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Mining

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.

 

 

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Following up on the National Koala Conference, with thanks to Cheryl for providing the link, a detailed blog post has been written titled ‘Koalas are being driven towards extinction’.

While convincing me that the Federal government’s listing should have applied to all koalas. I am also supportive of the suggestion that ” . . . for koalas to survive, protection of their habitat has to be the top priority.”

The only problem being, understanding what is happening to koala habitat is not straight forward, even when it’s supposedly protected.

For example, at Gunnedah, where 25% of koalas died during a heatwave in 2009, researchers have been providing water to koalas, from ‘blinky drinkers’, designed by a local farmer.
They have found koalas are regularly drinking water during winter, when the research began. This departure from the general perception, that koalas get all their water from leaves, could reflect a reduction in soil fertility, including Soil Water Holding capacity.

Another threat to this population is the proposed Shenhua Watermark Coal mine. The NSW government has recently bought back the rights to 51% of the coal exploration area. Unfortunately, this area is largely cropping land and the areas occupied by koalas remain under threat.

Also speaking at the conference was James Fitzgerald, about the growing koala population on the southern tablelands and their bark chewing. According to James koalas are drawn to particular trees that have a higher sodium content in the bark. Hence, they are raking around the base of these trees to protect them from fuel reduction burns.

Another approach, given trees can only lose so much bark before they die, would be to provide ‘salt licks’ for koalas. These are readily available at any stock feed outlet and could help both koalas and trees.

There isn’t reference to the talk about south coast koalas in the article. Although with regard to fuel reduction burning, the timber in the photo below is from dead Silver-top ash, the main eucalyptus regrowth after integrated logging. All of this biomass, taken from a 10 x 10 metre plot, would be consumed in a fuel reduction burn.

The next shot is shows the timber from particular live and dead Allocasuarina littoralis trees, in the same plot. Most of these trees would die in a fuel reduction burn, largely cancelling any benefit from the burning.

The benefits from removing some of the trees include, actually lowering the potential impact of wildfire on live eucalyptus, maintaining soil cover and habitat for ground dwelling species, along with providing woody biomass for other more useful and less polluting purposes.

All up, just over 1 cubic metre of of woody biomass, equating to something above 100 tonnes per hectare, has been removed from the plot. If this growth had all gone into eucalyptus trees, the Forestry Corporation could rightly claim its management works. Shame about that.

Last words on the Cooma- Monaro Shire’s koala plan, comments are due on Wednesday, another threat to koalas in the area is mining. According to one of the appendices “ . . . With test drilling now in the Macanally NR it is possible that mining may again become a significant issue that those responsible for koala conservation will ne3ed (sic) to consider.”

As indicated in the map below, what is referred to as Macanally Nature Reserve is actually Macanally State Conservation Area. The difference between the two being the latter, State Conservation Areas, are is seemingly available for mining , but the former, Nature Reserves apparently aren’t. There are ten reserves between Bredbo and Nimmitabel totaling 10,814 hectares, however close to 60% of this (6,360ha) is in State Conservation Areas. So it seems likely that  ‘those responsible for koala conservation’ may  need to consider more than one mine, in more than one state conservation area.

Indeed while Macanally State Conservation Area wasn’t indicated as an area with ‘commodities’ during the RFA process, there up to 9 such areas and several more adjacent to Kybeyan SCA. Among the precious things that need to be dug up asap are gold, silver,lead, copper etc.

commoditiescmkcLike logging, mining is generally not compatible with koala conservation. For those responsible for koala conservation and for the animals dealing with such issues, the outcome can be increased levels of stress.  So it was interesting to read the outcomes of research, published in PLOS ONE, finding around a third of marsupials and half of the wombats tested for the research had active herpes virus infections.

Although the research is aimed at limiting the spread of disease in zoos, in wild populations, animals stressed with chlamydia or  sarcoptic mange where found to be more likely to suffer from herpes.

I have wondered whether those the NSW government have chosen to take on the responsibility of koala management are fully aware of what they are being lumbered with. Ending up with a stress related disease for attempting to save a national icon does seem like cruel and unusual punishment.

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