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Dieback

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.

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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.

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.

Next Wednesday, 30 August, the Great Southern Forest steering group will present, to Bega Shire Council, its proposal to ending native forest logging. Coinciding with the end of the Regional Forest Agreements, ‘… The plan is to change management of public State Forests from timber extraction to climate stabilisation and carbon sequestration.”

The new management of State Forests is proposed to be based on adaptive management, in particular the approach outlined in ‘CLIMATE CHANGE AND FORESTS OF THE FUTURE: MANAGING IN THE FACE OF UNCERTAINTY’ (Millar et al, 2007)  

Of course public forest management under the RFA’s was intended to take an adaptive approach, ‘with an aim to reducing uncertainty over time via system monitoring.’ We can be fairly certain that such an approach is not consistent with the State government’s preferences.

Regrettably and like the proposed great koala national park on the north coast, there is no mention of die-back in the Great Southern Forest media brief. Nor is their reference to die-back in the groups document about carbon, perhaps due to a lack of system data.

On koalas the brief suggests ” . . . The unique Southern Koalas once roamed the region yet now only highly endangered small isolated colonies remain on the far south coast.19 The EPBC Act does not protect them in State Forests.20 Koalas prefer deep-rooted, tall specific eucalypts and logging compromises their ability to disperse and breed with other populations in the southern highlands, north-eastern Monaro and the far south coast.

Depending on one’s interpretation, the possibility that koalas have been translocated from Victoria to the Bega Shire, despite the expert advice, remains open.

Apart from the koala and a swamp wallaby passing by, an antechinus and the crimson rosellas in photo above, are the only creatures snapped drinking from the frying pan to date. The area, located at a higher elevation in the catchment, is arguably mostly devoid of life, apart from the trees.

The Greens held a forum at Bellingen recently, to talk about the proposed Great Koala National Park on the Mid North Coast. Not surprisingly, the main focus is eliminating logging.
In addition and according to the Maclay Argus ‘more importantly‘, the National Parks Association CEO Kevin Evans and Senior Scientific Officer, Oisin Sweeney talked to Bellingen Shire Council about the proposal.

Responding to the publicity was the Nationals member for state seat of Oxley, Melinda Pavey MP, saying ” . . . the answer to concerns about mid north coast koalas does not involve converting more State Forest to National Park.” Rather ” . . . Mrs Pavey said that landholders know the National Park Estate is under-managed for key threatening processes of wild dogs, wildfire, scrub invasion and eucalypt decline – all causing koala habitat degradation.” And ‘ . . . Mrs Pavey said the community must look at the actual performance of the conservation estate in achieving real outcomes – just enlarging it does not automatically deliver good conservation outcomes.”

Mrs Pavey finished her PR with “ . . . I really do think it’s time for a mature, factual, science-based and constructive discussion about forestry, our forest estate and koalas – not just more land tenure changes.”

The NPA rejected Mrs Pavey’s suggestion that more national parks will not help koalas and called on the NSW Government to honor her call for  ‘a mature, factual, science-based discussion about forestry our forest estate and koalas’.

For those that do not support the state government’s management of public forests, irrespective of whom is managing it, any talk about facts and science is welcome, being better late than never.

Regrettably, It seems that both the conservation movement and the government still have some way to go.

 

Following up on the koala I spotted, it has now visited the same tree three times in as many weeks. Based on the pellet size it seems to be a youngish male, that appears to have taken over the home-range of an older male.Consequently, it seems likely that a female still occupies the area, broadly delineated within the black ellipse on the map above and she is the focus of the boy’s attention.

If one were to assume that each of the modeled koala activity areas on the map represented a koala, the number of koalas could be over estimated. So it is possible that most of the activity areas reflect just one male koala and 3 or 4 resident females.

 

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.

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