Tom Arup, Environment editorThe Age, August 16, 2013
Victoria's endangered faunal emblem, the Leadbeater's possum, has insufficient habitat to ensure the species' long-term survival, a leaked report commissioned by the state government has found.
The findings have potential implications for Victoria's timber industry, with the cabinet-in-confidence report suggesting tens of thousands more hectares of forest habitat is needed to give Leadbeater's the best chance of avoiding extinction.
The research - from the state government's Arthur Rylah Institute - investigated the status of threatened species in the central highlands forests, which were ravaged by the Black Saturday bushfires.
The highlands are the last main home for Leadbeater's, but also a primary logging area. Conservationists and scientists say logging has contributed to the possum's decline. The timber industry says fire is the predominant problem.
Institute researchers surveyed 180 sites throughout the highlands, finding Leadbeater's at just 29 locations. None were found at any of the 30 surveyed sites burnt during the 2009 fires.
All up, 45 per cent of the Leadbeater's 30,500-hectare permanent reserve was burnt in 2009. The report does not include an estimate on possums populations.
''The analysis predicts that the population of Leadbeater's possum within the reserve system has a high likelihood of being at a very low population size, which imposes on the species a greater risk of extinction, and that the existing reserve is insufficient to ensure the long-term persistence of the species,'' the report says.
The report also determined the chances of the species maintaining a population of 500 females, considered critical for survival, in different habitat sizes.
It found 46,000 hectares of unburnt, viable Leadbeater's habitat exists in reserves and national parks, of which the animal likely occupies about 15,000 hectares.
To have a strong survival chance, 56,000 hectares is needed under a best-case scenario of no bushfires. Otherwise, the area needed increases to 67,000 to 171,000 hectares.
ANU forest expert Professor David Lindenmayer this week called in a public speech for a new highlands national park to be established. But when contacted he refused to comment on the report citing a confidentiality agreement, as did other authors and contributors.
The researchers also studied the viability of long-footed potoroos in East Gippsland - another logging area - finding reserve systems alone are insufficient to ensure the species' conservation.
The state government has formed a Leadbeater's advisory group, headed by the timber industry and Zoos Victoria, to consider issues such as the size of habitat reserves. A government spokesman said it expected the report to be made public in the near future.