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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.

After briefly attending the OE&H’s koala information session last Tuesday, it was a clear changing management to help koalas is not on the agenda. Rather, the intention is to continue current approaches, based on Forestry’s koala management plan (1997), even though they don’t help koalas.

One of the non-regional OE&H representatives did explain that there is no connection between the ‘Iconic Koala Project’ (IKP) and other aspects of the Saving our Species program. However, he hadn’t heard of extensive canopy die-back and was not aware that the NSW Scientific Committee has acknowledged it as a major threat to local koalas.

This lack of information stems directly from regional OE&H staff, attempting to cover up the fact that a reduction in forest cover has compromised regional conservation objectives.
Naturally there were representatives of several conservation groups at the session.

As I understand it, their objective is to end logging or woodchipping or both. Regrettably, because the OE&H are seen as friends, mentioning extensive canopy die-back, or criticizing its management, doesn’t happen. So while every thing is claimed to be OK in National Parks, unsustainable logging continues elsewhere.

BMAD2
Also attending the session was former forester Vic Jurskis. Vic has been instrumental in providing the Forestry Corporation with its all encompassing theory about die-back. Indeed if it wasn’t for Vic’s theory, we wouldn’t know koalas are always associated with unhealthy forests.

According to the theory, regular burning of forests will make them healthy again. The only downside is, according to the theory, this will get rid of koalas.

There is only one mention of local koalas in the IKP pamphlet, namely –
” . . . Fire management planning and monitoring for southern NSW koala populations to maximise protection of human assets and koala habitat.”

This appears to be the only management strategy and because it doesn’t address the major known threat, is unlikely to help koalas.

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 part of it’s asset protection works, the NPWS have been clearing around critical assets – road signs. While such work is expected, the methods employed seem to be inconsistent with the latest koala Priority Action Statement (PAS).

According to the PAS – ” . . . Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy : Liaise with relevant authorities or land managers to ensure that identified koala habitat areas are defined as assets for protection in fire planning tools when managing wildfires and prior to any hazard reduction burns. Promote best practice fire management protocols in areas of significant koala populations. Liaise with authorities or land managers to ensure that any unavoidable prescribed burns within koala habitat are conducted in a way that minimises impacts on koala habitat.”

As indicated in the picture below, the clearing involved cutting down two trees. If reducing fire hazard was the aim, cutting the tree trunks a metre off the ground, thereby creating standing dead wood, seems inconsistent with this aim. Similarly the heads of the trees, have been pushed under adjacent trees, creating fine fuels, also a metre above the ground. A simple solution would be to cut the trees down at ground level and remove the branches so the logging debris is all on the ground.

oak-cutting
Meanwhile the Nature Conservation Council is seeking donations to encourage more use of renewable energy, particularly wind and solar.

If local conservation groups were concerned about climate change and supported a different approach, the NCC could also push for the NPWS to move toward a carbon negative approach to management.

I expect the NPWS asset protection workers were driving a large diesel powered twin cab ute. An alternative vehicle could be a hybrid fossil fuel/ electric powered unit.

In that case the trunks of the aforementioned trees could be employed to generate electricity to power the vehicles. The charcoal from this process, about 90% carbon, could then be put in the ground. This approach would decrease CO2 emissions, increase soil water holding capacity, reduce soil acidity and perhaps aid in reducing die-back.

Of course, such an approach requires both support for and the implementation of best practice fire management protocols, in areas of significant koala populations.

As part of its incredibly slow development of a koala strategy, the OE&H has released the latest proposed amendments to the NSW koala Priority Action Statement. Unfortunately, like previous statements, they are based on the notion that the OE&H knows what koala habitat is and how to restore it.

With regard to habitat restoration, the website for the $5.6 million ‘Foundations for River Recovery and Return of Koalas to the Bega Valley’ project, indicates it has been operative since 2011. However, there are no reports on its progress.

Similarly the $3.9 million ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project, has only one report, that doesn’t actually mention the main focus. That being the translocation of koalas from the Strzelecki’s to the South East National Park.

However, an article about an information session on this failed exercise can be found in the Korumburra Times, published back in December 2014, under the heading ‘Koalas may save NSW friends‘. In the article, senior threatened species officer Chris Allen ” . . . spoke about a population study undertaken in the central and eastern Strzelecki Ranges that supports a case for translocation.”

Allen goes on to suggest “There is evidence of sub-adults being pushed to the edges of the available habitat which is normal behaviour for young adult koalas trying to establish a home range.” While this may be the case, whether Allen can tell where the ‘edges of available habitat’ are, is debatable. This seems particularly the case given Allen’s suggestion that the aim is ‘ to establish another koala population within a national park with similar habitat to the Strzelecki Ranges.’  Surely if there is similar habitat,  the original genetically similar koalas would not be extinct.

In addition and in the absence of further information, it is possible that the island/bottleneck koalas are extending into the available Strzelecki habitat. Inter-breeding may explain an increased incidence of disease and why the translocations didn’t proceed.

Most recently, the Office of Environment and Heritage has indicated it will be holding some community information sessions ‘where members of the public can find out more about the Chief Scientist & Engineer’s report and the process to develop a NSW Koala Strategy.’  Bega’s session is slated for Tuesday, 14 February, 4:30pm at the Bega Valley Commemorative Civic Centre.

newroad

Closer to home and as indicated in photo, the new concrete strip road is now completed and in operation. The gap between the strips and along the edges required just over  3m³ of fill. The fill is mostly, eucalyptus leaves and forest oak needles, road scrapings (silt, sand and stones), all mixed up with with 500 litres of bio-char. Somewhat more difficult is finding a contractor to remove the old road and restore the original hill-slope.

Co-incidentally, late last year and further up this private access road human activity was observed, in the flora reserve, seemingly consistent with a koala survey team. While it’s too much to expect notification of such activities, it was lucky the survey didn’t coincide with the concrete truck’s visit.

Another thing the survey didn’t appear to coincide with was the map of survey locations, as of November last year. There are several issues around changing surveys methods or locations. Regrettably, experience suggests trying to teach an old dog new tricks, is probably easier than expecting the OE&H to adequately consider these issues, or implement methods that may be more appropriate.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has recently undertaken its second triennial stakeholder survey. In an email, EPA Chair and CEO Barry Buffier AM indicated those reporting an environmental incident in the past year, had been selected to participate in the survey. In my case, the incident involved concerns about inconsistent koala records in Glenbog State Forest, last December. The EPA responded in March.

According to Barry, the EPA ” . . . want to keep improving how we work with you to protect the environment and the community and ensure ecologically sustainable development.”
Regrettably, the EPA misinterpreted our data on soil dispersion, now 22 years ago. It then went on to provide Forestry with a methodology, guaranteeing dispersible soils would rarely be identified. Given its dependence on out-dated information and unscientific methods, my feedback on the EPA’s performance generally ranked poor to very poor.

If one was keen on ensuring ecologically sustainable development, an ability to measure sustainability would be a sensible approach. Under the former Environment Pollution Licence, estimates of soil loss were required for all logging and roading undertaken in State Forests. If the NPWS was required to measure its soil loss, the equation would be applied to roads and burning operations. However, when the EPA implemented its current Environment Protection Licence, the Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) was no longer required.

Rainfall intensity and its potential to increase due to climate change, should be a concern for forest managers and their regulators. For example, earlier this month 35mm of rain fell in a day. The issue was that 17mm of this rain fell in seven minutes. Irrespective of tenure but depending on steepness and up-slope catchment area, soil loss from unpaved roads at this rainfall intensity is likely to be very high, or extreme.

Generally worse are the outcomes on side-cut roads, like the small one on this property, being replaced with the concrete strips. Much longer side-cut roads that run through creeks, as in the Blind Creek catchment below, in Kooraban NP, can be subject to significant soil loss and associated water pollution. The Roads and Maritime Services has advised it will begin clearing, for the Princes Highway re-alignment in the lower section of Blind creek, early in the new year.

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The ABC recently reported on a claimed sighting of a koala near Tumut. NSW National Parks Area Manager Matt White indicated the closest koalas to the area were 150km away. While I expect koalas east of Canberra, 75km away, slipped Mr White’s mind, no evidence of a koala was found at the location. 

Clearly not deterred, SERCA member Prue Acton OBE, wrote the the Bega District News suggesting ” . . . our vast southern forests stretching from the Great Eastern Ranges to the east coast can provide hope for the long-term survival of the Koala in New South Wales.”

While on the one hand the statement seems to confirm the conservation movements’ ongoing objections to listing the last coastal koalas as endangered and likely to become extinct. Perhaps more important is apparent confirmation of the conservation movements ongoing support for management that contributes to climate change.

In particular –
” . . . Cultural burns and scientific evaluation are part of a government case study of the Murrah Flora Reserve, and critical to the Southern Koala Recovery Plan. ”
and
” . . . Forest restoration in all State Forests is critical for Koala survival and the safety of locals and the thousands of summer visitors. “

Both of these sound too much like business as usual and it’s unlikely koalas will have a positive future, while management is not required or encouraged to change. 

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