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Threatened species or extinct industries?

By Mark Poynter - posted Monday, 3 April 2017


Last week, the Nationals’ leader Barnaby Joyce called for a review of the ‘critically endangered’ conservation status of Victoria’s Leadbeater’s Possum in light of its impact on the future of the nation’s largest remaining native hardwood sawmill at Heyfield. Despite predictable derision aimed at him for daring to even suggest such a course of action, there is a need to examine the wider relationship between threatened species and the future of Australian resource use industries. 

For example in Victoria’s forests, a state government protocol mandates the automatic establishment of a substantial buffer area around any confirmed detection of particular threatened species. While the 12 hectare circular reserve generated around each new Leadbeater’s Possum detection has been recently publicised, it is not as widely appreciated that glider and owl species detections can automatically generate far bigger reservations of up to 100 hectares.

This has inspired a small battalion of environmental activists to lay down their placards to become self-proclaimed ‘citizen scientists’ fully aware that each confirmed sighting of a threatened or rare species generates another forest reservation. Clearly this has potential to cripple or destroy regional timber industries that have already been squeezed out of the majority of productive forests by the expansion of national parks and other conservation reserves over the past 20-years.

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There is nothing wrong with learning more about the distributions of threatened species, but automatic protection protocols have incentivised research effort primarily in designated wood production forests. In Victoria, only 6% of the public forests are designated for long-term wood supply while the remaining 94% is in various forms of reservation that already protects most flora and fauna, including threatened species. Yet, because most wildlife surveying is occurring only in this ‘unprotected’ 6% of the forest, the vast majority of the best habitat is not being surveyed. This is skewing perceptions about how endangered or threatened these particular species actually are.

The designated wood production forests are easier to survey because they are well roaded specifically because of their intended use. On the other hand national parks, in particular, typically have limited accessibility either by design or due to years of insufficient funding to maintain former roads and tracks. However, it is also clear that the survey bias towards the wood production zones is largely driven by a predilection to ‘save’ more threatened species, whereas those living within national parks and reserves are regarded as having already been ‘saved’.

What has also become apparent from the Leadbeater’s Possum example is that many conservation scientists are troubled by timber harvesting in native forests and display a lack of perspective about its environmental impact. This can be reflected in their reluctance to accept harvesting as a temporary disturbance or even to appreciate that most forests are not available for use. Unfortunately such thinking often underpins formal assessments of threats to endangered species and their conservation status, which can create an unwarranted imperative for political decisions that invariably have devasting impacts on the future of resource use industries and the rural communities that rely on them.

This is ably exemplified by how the Leadbeater’s Possum came to be listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the Federal Government during 2015. At a superficial level, the possum’s elevated threat status didn’t pass the ‘pub test’ given that other Victorian ‘critically endangered’ species have comparatively tiny remnant populations and ranges. For example, the ‘critically endangered’ Helmetted Honey-eater and Orange-bellied Parrot at that time had respectively just 130 and less than 50 individuals remaining in the wild in very limited pockets of suitable habitat. Contrary to this, the Leadbeater’s Possum population was estimated by Victorian Government scientists in 2014 at between 4,000 and 11,000 individuals occurring across a range of approximately 5600 square kilometres.

Despite its relative abundance, the Federal Government elevated the possum to the ‘critically endangered’ list on the basis of recommendations contained in a 52-page ‘Conservation Advice’ provided by its Threatened Species Scientific Committee (the TSSC). Informed analysis of this document has found that its conclusions were based on: 1) a grossly understated area of suitable habitat;  2) insufficient  consideration of the known capacity of the possum to recover from disturbances such as severe wildfire and timber harvesting; and 3) the misconception that habitat area is directly analogous to animal population which is at odds with the clumped distribution of the species.   These flaws raise considerable doubts over the magnitude of the TSSC’s assumed extent of Leadbeater’s Possum population decline over the previous three generations (18 years), which is the key trigger for a ‘critically endangered’ listing.

The TSSC’s ‘Conservation Advice’ was apparently heavily reliant on just one scientist, Professor David Lindenmayer. Lindenmayer is the acknowledged world expert on Leadbeater’s Possum, but in 2012 he reportedly initiated the concept of a ‘Great Forest National Park’ that would supposedly save the possum while killing-off the regional timber industry. Since then he has acted as the leading spokesperson for the campaign for the proposed new national park being run by environmental activist groups such as My Environment and the Wilderness Society.

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His high profile involvement in this campaign has been typified by often alarmist rhetoric on matters such as timber supply, tourism, and regional employment for which he has no special expertise. His public utterances specifically about the possum have: 1) strategically ignored the fact that 70% of the possum’s preferred mountain ash forest type is already in parks, reserves, or closed water catchments that are out-of-bounds to the timber industry; 2) asserted that limited timber harvesting rather than widespread severe fire is the primary threat to the possum; 3) overstated the amount of timber harvesting; and 4) cited timber harvesting as being primarily responsible for the lack of old growth mountain ash forest despite it being primarily due to the 1926 and 1939 bushfires which in combination killed around 80% of the forest.  

Accordingly most of today’s ash-type forest is 80 – 90 years old regrowth stemming from those fires. In 2009, the majority of the then remaining mountain ash old growth forest was killed on ‘Black Saturday’ but this has failed to quell continued assertions that timber harvesting is to blame despite no old growth forest being harvested in this region for around 30 years.

Through all this Lindenmayer has continued to assert that the population of Leadbeaters Possum is far less than the most recent estimate by Victorian Government researchers, while insisting that only a new national park and a closed timber industry can save the possum. This flies in the face of growing evidence that the possum population is strongly recovering and is being successfully supplemented by active conservation management strategies alongside the continued presence of a significant timber industry.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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