27 May, 2013

Experts warn Victorian logging laws may drive Leadbeater's possum to extinction

The World Today By Simon Lauder
ABC News, 27 May 2013

PHOTO: An estimated 1500 Leadbeater's Possum are left in the wild. (AAP: Healesville Sanctuary)

The Victorian Government has been accused of deliberately driving the state's prized animal emblem to extinction, by allowing logging in its habitat.

There are only an estimated 1,500 Leadbeater's possums left in the wild and the Federal Government wants the species to be put on the critically endangered list.

In a letter published in the journal Science, two conservation scientists have accused the Victorian Government of taking calculated actions to substantially reduce the viability of the endangered species.

One of the scientists, Australian National University ecologist Professor Lindenmayer, has studied the Leadbeater's possum and its habitat for more than 30 years.

"There are less Leadbeater's possums than there are Siberian tigers, fewer Leadbeater's possums than there are orangutans," he said.

"Our estimate is that Leadbeater's possum has probably (between) 15 and 30 years left."

Until last year he was an expert adviser to a Victorian Government committee committed to saving the possum.

But then he quit, in protest against the Government's logging practices.

Now the ANU scientist, in partnership with Professor Hugh Possingham from the University of Queensland, has written a scathing letter in the journal Science.

In the letter they say government-sanctioned legal logging of the reserve system, which is supposed to protect the possums, will significantly increase the chance of their extinction.

New government standards criticised

The possums live in old growth mountain ash, in hollows high up in the trees.

Professor Lindenmayer said new government standards for identifying the possum habitat in logging areas are not good enough.

He says surveyors will not be looking up properly into the hollows where possums live, and that means their habitat will be logged.

"One of the changes is ensuring that places that we know Leadbeater's possum will occur, are no longer going to be surveyed in ways that will detect the animal," he said.

"It's an effort to deliberately miss the fact that a suitable habitat exists. It's really quite extraordinary.

"The situation is that we know what Leadbeater's habitat looks like, we know where it occurs, we know where we shouldn't be logging.

"But this new approach will mean that suitable areas of forest will be logged, and they'll be clear-felled in ways which will mean the habitat will remain unsuitable for at least 150 to 200 years."

Vic Forests rejects professors' attack

PHOTO: Logging machinery among logged trees in the Sylvia Creek Forest. (User submitted: Wayne Heywood (file))
Lachlan Spencer, the planning director at the state government-owned logging company Vic Forests, rejects the professors' attack on the new survey standards.

"The survey standard doesn't replace anything," he said.

"In the past there was simply the prescriptions, which had some interpretive elements in them, this has led to differences in opinion.

"The regulator has created these survey standards to clarify what the prescriptions that have been in place for some 15 years mean, so we're all on the same page with regards to what should and shouldn't be protected."

Victoria's Environment Minister Ryan Smith and Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh were both in a cabinet meeting and unavailable for an interview with The World Today.

But in a statement, Mr Smith said the Victorian Government was committed to doing all it could to protect the Leadbeater's possum, including identifying better ways to protect the species and its key habitat.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke says he is deeply concerned by continued reports the possum is being put at risk.

Mr Burke says he is taken the unusual step of writing to the chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, asking the committee to consider listing Victoria's emblem as critically endangered.

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