By Mike Foley June 21, 2020 — 5.13pm
A recovery plan to help bring koala populations back to health is five years overdue, despite warnings from experts that new research shows the species faces fresh challenges to cling on to its remnant habitat.
When the status of koalas was changed to vulnerable in 2012, the federal government took the advice of the Threatened Species Commission and committed to create a recovery plan.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley warned last year that the status of koalas in various locations may be downgraded to endangered due to bushfires. CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN
Recovery plans are an instrument of national environment laws and come with a three-year deadline to implement and fund. Their purpose is “to maximise the long-term survival” of wildlife. A one-off three-year extension is permitted, which former environment minister Greg Hunt issued for the koala plan in 2015. This is now two years overdue.
Australian National University ecologist Kara Youngentob said a recovery plan should “absolutely be a priority”, as forestry operations in some areas were damaging koala habitat and contributed to monocultures in forests.
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After disturbance from logging and fire, just one species of tree was growing back to dominate the forest and creating “food deserts” for koalas, said Dr Youngentob.
“Their populations are like little lights and they will continue to blink out across their habitat range until it’s totally dark,” she said.
“The current protections in place aren’t enough to ensure populations don’t continue to decline. There have been localised extinctions and they may continue.”
Australian Conservation Foundation policy analyst James Trezise said a recovery plan was needed urgently, particularly because koalas “have been smashed by last summer’s bushfires“.
“This is an iconic species that people hold dear and it’s invaluable to Australia’s culture and also to the tourism industry,” Mr Trezise said.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the recovery plan process required state and territory collaboration. States had “only recently” completed their draft plans, which had to occur before the national plan could be finalised, she said.
“The national draft recovery plan is now being updated to respond to the 2019-20 bushfires and their impact on koalas and their habitat,” Ms Ley, said, adding that once in place the national recovery plan could fund initiatives including National Landcare, the Environment Restoration Fund and the Communities Environment Program.
Dr Youngentob has published a peer-reviewed study of NSW’s South Coast forests and is preparing a similar study for the North Coast with another ANU ecologist, Karen Ford, supported by the NSW Forestry Corporation.
She found that to get adequate nutrition, koalas needed to browse from the right tree species, but logging practices were reducing habitat in different ways on the North and South coasts.
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“The logging activity on the South and North coasts favours silver ash and blackbutt, respectively,” Dr Youngentob said.
“On the North Coast blackbutt is favoured by the forestry industry because it offers good hardwood and regrows quickly. Silvertop ash is favoured on the South Coast, for the same reasons. Silvertop ash seeds prolifically after fire, but intervention is required to seed blackbutt.
“The North Coast really should be good koala habitat, but it is also very good people habitat, so it’s getting developed and the remaining habitat is becoming more and more fragmented.
“On the South Coast the change is so dramatic you could go from the current moderate to low-density populations to no koalas. The koalas there are very sensitive to landscape change and it really doesn’t take a lot to cause localised extinctions.”
Mike Foley is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.