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Koalas declared endangered … Again?

Koalas declared endangered … Again?

While we were all busy preparing for the most important federal election in years on 21 May, the NSW state government quietly (the day before) declared the koala as endangered under its Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. As you all know, earlier in the year, the Commonwealth had announced the koala’s endangered listing at a national level for NSW, Qld and ACT.

When I started to research this article, surprisingly (or not?) I could not find much commentary about this latest announcement, only reports of the official media release.

The Commonwealth had cited the 2019-2020 fires a major factor for the koala’s endangered listing yet the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee’s findings stated that clearing of habitat for agriculture is a key driver of the koala’s decline, particularly in the western distribution of its range. The final determination noted that in the last twenty years, the numbers of koalas is estimated to have fallen by 50% even though in 2012 koalas were federally listed as vulnerable to extinction in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT.

Shockingly, a report by WWF in 2020, indicated that destruction of habitat actually increased since the vulnerable listing – in NSW, koala habitat destruction increased by about 32%, of this 62% was for forestry operations.1 The report states that a lack of enforcement of Commonwealth EPBC referral obligations and potentially also the EPBC Act exemption provided by the Regional Forest Agreement in NSW has rendered the Act ineffective in preventing koala habitat destruction. This has resulted in koalas and other threatened species being left to the mercy of inadequate state native vegetation laws which were weakened in Queensland in 2013 and in NSW in 2016.

So, what has to happen now?

It’s simple really …

  • Solutions must be found that halt further destruction of koala habitat especially on state forestry and privately-owned land.
  • There is no point of spending millions on captive breeding, which takes years, unless there is a guarantee that there will be suitable habitat available for release sites in the future.
  • Koalas are wild-life, not captive-life. As Robert Breault says, ‘The only creature on earth whose natural habitat is a zoo is the zookeeper.’

Of course, state and federal government policies and enforcement need to be strengthened but budgetary priorities need to change without delay. Alternatives such as incentives for large or smaller landowners need to be urgently implemented to slow or halt the clearing of habitat for grazing, agriculture, urbanisation, timber harvesting and mining. 

As Stuart Blanch from WWF said ‘It’s ministers who make decisions on development, it’s treasury officials who work out whether to put money into funding farms to support koalas or buying up native logging wood supply agreements in koala country.’

In February 2022, Carmel Northwood convenor of EcoNetwork’s Koala Koalition, spoke about how the Federal Endangered listing might save koalas. She said that it may lower the threshold for referrals to the Federal government for a final decision, but that with Sussan Ley’s past record of approving applications to clear koala habitat this may have little benefit. A draft National Recovery Plan was prepared some time ago, but it hasn’t been adopted, and it won’t have any ‘teeth’ without legislative change.

This could be significant now. We have had a change of government.  Tanya Plibersek is the new Environment Minister. Recovery Plans are back on the Commonwealth’s agenda. We have hope – we have to.

But what about the commitment from the NSW State Government? 

A NSW government spokesperson said it supports the independent committee’s decision to list koalas as endangered. ‘Through the $193.3 million NSW Koala Strategy, the NSW government has made the biggest financial commitment by any government to secure the future of koalas in the wild. The NSW Koala Strategy includes $107.1 million for koala habitat conservation, $19.6 million in community support for koala conservation, $23.2 million for a koala safety program and $43.4 million for science and research into the species.’

But where are the significant millions of dollars needed to permanently protect prime koala habitat?

Independent MP Justin Field called on the government to stop logging koala habitat in NSW’s state forests and public land. ‘Right now high quality koala habitat with resident koala populations is being logged in our state forests in NSW. That is simply unacceptable. There are lots of threats to koalas in NSW … but stopping the logging of koala habitat in our state forests is something Premier (Dominic) Perrottet can and should do now.’

Nature Conservation Council Deputy Chief Executive Jacqui Mumford said ‘The recently released NSW Koala Strategy was inadequate for protecting the species and we are seriously lacking a statewide mechanism to bring this iconic species back to a healthy population. Any party looking to lead NSW into the future needs to have this as a commitment.

How important is privately-owned property?

‘Relying on reserves is simply not enough. From the air, Australia is a patchwork quilt of farms, suburbs and fragmented forests. For many species, it has become difficult to find food sources and mates.’ According to a consortium of threatened species expert researchers writing for The Conversation ‘If we really want to protect our species, we must do more to bring in Australia’s farmers, landowners and other custodians of land. We cannot rely on protected areas alone. We need to make the land safer for our species most at risk, wherever they occur.’

The researchers emphasise that while ‘many landowners might want to help, financial constraints, a lack of knowledge or concerns over implications for resale of the land can be barriers.’

If we want to encourage more landowners to directly conserve species on their land, we must begin by understanding what they want. Only then can we design initiatives to help these species, as well as benefit and engage landowners.

Although koalas are not the focus of this research, it is clearly 100% applicable!

When will new Commonwealth laws apply?

An important point to note is that the elevation of the conservation status of koalas does not impact projects that are currently being assessed or that were approved before 12 February 2022. However, any new project that is determined to be a ‘controlled action’ under the EPBC Act because it has a significant impact on koalas will be assessed on the basis of the elevated endangered status.

For those readers wishing to delve deeper into the legislative process, senior solicitor Cerin Loane from the Environmental Defenders Office has provided a comprehensive update and summary of the implications of the Commonwealth listing.

EcoNetwork Port Stephens remains cautiously optimistic. Port Stephens Council had one of the first Comprehensive Koala Plans of Management in the state – the CKPoM and a Committee to specifically look after koala welfare. However, this committee has been instructed not to comment on any DA’s or destruction of habitat.

The real test is whether government and local councils are prepared to refuse development applications that threaten to destroy koala habitat and corridors. While the endangered listing will lower the threshold at which a development must be assessed, it remains to be seen whether conservation commitments will be honoured. If governments at all levels are serious about saving the koala from extinction, they should cease native forestry logging and ban the destruction of koala habitat on public and private land.

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