By David C. Paull
In early February this year, I appeared as a witness to the New South Wales Upper House Inquiry into Koala populations and habitat in New South Wales as someone who had worked extensively with Koalas in the north-west of NSW.
It was a fairly gloomy hearing as the Committee struggled to digest the lack of good news on the future for Koalas west of the divide. While forests west of the divide were spared the worst parts of the recent bushfire season, with some exceptions, eg. Mt Kaputar National Park lost over 80% of its total area, Koalas have been declining in this region over the last 20 years for a variety of factors, not least declining habitat conditions and extent. In particular, one question gave me pause to think, going to the heart of the matter one which requires a better and urgent examination of our attitudes to conservation more generally.
The question was, why has there been little apparent action in relation to Koala conservation west of the divide? Here is my written response.
The overwhelming answer to this question principally lies in the dominant political culture in western NSW and a corresponding lack of political will from government to act. Both at state and federal levels, political representation has been dominated by the National Party. Generally, strong advocates of farmer and property rights, this has tended to play out as a dominant narrative stressing the need to reduce the role of government agencies in farm management, compliance and planning. According to this narrative, nature conservation, instead of being something that could be compatible with farming, or indeed beneficial, has been framed as being anti-farmer, especially matters relating to wildlife. This is even though wildlife is protected under state jurisdiction. Instead, governments have just wanted to ‘lock-up’ people’s land we were told.
This paradigm is reflected also in local government, who in the north-west of NSW, have tended to represent wealthier farming and business interests and more recently, have acted as advocates for mining (such as Gunnedah and Narrabri Councils). In my view, over a long time, the National Party, NSW Farmers and the National Farmers Federation have used property rights as a political tool to wage a culture war against ‘greenies’ and ‘latte sippers from the city’ in order to bring into disrepute any concerns for the environment that local people and the wider community may have. This seems to have become ingrained in our regional culture.
But in many ways, this view does not reflect the sentiments of people living in these communities who have genuine concerns for wildlife and the environment more generally but whose voice remains unheard in Macquarie Street.
Notable property rights advocates from Barwon have included Ian Slack-Smith and his successor Kevin Humphries. The latter having a strong ally in Barnaby Joyce at the federal level. The Guardian and ABC investigations have shown how Mr Humphries encouraged illegal land-clearing, giving a ‘green light’ at farmer meetings and strongly lobbying for a decrease in vegetation regulation. He and others have acted as a sort of guarantor for producers against legal repercussions, real or imagined.
The current Native Vegetation Act and associated regulations now shows the lobbying efforts by the property rights champions has borne fruit, with its focus on self-assessment and less restrictions, along with the Biodiversity Conservation Act which now allows the unrestricted removal of threatened ecological communities and Koala habitat.
An example the extent of the anti-environment culture war west of the divide comes from one wildlife carer from the Croppa Creek area who was subject to intimidation and death threats by some landowners, just for advocating for Koala welfare. One of these landowners was later found guilty of illegal land-clearing, but not before he had murdered an OEH compliance officer. Such is the level of intimidation that comes from individuals influenced by the property rights lobby. To this day, virtually no planning for Koala conservation has occurred on the Moree Plains and clearing continues seemingly unabated.
The other mechanism by which Koala habitat could be protected is SEPP44. This requires local governments working with state government to implement Comprehensive Koala Management Plans which have an objective of minimising loss of koala habitat (but never completely protecting all potential koala habitat). The lack of will among local government to implement this statutory planning policy west of the divide is further testament to the success of the property rights lobby. Moree, Warialda, Inverell, Warrumbungle and Narrabri in particular, who all have (or had) documented, significant Koala populations, have never seen any attempt by government to implement SEPP44 CKPoMs in these LGAs.
The revised SEPP44 set to be implemented on March 1st, has actually less statutory protection for Koala habitat than the previous version, and no longer has any requirement for a site-specific Plan of Management.
The exception is Gunnedah Council, being the self-proclaimed ‘Koala Capital’, who have toyed with the concept of a CKPoM for over 10 years, though in the end preferring to implement a non-statutory ‘Koala Strategy’ which allows the removal of core Koala habitat using an offset mechanism. This is also despite funding received by Council from BHP to conduct LGA-wide Koala surveys and two grants under the Save Our Species Program to set up a CKPoM.
Another factor which is likely to have assisted Gunnedah Council’s decision to defer implementation of a CKPoM was the perception that Koalas were common in the LGA. Council, using the firm ‘BioLoaning Greenstudies’ and in conjunction with Dr Steve Philips, conducted surveys in key Koala areas who provided an estimated population size of over 12,000 animals for the LGA in 2014. However, issues with the methodology and how this estimate was derived has brought this into question. The view that Koalas are common and therefore not a significant conservation issue, has little scientific credibility today.
Previous studies have shown that Gunnedah populations were under decline by 2009. This has been further verified by more recent estimates which describe a population decline of approximately 80% from pre-decline levels with estimates of current population size in the LGA at perhaps less than 2,000, based on published and unpublished surveys along with current local knowledge.
The documented decline of the Pilliga Koalas should be viewed in context with the Gunnedah population. The Pilliga decline has occurred within intact, extensive forest and is primarily attributed to ongoing drought, possibly due to the early signs of climate-associated warming, a factor identified in the Gunnedah area. Pilliga Koala densities first decreased notably during the millennial drought and through the 2000s. 2013/14 surveys suggest that there may not have been more than 100 Pilliga animals at this time, compared to a pre-decline population of somewhere between 5-10,000 animals. The estimate of 12,000 animals in the Gunnedah LGA probably better reflects the pre-decline population size.
But the situation for Koalas in the north-west has become worse in recent years. Severe drought over the last 3 years has seen the Pilliga Koalas virtually disappear and increased rates of mortality and disease in the remaining Gunnedah/Liverpool Plains populations have been observed (based on work by North-west Local Land Service).
On the Liverpool and Moree Plains, the last twenty years has seen significant land-clearing on top of the warming climate and so, Koalas have been subject to significant pressure on habitat availability and quality over this time. Gunnedah populations are also subject to relatively high levels of vehicle collision and dog attack, much more so than the Pilliga animals had been.
Over the last 20 years, there has been relatively little active Koala habitat conservation work in the north-west, restricted to a small number of landowners where tree plantings and conservation agreements have occurred. Today, much of the effort to conserve Koala habitat in the north-west has been undertaken by the Local Land Service with some funding now available for private land conservation from the NSW Biodiversity Trust. The latter is in the early days and take-up has been limited, restricted by minimum area rules and limited funding.
Besides working with supportive landowners, the North-west LLS has a Koala Corridor Plan which is aimed to prioritise Koala conservation efforts in the Gunnedah LGA. It has been conducting ‘baseline surveys’, as the Gunnedah population has always suffered from a lack of understanding of the distribution and number of animals in the shire though recent surveys better reflect current post decline numbers, rather than a ‘baseline’. The total area of Koala habitat trees planted out by landowners in the Gunnedah area amounts to less than 100 hectares in total, however, recent work is starting to increase this. Other Local Land Service groups, such as the New England LLS are also conducting surveys and drawing up plans to strategically increase koala habitat.
These measures are encouraging but still lags well behind levels of habitat loss from land-clearing throughout the north-west over the last twenty years, particularly on the Liverpool Plains and the Moree (Northern) Floodplains, where thousands of hectares of Koala habitat have been cleared. The removal of over 1,000 ha of Koala habitat by mining companies in the Leard State Forest and the proposed level of clearing associated with Shenuha’s Watermark Mine further highlight the deficit that future plantings and habitat enhancement need to address. Once again, a program of offsets and translocation is proposed, which is actually in contravention of the existing operational NSW wildlife translocation policy as it is to facilitate mine development.
In conclusion, any regional conservation targets will remain largely meaningless given the past loss and future anticipated loss of Koala habitat under current private land vegetation management, offset and SEPP44 policies and regulations.
Unless there is a profound shift pervading private land conservation politics in NSW and better protections put in place (private lands support the majority of remaining Koalas), wild populations of Koalas in the north-west of NSW may soon be a thing of the past. But this isn’t just about Koalas, it is about the dubious-looking future of ecosystems and biodiversity in general, west of the ‘sandstone curtain’ unless the public makes a stand.
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