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.

No comments: