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Koalas

 

The Bega District News recently reported that forests from Ulladulla to Eden, are one of 18,000 areas worldwide recognised as a biodiversity hotspot. The report coincides with the start of the NSW government’s broad acre forest burning season. After all, if one has a biodiversity hot spot logging and burning it are a priority.

Currently there are thousands of hectares burning, mostly to ‘reduce fuel loads’. Regrettably the fact that there is no science confirming burning reduces the chances of, or the intensity of a wildfire is seemingly lost on forest managers and the Rural Fire Service.

One of the areas proposed for burning is Bournda National Park, about 20 km south of here. In this case the NPWS plan to burn 600 hectares, about one quarter of the park area. According to NPWS area manager Stephen Dovey, the burn, north of Wallagoot lake, aims to ‘reduce fuel loads and reinvigorate native plants dependant on fire in their life cycle’.

However, the Bournda NP Management Plan, indicates ” . . . Much of the forest of the park and reserve was logged and regularly burnt prior to reservation and there are few large trees. The most intensively affected area was north of Wallagoot Lake, where species such as tree ferns have been largely removed and in places dense stands of Allocasuarina have replaced eucalypts. Protection from frequent fire will be important in encouraging return of these areas to a more natural condition and improvement of their habitat value (see section 4.1.4).”

Burning Allocasuarina stands, or adding disturbance to disturbance, is unlikely to encourage the return of these areas to a more natural condition. A more likely outcome will be an increased potential for wildfire, crown burning in the few remaining large trees and a new crop of Allocasuarina.

 

Earlier this year former forester and burning advocate Vic Jurskis, wrote an opinion piece titled ‘Too Many Koalas, Too Little Science’. While in this case he suggests radio collaring and tracking koalas around here will provide more information than the long term surveys. Vic’s main argument is that koalas are every where and regular burning is required to keep forests healthy and koala numbers down.

Vic suggests “ . . . Ecological research, environmental legislation and land management should be based on an appreciation of ecological history.” While I tend to agree with this statement, missing from Vic’s koala argument is the fact that the history of translocating ‘island’ koalas to locations in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and the ACT, has led to very different outcomes in different locations. 

At this location Vic indicates ” . . . I searched the area with fellow conservationists and members of South East Timber Association, Peter and Kerry Rutherford. In a short space of time, Kerry spotted a female koala with a joey on its back, clinging to a coppice stem growing from a cut stump in 35-year-old regrowth forest. I found no sign of koalas in a stand of old growth forest on the other side of the road. However, the old trees and the regrowth trees were all very conspicuously declining in health and their roots were smothered by dangerously heavy fuel loads of litter, shrubbery and fallen timber. The local population of koalas is clearly in a phase of irruption and is destined either for decline or for sudden destruction by wildfire.”

As Peter Rutherford is a member of the OE&H’s flora reserve management team, I’m expecting to see plumes of smoke any day now.

Lastly the photo taken last night, is a young wombat that has taken to digging large holes under the orchard fence, even after I put a wombat gate in for it. Thankfully on this occasion it used the gate for its entry and exit.   

The NSW Environment Protection Authority has released some more information about its forestry compliance checks, on the far south coast. According to EPA director of forestry, Michael Hood, “Our aim is to target high risk operations where there are important values to be protected, such as rivers and streams, or threatened ecological communities or species, such as koalas.”

In the first instance the Bega District News reported on logging in Tantawangalo State forest, where koalas are extinct. However, the EPA is still attempting to improve Forestry’s ability to identify and protect rocky outcrops. 

The second compliance issue, reported in the Narooma News, was in Cpt 3027 of Bodalla State Forest, west of Narooma. In this case and among other issues, local residents were concerned about logging in a ‘visual amenity buffer zone’. Exactly why they have such zones is unclear, because logging is allowed in them. So the EPA have sent a letter to Forestry, encouraging it to ‘engage with the local community’.

Like Tantawangalo, koalas are likely to be extinct in this part of Bodalla State Forest. However, the EPA, like the rest of the NSW government, is yet is acknowledge the changes to vegetation associated with the decline and loss of koalas.

Bell-miner associated die-back and Viney scrub – Murrah Flora Reserve

 

In the case of Compartment 3027, vegetation mapping undertaken for the Regional Forest Agreement found there was no Viney scrub in the area. Eighteen years later, Forestry Corporation estimates indicate more than 50 hectares of the compartment is now Viney scrub. This rapid and arguably permanent change to native forests has many adverse repercussions, but, like the threat posed to native arboreal species including koalas, these changes are completely ignored. Then there are the negative impacts on water quality, recently identified in coastal catchments in the Bega Shire.

While some believe these matters are important, over the past few weeks I’ve been attempting get some relatively simple information from the die-back deniers in the Office of Environment and Heritage. To date these attempts have not been successful. So, rather than wasting time with those employed allegedly to help koalas, the next attempts will be through the relevant NSW government ministers, along with federal and state parliamentarians.

It does seem to me that public servants who will not respond to the community, should either be required to do their job, resign or be dismissed from their positions.

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.

cuttagee-pe

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.

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