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Biodiversity

The Queensland government has recently released two reports titled ‘South East Queensland Koala Population Modelling Study‘ and a ‘Koala Expert Panel Interim Report’.
The former is a comprehensive work that required collating koala survey data from 1996 up to 2014.  The outcome confirms a rapid and increasing rate of decline in koala numbers, particularly on the Koala coast and the Pine rivers area. Insufficient data was available to determine whether the decline is consistent across south east Qld.

If koalas haven’t declined in other areas, the report recommends ” Identifying these areas with a carefully designed monitoring program would appear to be a priority.”

The latter report is, to put it mildly, a generally scathing indictment of koala management through out the state. In essence it found none of the planning instruments worked for the benefit of koalas, indeed the reverse is usually the case. The report indicates the failures are around a lack of a strategic regional vision, an over-reliance on the planning legislation and inadequate resourcing.

So called ‘environmental offsets’ were also criticised on the basis of ” . . .the ability of local governments to offset matters of state significance, a lack of resources for monitoring and enforcement, the inability to offset outside local government areas where the impact occurs, lack of additionality deriving from offset actions, and potential perverse outcomes.”

Back in NSW, there is the ‘Saving Our Species’ program and its various streams, including the Iconic species program, where koalas have been lumped. However if one were looking for recent official and credible information on koalas, the chances of finding it are quite low.

In that regard, the map above provides koala records, available on the Atlas of NSW Wildlife, from 1 January 2013 to now.

Curiously, the single record is suggested to be a koala sighting, attributed to the Forestry Corporation, after the Flora reserves were announced. Clearly any conclusion from this information represents a poor outcome.

Regrettably, Long-nosed Potoroos could be in a similar position, as indicated by records since 1 January 2011, in the map below. A few years before there are records of Long-nosed potoroos in this area.  Under the NSW government’s approach, LNPs are a ‘land-scape managed’ species. The land-scape in this case begins south of Merimbula and extends to the Victorian border.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ‘streams’ approach may not be ideal, but on the positive side, there is considerable scope for improvement.

As the Forestry Corporation now takes second place with regard to koala management. My comments on the OE&H’s koala strategy focused mostly on its ideas about koalas. In particular the paper titled “Extinction in Eden, identifying the role of climate change in the decline of the koala in south-eastern NSW” (Lunney et al, 2014).

While not doubting climate change has recently had a major negative impact on koala habitat. I do doubt the notion that climate change has played the major role in koala decline, particularly in this bio-region.

The research Lunney et al quote in support of the climate change theory, Lawler et al ( 1996), found either increased CO2 levels or reduced nutrient availability led to ” . . . lower leaf nitrogen concentrations, higher leaf specific weights and higher levels of both total phenolics and condensed tannins” in Forest red gum leaves

Hence, changes to soils that lead to a permanent decrease in nutrient and/or water availability, will have a negative impact on koalas. The problem within the OE&H is a belief that soils have not changed and are fairly consistent throughout NSW. So Lunney et al infer, because trees grow well in paddocks around Gunnadah, there’s no reason why they won’t do the same in the Bega Valley.

So it was interesting to read, in the Bega District news, that koalas around Gunnadah, where the population has dropped 50% since 2008, have taken to ” . . . drinking extensively from custom-made watering stations, even in autumn and winter.” According to Valentina Mella, from Sydney University’s school of life and environmental sciences. “My thought is that the leaves they’re eating are not providing enough moisture … because with climate change the chemical composition of the leaf changes. The leaves become tougher, they become drier, they have less nutrients and they even have more toxins. In the past decade there have been a lot of heatwaves and prolonged droughts, which have killed a lot of koalas. They literally drop out of trees.”

What Lunney et al neglect to mention is that fact that all the koalas on former primary habitat in this bio-region dropped dead over 110 years ago. Linking this decline with climate change seems to be drawing a long bow.

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Bega Shire Council has released the final Rapid Catchment Assessment reports for the Cuttagee, Middle and Nelson lake catchments. They are comprehensive documents that make many sensible and practical recommendations to address degraded areas, mostly on private land.

On public land, as indicated in the map a Cuttagee catchment above, many locations, in this case around 200, where found to be potential sources of water pollution. In addition, significant areas of ‘head-cut’ and gully erosion were identified. The sediment yield from ‘head-cut’ erosion areas alone is estimated to be more than 1000 cubic metres in all three catchments. Many of these locations have never been subject to integrated logging, but were trashed before woodchipping began.

The consultants Elgin Associates Pty Ltd, provide the following description and recommended action for the Nelson catchment :

” Multiple examples of active head-cut that have formed deep incised gullies. Natural erosion process that shows examples of undercutting, lateral bank erosion and slumping due to highly erodible, sodic soils. These may have been exacerbated by historical logging operations and past fire events in the forest. Difficult to treat due to scale of problem and site access. Majority of the sediment fractions eroded from the head-cut and gullies have been re-deposited downstream and may not reach the estuary. However, a proportion of dispersible fraction of sediment fines has and will continue to be delivered to the estuary back lagoon under high flow events. Recommend a collaborative research project with a university to further investigate the significance of the process – spatially and temporally, and identify factors that may be exacerbating the process, and what potential actions could be undertaken to halt or slow down process.”

While I did some include some management suggestions with my comments on the koala strategy. The starting point requires the NPWS/OE&H to firstly acknowledge the issues and learn more about the land they manage, so they can do something positive, for a change.

The federal government has decided to extend the east Gippsland Regional Forestry Agreement for a year. An ABC report quotes federal Agriculture Minister Anne Ruston, indicating the extension had been granted to give the Victorian Government time to review the mess.

Included in the review is VicForests ” . . . new assessments of its remaining logging coupes.” Consequently, as reported in the Gippsland Times, the largest hardwood timber mill in the region, Heyfield’s Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH), has had its quota slashed from 150,000 cubic metres, down to 80,000 cubic metres next year and 60,000 cubic metres for the following two years.

This reduction is proposed despite ASH signing a contract with Vic Forests in 2014, to supply logs until 2034. The owners are now proposing to close the mill, when they run out of logs in September.

vic-koalasPart of the documentation for the east Gippsland Regional Forestry Agreement states –

” . . . Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management (ESFM) is the management of forest on all land tenures to maintain the overall capacity of forests to provide goods, protect
biodiversity and protect the full suite of forest values at the regional level. One of the key objectives of each Regional Forest Agreement is to ensure that forests
on and off reserves are sustainably managed.”

Clearly the overall capacity of forests to provide sawlogs is on the wane. On biodiversity, the map above, from Victoria’s Koala Management Strategy (2004), shows koala records since 1970, as well as koala translocation areas and source populations. It is possible that in 1970 there was still a connection between koalas on the NSW south coast and their genetically similar cousins in the Strezlecki Ranges.

it seems unlikely this connection could ever be re-established, particularly given koalas aren’t considered vulnerable in Victoria. What isn’t clear is how many of the translocated koalas actually survived at the release sites. Currently the only known survivors are those at Mallacoota, in the far east of the state. There is little information about the fate of koalas released at the other twenty or so locations in east Gippsland.

Perhaps there will be more information stemming from the RFA  review. In the meantime the OE&H will be holding its koala information session in Bega on Tuesday. So I’m thinking of going along, in the hope (neurotic though it may be), that someone may be able to provide answers to some questions.

As expected, the recent passing of the NSW government’s Biodiversity conservation bill and the Local Land Services amendment bill, has been both welcomed and spurned.

According to NSW Farmers president Derek Schoen, the previous laws ‘have not only failed farmers and the productivity of many farms, they’ve failed the environment.’ He went on to say previous legislation ‘has seen biodiversity go backwards in NSW because of its lock up-and-leave approach’. However Derek did acknowledge that “. . . Without biodiversity, we don’t have farms.”

On the other hand, the World Wildlife Fund commissioned a report finding the changes could see over 2 million hectares of koala habitat cleared in NSW. The National Parks Association adds the proposed roll over of the RFA’s and EPA studies finding there are more koalas in forests with larger trees. It calls on the EPA ‘to force the government to protect koalas’.

For its part the NSW government claims local government laws will protect koalas and the OE&H suggests the new laws are fairer.

What’s missing is the notion that one can have koala habitat, in locations that historically supported koalas, without the biodiversity that makes trees grow.

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According to the WWF report, there are significant variations in areas of woody vegetation that could be cleared and koala habitat, at a local government scale. For the LGAs pictured above, Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla and Bega, out of a total 1,196,019 hectares of woody veg, only 1.07% (12,812 ha.) is considered to be known or potential koala habitat on private land. While this figure is somewhat greater than I expect, it is an improvement on suggestions that anywhere with trees is OK for koalas. The area available for clearing in the three shires is 17,264 ha, being 1.44% of woody vegetation, or 135% of known or potential koala habitat.

Although a bit blurry, the map shows the areas in which the original primary or ‘core’ koala habitat was located, the white bits. The other extreme are areas that probably didn’t historically support koalas, the wilderness areas, red hatch. This inability to support koalas can be due to several factors. For example, in the far south corner there is the Nadgee Wilderness, known for its lack of trees and extensive areas of low growing heath.  Along the western side, are the escarpment forests, that are generally very steep, frequently very rocky with shallow soils and trees that are often quite small.

Then there are the State Forests and National Parks, the brown and green bits respectively, most of which have been logged and all of which have lost the critical weight range vertebrates required to maintain soil fertility and tree growth. The one species exception is the Long-nosed potoroo. The blue circle at the bottom of the map is where the Long-nosed Potoroo has increased in numbers, on State Forest. However, the Forestry Corporation isn’t required to consider the role animals play in maintaining forests. So, the over-abundant potoroos  have been translocated to forests on Commonwealth land, indicated with the blue circle at the top of the map.

If one were looking for common ground on land management issues, the need to at least attempt to reestablish the original biodiversity should be the major priority. I for one, look forward to groups like the NPA demonstrating their support for such attempts, across tenures.

Life is littered with ironies, so while Forestry Corporation received a South Coast tourism award last week, for general tourism services. In the same week a fire started at Blue Ridge hardwoods sawmill at Eden, putting the operation out of action for an unspecified period.

The tourism award was apparently for providing things like the Bodalla rest area, last logged in 2014. Of course this was not your standard selective logging operation, because they had to clean the place up afterwards.

The costs associated with the clean up, chipping heads and branches of trees on site, grinding tree stumps, repairing other damage and the like, would have been quite substantial. Of course this was prior to forestry realising it had additional 40,000 cm³ around Batemans Bay to keep Blue Ridge going, given the temporary loss of resource in the flora reserves.

 

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Also last week, ABC radio had an interview with Dr George Wilson, based at the ANU, about the need for more private input into species conservation. In an ANU press release Dr Wilson says ” . . . Business as usual for threatened species is not working – lists are getting longer and threats from predators and habitat loss are getting worse.The private sector can help but it is shut out by government legislation that maintains control over both operations and ownership.”

He proposes incentives for landholders to lease animals, so they can “ . . .  acquire and breed threatened species in extensive predator-free facilities,”

I couldn’t agree more, but to finish this predator free facility, the new concrete strip access road, form work for which is pictured above, has to be completed. This road will replace the environmentally undesirable side cut road, within the fenced area. Just need the workers, the concrete truck and the weather to come together, at the same time.

On broader management issues, I hear the NPWS/OE&H will be releasing their management proposals for the flora reserves in the next week or so. One can only trust that it at least considers issues beyond business as usual.

Coinciding with threatened species day next month, the Crossing Land Education Centre is holding a free workshop on windbreak plantation design. The advertising material indicates  presentations are planned in the morning, including one  “. . . about the local koala population by Office of Environment and Hertiage (sic) scientist and local koala expert Chris Allen.” Accordingly attendees will be provided with lists “featuring fire retardant species and key koala species.”

I’m not sure why Chris Allen has been given the title of ‘scientist’, given a science degree is usually required. Similarly, Allen’s koala expertise would seem to be constrained to data on tree species koalas prefer in adjacent forests, where Forestry Corporation claim to be the tree growers.

However, if we leave aside the notion of fire retardant plants, everything burns if it’s hot enough. The question remains whether there is much point planting trees for koalas, if the soils cannot support their growth. The afternoon is devoted to planting a windbreak, although whether soil preparation has been a consideration is not clear.

wallace

Unlike koala surveys, that can provide instant gratification, an  alternative approach takes somewhat longer. Generally three years or so, employing a Wallace plough, pictured above, is required to adequately prepare the degraded soils for planting. There are several benefits from this longer term approach, including reduced compaction, increased aeration and biological activity. This particular unit has a seed box that could also be used to add other beneficial soil materials. The outcome, as indicated in the Equine permaculture graphic below, is an environment that encourages biological activity and deeper root development.

While this approach is similar to the deep ripping being trialled on the tablelands, there are significant differences. For example the Wallace plough is designed to ensure minimal surface disturbance. One off  deep ripping, without coulters, the serrated cutting discs at the front of the plough, rips grasses apart and tends to bring sub-soils to the top.

Another difference are the hydrological impacts, deep ripping across the contour, as employed on the tablelands, tends to increase the speed of water moving downslope and associated gully erosion. ‘ However, when  ‘keyline’ principles are employed, water is diverted along the slope, via the subsurface channels created by the plough and water is directed away from gullies.

Interestingly, John Champagne, Permaculture Designer and President of SCPA-South East Producers will also be giving a presentation, so perhaps other approaches may get a mention.

 

deep-ripping

 

This week’s Narooma News reports on a “. . . newly formed committee drafting the working plan for the Murrah Flora Reserves.” Those selected for the committee include five NPWS/OE&H employees, three reserve neighbours, chairpersons of the Biamanga and Gulaga management boards, two representatives from the South East Timber Association and a Rural Fire Service representative.

The inclusion of SETA representatives seems to infer the original proposal, to protect 2,800 hectares of forest from logging, remains on track. In addition and excluding the neighbours, whose opinions are currently unknown, all of the other committee members support burning forests.

According to NPWS ranger Simon Conarty, “. . . We have a real opportunity to implement a range of actions that will promote a forest structure and regenerate koala browse species to improve floristic diversity and habitat values.”

Exactly how this is to be achieved isn’t apparent, given die-back isn’t an issue and the first meeting focused on ‘cultural burning’ and 1080 baiting.  Simon stated, “. . . Cultural burning initiatives are strongly supported by the boards because they enhance fire management and provide opportunities to the Aboriginal community to connect to country and be involved in management across the landscape.”

Of course there is no information to suggest Aboriginals burned these forests. Rather the evidence confirms burning was largely constrained to grassy forest ecosystems and headlands. So it seems a shame that lighting inappropriate fires is seen as a way to connect with country.

On the 1080 baiting issue, the article refers to wild dog control, although it must be nearly 20 years since I last heard a dingo. There seems little doubt that losing dingoes has improved the lot for foxes. In that regard I recently found the fresh fox scat, on the left in the photo below,  within 1km of 1080 bait location, although the bait remains untouched.

scatbol

 

Simon also refers to the ‘20 threatened fauna species and three threatened flora species’, found in the reserves. One of the threatened species is the Powerful owl, although there doesn’t appear to be any Powerful owl records in the reserves post 2004. However, early this week, the day after a powerful owl was heard close by, I found the owl bolus, on the right in the photo, in the front yard. It was adjacent to a brush tailed possum’s head and entrails. Although they used to be a lot more common, populations of all forest owls were greatly reduced after the extensive canopy die-back event of 2002-04.

The NSW scientific committee undertook a review of the powerful owl’s vulnerable status in 2008. Unfortunately the information they had came from research undertaken prior to 2002. So it will be interesting to see if the OE&H/NPWS can confirm there has been no reduction in the populations of threatened species, including owls.

While dealing with the NSW government is a constant source of disappointment, I am happy to announce my trial syngas collector, on the second attempt, actually worked and surprisingly filled the 2,000 litre gas bag. The gas provides an additional heat source for the solar timber dryer, to reduce the moisture content. While the outcome is a little beyond my expectations, it seems reasonable to assume any notions the NSW government may take a different approach are well beyond expectations.

 

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