OUR KOALAS RULE… OK?

Mother and baby koala

It is only the start of our summer and the loss of habitat from bushfires in our region and elsewhere,
particularly in eastern Australia, is profound.

Bushfire experts, like Professor Ross Bradstock, University of Wollongong is advising that worse is yet to come. And the focus has fallen on Koalas.

Editor Di with her beloved “Blinky.”

All of us are acutely aware of the current wave of climate change induced bushfires in our immediate area has severely impacted  on populations of Koalas and Koala habitat with shocking losses.

The NSW Upper House Inquiry recently held an urgent meeting into the current state of Koala populations and habitat after the ‘unprecedented’ bushfires and firestorms that have destroyed millions of hectares of New South Wales forests.

Mark Graham, an Ecologist with the Nature Conservation Council of NSW told the Inquiry that Koalas in most instances “really have no capacity to move fast enough to get away” – from rapid moving crown fires spreading from tree to tree.

Mr Graham also advised the Inquiry “We’ve lost such a massive swath of known Koala habitat that I think we can say, without any doubt, there will be ongoing declines in Koala populations from this point forward”.

Chair of the Koala Inquiry, Greens MP Cate Faehrmann reiterated “Hearing that we have lost up to a third of Koala habitat and more than 2000 Koalas on the North Coast is utterly devastating and should be a wake up call for this Government.”

Koala Maps

It was only in September 2019 that Matt Kean, State Environment Minister, released the first standardised maps identifying key habitats for Koalas, in a bid to prioritise the stated rapid decrease in NSW’s Koala numbers. Minister Kean emphasised  that the State Koala Maps are not a Regulation, but the maps are intended to make it abundantly clear to Councils and Communities which landholdings should be ‘off limits’ from development. Minister Kean said, “They provide us with the scientific information we need to show where Koalas live, where the trees are that support them, and the areas we need to protect.  . . . “We are delivering on a key commitment of the New South Wales Koala Strategy – our $44.7 million investment to first stabilise and then increase Koala numbers over the long term.”

Environmental Planning

The Minister also noted that the Koala Habitat Maps will be considered in the present review of State Environmental Planning Policy [SEPP 44],  Koala Habitat Protection – a document on Planning Minister [Rob Stokes] desk – still awaiting signing. No doubt this document, when it takes effect, will be a small bomb going off among many developers who will be forced to do the right thing and not denude land as a matter of course. And Koala habitat is strictly off limits!

The Koala Habitat Maps implement two of the nine recommendations made in December 2016 by then NSW’s Chief scientist and Engineer, Mary O’Kane. Her report noted that in 2012, NSW had an estimated 36,000 Koalas with numbers dropping at a rate of 26% every 15-21 years.

So what can we do for our Koalas?

In June 2012, the Myall Koala and Environmental Group Inc. was presented a grant of $234,500 from then Port Stephens MP, Craig Baumann, for the regeneration of key Koala Habitat in the Hawks Nest area. At the time, it was reported that Ian Morphett, representing the Myall Koala Group, said that the Hawks Nest area includes significant habitat for the Endangered Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Endangered Koala Population, with the then Great Lakes Council acting as Administrator of the grant.

Koala Population

Perhaps the location of the Endangered Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Koala Population augers well – as a presently intact Koala population in our area, as well part of a recognised koala corridor. Koalas have occasionally strolled into town in Tea Gardens, and also been seen on Hawks Nest Golf Club fairways. 

In 1999 the NSW Scientific Committee listed the Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens Koala Population [Phascolarctos cinereus], as an Endangered Population, at the time only the second listed Koala Population in the State. The Scientific Committee noted that the Koala population extends in the south-east to Yaccaba Headland and in the south-east to the peninsula west of Winda Woppa.

The population is limited in the west to the outskirts of the built up area of Tea Gardens – including the Shearwater estate, where it is bounded by Toonang Drive.

The population is limited in the north to an east-west line three kilometres north of the northern boundary of the Hawks Nest Golf Club [i.e., along both sides of Mungo Brush Road], although occasional sightings have been made outside these boundaries, the population is bounded in the south and east by the Ocean.

Impact On Land Holdings

As many readers will be aware, residential development of landholdings within the North Hawks Nest Crownland Developments Pty. Ltd Masterplan [some 2,400 housesites] was extinguished by Marcus Rae [Secretary, Department of Planning] in 2016.

Searches of Title records now show that most original North Hawks Nest landowners have recently sold their landholdings.

Core Koala Habitat

Former ecological studies in 1996; 1998 and 1999, forming part of the studies required for the North Hawks Nest LES [Local Environmental Study] over the Mungo Brush Road, North Hawks Nest landholdings, that were predominantly undertaken by ecological consultants appointed by the then Great Lakes Council, found that large portions of the landholdings became ‘Core Koala Habitat’ under SEPP 44 – Koala Habitat Protection. These Koala findings being ‘affirmed’ by a Public Inquiry in 2001 [North Hawks Nest Ecological Inquiry, 2002]. The former Great Lakes Council had agreed to this being a Statutory Inquiry on 14 August 2001.

The total protection of the remaining Koala habitat of the Hawks Nest / Tea Gardens Endangered Koala Population, that has presently emerged unscathed from the November / December 2019 firestorms, appears to be of now the utmost importance to the future well- being of Mid North Coast Koala Populations.

Let’s hope that Planning Minister Rob Stokes soon signs the Review of SEPP 44 -Koala Habitat Protection into law.

And fire experts are telling us, again and again, that the worst of the bushfires is yet to come.

PS. Donations to Port Macquarie Koala Hospital are greatly appreciated.

DM

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