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Fires last straw for already dying koalas

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(Image via @KoalaCrisis / Facebook)

Koalas – along with Australia’s environment – are in dire straits, governed by politicians whose ignorance is literally costing the Earth.

The sun is blood red. Smoke fills the air like a heavy impenetrable fog covering trees with thick curtains of burned vegetation nanoparticles.

In the forests, the big trees are dying, their leaves curling up in a last gasp for water before they drop on the bone dry earth, creating a catastrophic loss of food and shelter for dependent animals. More fuel for more bushfires.

The sheer extent of the fires and their horrific intensity are the last straw for the koala populations in New South Wales, where well over 1,650,000 hectares have burnt with 75 fires still raging.

Key koala habitats have been lost. Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Taree, Kempsey, Wardell, Clarence Valley, Lismore, Byron Bay have all suffered catastrophic bushfires together with Far North Coast forests — the heartlands of koalas.

Mainstream media has focused on an estimated 350 koalas lost to the fires in Port Macquarie. Yet the death toll is far more widespread and almost certainly spells widespread extinction for the koala, with few remaining healthy colonies surviving.

No mention has been made by any politicians that prior to the bushfires, forests were dying as a result of drought. Wildlife carers report that months before the fires broke out, koalas were coming into care dehydrated and suffering from malnutrition.

Carers at Koalas In Care Inc in Taree say koalas were already depleted as a result of no food and no water well before the inferno. Koalas rescued from the fires arriving at the shelter are very stressed.

A volunteer told IA:

Some are shaking from shock, we hydrate them, give them pain relief and food. It’s a massive effort. We’ve had several dozen come in, so many with burns. With so many areas still burning, we’re unable to search for any survivors. 

Then there’s the issue of where to release the survivors? The leaves from relevant forest areas remaining are unable to provide the moisture and nutrients koalas need to survive. 

In Lismore, at Friends of the Koala, a dozen or so koalas have come in from the fires. No one knows how many have died.  

President Roz Irwin sums up the situation statewide: 

“We were in a bad state before the fires, now this catastrophe. There’s nowhere we can release them that ensures their safety with the constant threat of more bushfires.”

Which raises the next question. New South Wales and Queensland koalas need to have their listing, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), upgraded from "vulnerable" to "critically endangered" — a designation which would provide better protection than the current grossly inadequate situation.

But thanks to former Federal Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt, the likelihood of any recognition of the calamitous state of remaining populations is unlikely.

In 2015, Hunt signed off on the Common Assessment Method (CAM), yet another major step forward in the Coalition government’s significant efforts to ensure the extinction of Australia’s wildlife, including the koala. 

All state governments agreed to the Intergovernmental memorandum of understanding – Agreement on a common assessment method for listing of threatened species and ecological communities (‘the Memorandum of Understanding’).

The Memorandum of Understanding supported the adoption of the Common Assessment Method (CAM) for listing threatened species, in order to reduce duplication of effort and achieve greater consistency in the classification of species across Australia.

Implementation of the CAM will lead to the creation of a single classification for species across Australia, reducing regulatory complexity for both the community and industry.

Using the common assessment method, participating jurisdictions will work together to ensure that species are assessed and, where warranted, listed in only one "nationally threatened" category.

The outcome is a "Single Operational List" of nationally threatened species.

There was no opportunity for public submissions, legal challenges or discussions as the CAM was agreed to behind closed doors.

Given that the regions and areas specific to wildlife species vary considerably with different ecological drivers, a national listing makes no scientific sense, further removing any attempt to protect a regional population.

Port Stephens' koalas provide a classic example. On l8 March 2015, an extensive scientific submission was provided to the NSW Scientific Committee in support of upgrading koalas in the Port Stephens Local Government Area (LGA) from "threatened" status to an "endangered" population under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.

Data collected in 2014 demonstrated a significant decline in the koala population since the early 2000s when it was estimated to be 300-500 animals. The submission estimated a 75 per cent reduction in koala habitat in the Port Stephens area since European settlement.

The Committee made a "Preliminary Determination" in support of the proposal to list the koalas as endangered: 

“ ... in the opinion of the NSW Scientific Committee, the population is facing a very high risk of extinction in NSW in the near future.”

The determination was put on exhibition from 18 August to 13 October 2017. 

One week later, on 25 August, the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1955 was repealed and replaced by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. A new, renamed, "Scientific Threatened Species Committee" was appointed and the upgrading of Port Stephens's koalas was rejected.

The rejection letter indicated the Scientific Committee was required to consider the assessment criteria and procedures under a Common Assessment Method agreed to between the Commonwealth, states and territories, which provided grounds for the refusal.

Further advice indicated that a population is not eligible to be listed as endangered if the species is separately listed as "vulnerable" under the Federal Environment Protection & Biodiversity Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

Ironically, the plight of Port Stephens koalas had considerably worsened, with three major bushfires destroying critical habitat and incurring a significant loss of koalas. Australians for Animals Inc spent months with NSW Environmental Defenders Office attempting to mount a challenge the Port Stephens rejection but there are no legal provisions in the CAM which allow for any challenges.

There are no triggers under NSW, Queensland or Commonwealth environmental legislation to prevent extinction.

Only state governments can make submissions under CAM to upgrade ( or downgrade species).   

Add to this deadly mix the Commonwealth Species Expert Assessment Plan (SEAP) developed by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee 'developed to encourage and support expert groups to undertake status review assessments of a particular taxon or group of species and submit a status report to the Committee for consideration that may result in recommendations to amend the (EPBC Act) list of threatened species'.

As IA has tracked the potential timeline of any hypothetical status review assessment, the end game is likely to take years.  When the final assessment is put before the responsible environment minister to approve, it is his/her right to reject the assessment.

This is the short version of a web of complexities, all designed to ensure that species such as koalas on the verge of extinction will be history. 

One of the tactics employed by state and federal governments to enshrine efforts to downgrade environmental legislation and protection is to create agencies, strategic assessments, bilateral agreements, guidelines and regulations way beyond the understanding of community organisations and conservation groups battling to save wildlife.

An urgent, independent population estimate of NSW koalas must be undertaken when the fire season ends. The results must be made public so that people can be made aware of any failure by the Berejiklian and Morrison governments to take urgent steps to upgrade the koala under the EPBC Act.

Australia’s environment is in dire straits, governed by politicians whose ignorance is literally costing the Earth.

You can donate to help injured and displaced koalas at Koalas in Care Inc HERE.
You can donate to help the NSW Rural Fire Service HERE.

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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