of ‘cost-saving’ in Forestry Corporation adopting the operator select method, there is no evidence that Forestry Corporation gained a commercial advantage by the commission of the offence.”

The notion that trees are cut down and Forestry gets no monetary reward seems to be logically inconsistent.

The judgement also indicates ” . . . The EPA submits that Forestry Corporation’s failure to search, record and mark-up the areas subject to the licence as required, is contrary to the aims of the licence, and has undermined the protective regulatory scheme contained in the Parks Act and impeded the achievement of ecologically sustainable development . . ”

It would be reassuring to know that native forest logging is consistent with ecologically sustainable development. Unfortunately,  there is no evidence the regulatory scheme works and evidence to prove the ecologically sustainable management of any public forest is sorely lacking. 

In that regard the judgement states ” . . . In relation to the harm caused, Forestry Corporation submits that while it is accepted that it will take hundreds of years for the area to recover, this is a product of the time it takes for trees to re-grow and ought not be overstated.”

The acknowledgement of ‘hundreds of years to recover’ relates to all forests, including those in National Parks, but proving it requires data on tree growth rates. Perhaps these matters will be the subject of future legal arguments.

Forestry was fined $10,000, with a 20% reduction because it pleaded guilty, ordered to pay the EPA’s costs ($65K) and required to put a notice in the Bega District News.

On a lighter note, the photo shows one out of two of this years local baby possums, they both look a bit like boys, but it’s hard to tell. We can be certain the mothers don’t get on very well.

As reported in the Bega District News this week, a koala was sighted early in the morning and captured on video, as it ran down the Tathra-Bermagui road. The observer, Michael Clarke, stopped his truck and took the video as the critter scrambled up an embankment and climbed the nearest small tree, a black forest oak. While Mr Clarke’s sighting made his day, describing the experience as ‘awesome’, he also expressed concern about the threat posed by foxes and suggested corridors to ‘allow safe travel across roads’.

ABC radio interviewed the NPWS’s Chris Allen who thought the animal could be a male, but appeared to be young and healthy. Lucky for it, because the last koala found on this road was a bit groggy, taken to a vet and subsequently released kilometers from where it was found.

What Allen didn’t mention was the potential that this young koala has been kicked out of its mothers home-range and is looking for somewhere suitable to live. The issue being, unless an older animal has died, finding somewhere suitable may be difficult. Mr Allen did mention the koala surveys have been ongoing for ten years, but nothing about publicly releasing any results. This lack of accountability seems to contrast with his frequently repeated talk about how important these koalas are.

However, one of the reasons for the lack of information could relate to the proposed roll-over of the Regional Forest Agreements. One outcome from the flora reserve decision being the increased uncertainty about timber supplies and the data required to reduce this uncertainty.

The map below provides the locations of timber inventory plots (red dots) undertaken on a regularised  grid for the Southern RFA  and locations of the first koala plots (light green dots), in the Eden RFA region. Those of greatest interest are on the Murrah Soil landscape (orange). Clearly re-measuring the plots in the Southern region would provide more certainty about timber supplies. Similarly, the release of data from the second round of federally funded koala surveys in the Eden region, would be desirable.


While the chances of either the state or federal governments releasing these data may be low. It would seem sensible for the conservation movement to demand both the release of the second koala survey data and data from the re-measurement of the Southern timber inventory plots.

While the major issue is what grows back after logging and the RFAs are supposed to be based on the National Forest Policy Statement. Among several interesting research articles, recently published in Functional Ecology, is one titled ‘Rewilded mammal assemblages reveal the missing ecological functions of granivores’. Previous arid land research, undertaken where most of the mammals were functionally extinct, had concluded ants were the major predator of plant seeds.

However, this recent research was undertaken in fenced areas, at Scotia wildlife sanctuary and the Arid recovery reserve, where native animals have been re-introduced. In brief the researchers found animals are the major seed predators and “. . . hypothesize that the loss of omnivorous mammals may be a factor that has facilitated shrub encroachment in arid Australia.”

Coastal forests are facing a similar situation and the increasing proportion of non-eucalyptus trees, like black forest oak, may reflect the loss of species critical for forest health. While these matters may not rate highly in the NSW government, it would be unfair to accuse organisations like the NPWS of doing nothing. Regrettably, the new road signs in the photo below suggest an odd set of priorities and doing nothing would have been cheaper.

 

 

As reported on the ABC, the Victorian government has finally bought the Heyfield timber mill for $40 million. If one were looking for a true sign of the state government’s commitment to an unsustainable industry, this action ranks highly.

The previous owners were faced with a significant reduction in resource, from 150,000 cm down to 80,000 cm and decided the business was no longer financially viable.The reduction has been put down to fire damage to much of the Mountain Ash forests and the Leadbeater’s Possum protection zones

Coincidentally, the Regional Forest Agreement for the area, the central highlands, was signed in the same year as the Eden RFA. Both regions have similar timber supply issues.

Of course in NSW the state and federal governments are keen to simply roll-over all of the RFAs, Eden, Northeast and Southern, but the timeline is stretching. According to the scoping agreement, a joint working group was to prepare a report and an independent reviewer was supposed to be appointed by the end of last year. This was to be followed by an eight week public consultation phase, starting in March 2017.


Perhaps slowing the process, in addition to the limited timber supply and threatened species, is the forest health issue. In that regard the Forestry Corporation’s views are well known and summed below, from its website.

” . . .  In striving to achieve positive outcomes for forest health and biodiversity, Forestry Corporation is cognisant of the practical limits of what can be achieved. In particular with regard to invasive weeds and bell-miner associated dieback, the scale of the problem in some areas is significant. Further research and a co-ordinated approach with other land management agencies is required.
Research has shown that intentional, frequent, low-intensity fire regimes result in a spatial and temporal mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas and that many fire sensitive plants are protected by their position in the landscape. In some situations, frequent, low-intensity fires can be used to mitigate dieback and Forestry Corporation will use low intensity prescribed burning to protect forest health, economic assets and people.”

Regrettably, Forestry make  no reference to extensive canopy die-back associated with dry weather and drought, as experienced broadly in coastal forests of the Eden and Southern RFA regions. With the weather remaining dry, the Brushtail possum in the photo may signal a start the negative impacts on native species, due to the lack of water.

While historically tree leaves have provided much of the water both koalas and possums need, many, if not all of the small ponds in the upper catchment have filled with sediment. So when the leaves start to dry out, animals have to travel several kilometres for water, rather than several hundred metres. After an absence of several weeks, what appears to be the same possum returned to same location twice in four days, after finding the water.

Spring has definitely sprung, although 30 degrees with a strong north-westerly wind does seem more consistent with an early summer. Perhaps more important is that this month, the eleventh day to be precise, is supposed to end to the six year regional federal and state funded koala projects.

Regrettably, there are still no reports for the ‘Foundations for River Recovery and Return of Koalas to the Bega Valley‘ project. Similarly there is still only one ,arguably irrelevant report for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project.

Of course time moves on and now, with the conservation movement calling for adaptive management, a reasonable question could ask about the degree to which our understanding of koalas and their habitat, has improved during this time. In addition, whether a similar sum ($13 million)could provide for more positive outcomes, given what has been learned.

 

The map above comes from the original for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project application.  It shows the areas defined as ‘core koala habitat’, aka logging exclusion areas. Areas proposed for revegetation with primary koala feed trees and theoretical corridors. Added to the map is the orange ellipse, indicating core habitat, recently burned.

One of the NSW government’s concerns was that a previously federally funded koala project, in an area it proposed for revegetation, had planted the trees incorrectly. Hence it had to be done again.
This suggestion forms the basis for the the NSW government’s general understanding of the environment. In essence that soil fertility never reduces, irrespective of how the land is managed. Of course this position may have changed since 2011, but to date, there is no evidence to prove it.

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