16 April, 2015

Victorian state emblem Leadbeater's possum pushed closer to extinction

Tom Arup
The Age, 16/4/15

Victoria's state animal emblem, the Leadbeater's possum, is set to be formally recognised as being on the brink of extinction, leading to the Andrews government fast-tracking a program to identify more colonies of the species.

On the way out: A Leadbeater's possum. Photo: Ken Irwin
But the state government has again stopped short of backing a new national park to protect the Leadbeater's habitat, which conservationists and many scientists say is crucial to ensuring the species' survival.

Environment Minister Lisa Neville on Thursday announced measures to find more Leadbeater's through surveys, including infrared aerial mapping of habitat and remote camera surveys in planned logging areas.

It is understood federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt will declare next week that the Leadbeater's formal national threatened species status has deteriorated from "endangered" to "critically endangered", considered the last step before extinction in the wild.

There is no accurate estimate of how many Leadbeater's possums still live in the wild, though government modelling has previously put the range between 4000 and 10,000 with large caveats.

Concern for the species' survival soared after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires destroyed 45 per cent of its primary habitat in the state's central highland forests, north-east of Melbourne. Conservationists say continued logging of the species' habitat has further increased the pressure.

Hope grew among some environmentalists this week that the impending federal decision on the Leadbeater's conservation status might see the state government give some form of public support for a new national park.

Numerous conservationists and scientists – including Sir David Attenborough and Dr Jane Goodall – have supported a campaign to set up the "Great Forest National Park" in the region, which would encompass much of the highlands forest.

But the area is also one of the state's primary native forest logging areas.

During last year's state election campaign Labor had been expected to support a new national park in some way, but reportedly dumped the policy at the behest the CFMEU, which represents forestry workers.

Instead the Andrews government promised to establish a taskforce of industry, unions and green groups to reach common ground on issues facing forestry, including jobs, economic activity and environmental protection. Ms Neville said the relevant groups were now working on how the taskforce will operate.

"We will consider any reasonable proposals reached by consensus through the industry taskforce regarding the establishment of any new national parks," Ms Neville said.

The new survey program includes fast-tracking targeted searches to identify new Leadbeater's colonies, remote camera surveys by the state-owned timber company VicForests in forest to be cut down, and aerial surveys to identify possum habitat. The state government will also purchase and loan equipment for community surveys.

The surveys follow recommendations by a previous advisory panel, which was led by industry and Zoos Victoria and established by the Napthine government. The Andrews government says it is implementing the panel's recommendations, which did not include a new park and were criticised as being ineffective for the species' survival by environmentalists.

Australian National University ecologist, Professor David Lindenmayer, said: "This is not even Band-Aid stuff. We are dealing with a critically endangered animal in a critically endangered ecosystem. It needs real measures."

Campaigner from MyEnvironment Sarah Rees said the latest survey measures were dangerously close to status quo, "which is what is leading this animal to extinction."

"What we need is an improved reserve design, being the Great Forest National Park, to stop extinction, not a bunch of cameras, a search for habitat that does not exist and an expectation that the community will do the work of paid government personnel," she said.

04 March, 2015

Not just a pretty tail: The lyrebird is a superb firefighter

Darren Gray, Rural affairs reporter for The Age
The Age, 4/3/2015 

Superb lyrebirds reduced forest litter by 1.66 tonnes per hectare over a nine-month period. Photo: Alex Maisey

Victoria's forests have an unlikely fire warden: the superb lyrebird.

Lyrebirds are reducing the chance of fires occurring in the areas where they forage ... and unburnt patches within large wildfires are really important sites for animals to survive.

New research has revealed the iconic songbird reduces the risk of bushfire by spreading dry leaf litter and digging safe havens that help other species survive fires.

The lyrebird's foraging reduces forest fuel loads, which in turn can reduce the risk of life-threatening fires, researchers from La Trobe University have found.

With feet like garden rakes, and an appetite for worms and bugs that live in the soil, lyrebirds sift the forest floor, burying the leaf and other forest ltter, speeding up leaf decomposition, and reducing the amount of fuel for bushfires.

Their foraging was also found to inhibit the growth of ferns, grasses and other plants which would otherwise contribute more potential bushfire fuels.

The research, an honours project for student Daniel Nugent, quantifies the lyrebird's role in forest litter reduction.

Conducted in burnt and unburnt sites in the footprint of Black Saturday's two most devastating blazes, it showed that lyrebirds reduced forest litter by a massive 1.66 tonnes per hectare over a nine-month period.

Researchers produced these measurements by comparing the amount of litter in unfenced plots of the forest, with neighbouring plots that had been fenced off.

"Lyrebird foraging areas may therefore suppress the horizontal and vertical spread of fire, limiting the extent and severity of fire events. Our modelling suggests that the reduction in litter fuel loads brought about by lyrebird foraging has the potential to result in markedly subdued fire behaviour relative to that predicted in the absence of lyrebirds," the report said.

"The loss of lyrebirds from forests adjacent and within urban areas could result in higher fuel loads and an increased likelihood of wildfires threatening human life," said the report, published in the CSIRO's journal Wildlife Research.

Steve Leonard, research fellow in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution at La Trobe University, said lyrebirds performed their protective role as they searched for food.

"They forage like chickens, they've got big feet with really long toes so they've basically got rakes for feet. They rake through the litter looking for worms and little bugs, stuff to eat. They're digging through that humus and litter layer looking for little invertebrates and whatever they can find," he said.

"Through that process they reduce the litter fuel load by, on average, 25 per cent, or about 1.6 tonnes per hectare. And we put those figures into a fire behaviour model and found that that level of fuel reduction is enough [that] in low fire-danger weather conditions it excludes fire, fire's not possible under low to moderate conditions. But even in more extreme conditions the fire behaviour will be more moderate, [with] lower rates of spread, lower flame height, so a less intense fire," he said.

"Our conclusion is that lyrebirds are reducing the chance of fires occurring in the areas where they forage and the ecological significance of that is that unburnt patches within large wildfires are really important sites for animals to survive post-fire," Dr Leonard said.

Alex Maisey, convener of the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Survey Group, welcomed the research.

"It really shows that it's an important species to maintain through predator control of the fox, even deer control, for maintaining the habitat in those key areas where the lyrebirds breed," he said.

15 December, 2014

Native forest clearing on farms ban ditched by Tasmanian Government

ABC,  15 December 2014

Native forest clearing on farms ban ditched by Tasmanian Government - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

PHOTO: The plan to ban broad-scale land clearing on farms was due to come into effect next month. (Rose Grant)

The Tasmanian Government is confident a decision to scrap a plan to ban broad-scale land clearing will not breach its commitment to retain 95 per cent of the native forests that existed in 1996.

New rules that were expected to come into effect next month would have prevented farmers from clearing more than 20 hectares over five years.

But Resources Minister Paul Harriss has announced the limit will remain at 40 hectares a year while a review of the permanent native forest estate policy is undertaken.

"Business as usual will be available from the first of January 2015 to the first of January 2016," he said.

Mr Harriss said only 720 hectares were cleared last financial year.

"That 95 per cent of the native forest estate which existed in 1996 still has about 6,000 hectares in the bank," he said.

Vica Bayley of the Wilderness Society has warned broad-scale land clearing puts threatened species such as the orange-bellied swift parrot at risk.

VIDEO: Tas Government scraps ban on broad-scale land clearing (7pm TV News TAS)
"In some regions of Tasmania there's absolutely nothing left in the bank," he said.

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association's Jan Davis said the move will allow them to expand crops to capitalise on the benefits of new irrigation schemes.

"If it frees up some land for us it's an important part of the overall picture," she said.

Farmers are also calling for compensation for decreases to land value due to caps on clearing.

The policy review will form part of the $500,000 review of the Regional Forests Agreement.

30 October, 2014

Forestry Tasmania posts $43m loss, minister blames peace deal

ABC News ,  Thu 30 Oct 2014

The minister blames the peace deal for Forestry Tasmania's financial woes.

PHOTO: The minister blames the peace deal for Forestry Tasmania's financial woes. (ABC, Jessica Kidd)
The Tasmanian Government is blaming the forest peace deal brokered under its predecessor for another big loss posted by Forestry Tasmania.

The Government-owned forest estate manager lost $43.1 million after tax in the financial year that ended in June.

That was despite the previous Labor-Greens government handing the company $37 million during the year in a bid to keep it solvent.

Resources Minister Paul Harris told Parliament the peace deal that led to the creation of new native forest reserves was to blame for the result.

"Forestry Tasmania has had another very challenging year," he said.

"It has advised me that the reduction in land area under the Tasmanian Forest Agreement (TFA) was a significant contributor to its difficulties."

Greens MP Nick McKim claimed the loss was the result of poor markets

28 October, 2014

Committees stacked to provide 'right' outcome

David Blair, senior research officer, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University
The Age, letter, 28 October 2014

First the review into the renewable energy target by climate sceptic Dick Warburton; now an inadequate report on the Great Barrier Reef written by a committee lacking independent experts, but containing coal industry representatives ("Scientific academy slams government's Great Barrier Reef plan", 28/10). Both are examples of government handpicking a review committee to provide an outcome desirable to its ideology and backers, rather than doing what is best for the country.

In Victoria we see the same thing. The Alpine Advisory Committee, which is helping rewrite the Greater Alpine National Parks Management Plan, is stacked with cattlemen and those wishing to exploit the alpine parks rather than protect the sensitive environment.

Meanwhile, the Leadbeater's Possum Advisory Group has recently rewritten the Action Statement (which dictates management) for our state faunal emblem. Who was selected to provide expertise on saving this threatened species? VicForests' chief executive and timber industry support groups are on the panel, while the two leading ecologists who have studied the species for decades are not. Furthermore, the terms of reference set by the government explicitly tied the survival of Leadbeater's Possum to the health of the extractive industry that threatens it and VicForests will get a significant part of the funding earmarked for "saving" the possum.

22 September, 2014

Environmentalists sue over threat to owls

Bridie Smith, Science Editor
The Age, September 22, 2014

Vulnerable ... the powerful owl. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
Environmentalists are suing the state government for failing to look after three threatened species of owl found in key logging areas of Gippsland.

Green group Environment East Gippsland launched the legal action in the Supreme Court on Monday, alleging the Department of Environment and Primary Industries and VicForests had failed to set aside areas in the Gippsland Forest to protect the powerful, sooty and masked owls.

Environment East Gippsland co-ordinator Jill Redwood said the Goongerah-Deddick fires in January and February this year burnt 170,000 hectares of forest. Legally, the government was required to review and secure replacement forest areas considered as suitable habitat for the owls, she said.

A four-year-old masked owl. The species is listed as endangered. Photo: Sandy Scheltema
The powerful and sooty owls are listed as vulnerable and the masked owl as endangered, according to Victoria's Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.

Action statements for the management of the powerful and masked owls state each species requires at least 100 areas of 500 hectares each, while the sooty owl needs 131 areas of at least 500 hectares.

"The government is in total contempt of their own laws," Ms Redwood said. "When you get a response from the minister that shows they are more devoted to the logging industry than to the law that says we need to protect our threatened wildlife, then there's nowhere else to go but the courts."

Ms Redwood said East Gippsland was considered a stronghold for the owls because the age of the forest meant it was ideal habitat for the birds of prey.

"They need that vast area of old-growth hollow trees because they prey on gliders like the greater glider and the yellow-bellied glider,"she said.

VicForests spokesman David Walsh said there was currently no logging taking place in any of the four coupes mentioned in the writ, although harvesting was forecast for 2015. However, he said VicForests was keen to work with Environment East Gippsland to resolve any concerns the group had.

A spokesman for the Department of Environment and Primary Industries said the government was committed to ensuring the state's native forests were managed to ensure threatened species and other native flora and fauna were protected.
"The department has a comprehensive framework in place to protect native species during timber harvesting operations, including forestry management plans and a code of practice for timber harvesting operations," the spokesman said.

27 August, 2014

There’s an urge to fuel reduction burn, but not to learn

Phil Ingamells, Victorian National Parks Association spokesman
Weekly Times Now, 278 August 2014 

FOR three years the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission’s independent monitor Neil Comrie has strongly advised the Victorian Government to abandon one of the commission’s recommendations: the call to burn 390,000ha of public land annually for fuel reduction.

Yet Environment Minister Ryan Smith is sticking to that target and, even more puzzling, DEPI plans to increase that annual target to an extraordinary 450,000ha.

Former police chief commissioner Comrie understands the importance of fuel reduction, but he sees the target as unachievable, and that it compromises a strategic burn program.

He says it “will not necessarily reduce the bushfire risk to life and property, and may have adverse environmental outcomes”. That’s an expensive lose-lose situation.

Minister Smith says he is listening to the latest science, but is he?

Five leading fire behaviour scientists in Australia, Canada and the US have demonstrated that managing the ignition point of a fire through increased capacity for rapid attack, and by closing public access to remote areas during high fire danger days, was more effective in reducing the extent of fire than fuel management.

And other published papers, from leading Australian fire scientists and ecologists, convincingly show that fuel reduction burns are most effective when performed close to the assets they are meant to protect. This is the sort of strategic effort — small, difficult and expensive local burns — that Neil Comrie says is less likely to happen when managers are struggling to sign off on a large area target.

Many studies show that we now have very little long-unburnt bush left in Victoria, even in remote areas such as the Mallee, and that the impacts on native wildlife are serious and growing.

One of the best ways to survive a severe bushfire is to have your own well-designed bunker at your home. That crucial fact never made it to the commission’s final recommendations.

We need to develop a more comprehensive strategy for bushfire management and direct more attention to the whole range of available tools, including building a serious rapid attack capability, encouraging well-designed bunkers in existing homes, and developing a far more strategic burn program. Lives would be saved, and our great natural heritage would benefit.

Phil Ingamells is Victorian National Parks Association spokesman