AUSTRALIA: Sue Arnold -The Ballina Pacific Highway Upgrade is a disaster waiting to happen. A major bushfire of over 300 hectares two weeks ago has left important areas of koala and long-nosed potoroo habitat burned to the ground. Old Bagotville Road, a local road which has been identified as an important koala and potoroo habitat has sustained significant damage.
On the burned side, animals surviving are entrapped. With no means of climbing over the Roads & Maritime Service (RMS) ‘temporary exclusion fence’ designed to ‘ protect koalas and potoroos from traffic’, there’s no access to healthy food trees on the other side of the road – where exclusion fencing has also been constructed.
Escape hutches which have been built by the RMS can play no role in helping animals access food as they are on the road side, have never been tested on animals, and the planks are slippery – ensuring no ability to grip and climb.
Bushfire impacts ignored
The impacts of bushfires have been ignored by the RMS in spite of modelling which indicates the likelihood of fire is 3 per cent, the fire effects could result in a 40 per cent mortality of individuals living within the fire boundary, that is 10 per cent of the population. Given the recent designation of the Far North Coast as Severe Fire Danger, the exclusion of bushfires from RMS Environmental Impact documents is extraordinary.
At a recent meeting with parliamentary secretary for roads Kevin Anderson, organised by Greens MLC Dawn Walker, David Milledge and myself from Australians for Animals argued for a stop-work order.
Experienced wildlife ecologist, Mr Milledge advised that given the build-up of fuel over the area, which has not been burned for more than 30 years, a fire would almost certainly eliminate most, if not all koalas in the eastern-sub-population. He emphasised that the loss of koalas would be exacerbated by the barrier effect of permanent exclusion fencing along the entire upgrade.
A similar meeting was held with the director of the NSW Chief Scientist’s office, Chris Armstrong.
However, as the RMS now plans to have 600 trucks and l00 vehicles a day thundering up and down Old Bagotville Road to Wardell, delivering fill from two nearby quarries, there’s a distinct bureaucratic reluctance to remove the fences. We pointed out that koalas and potoroos are nocturnal animals and that with the huge swathe of burned habitat, taking down the fences was the only possible solution.
Locals say that in the event of another fire, with a great deal of the permanent fencing erected, animals will be trapped with no possibility of escape. Mr Milledge and I indicated that the temporary exclusion fence along Old Bagotville Road needed to be taken down as soon as possible so koalas and potoroos could access the unburnt areas. Given the likelihood of more fires, animals must have escape routes.
At a time when breeding season has begun, the RMS has completely ignored recommendations from the Australian Museum and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to delay construction until such time as the breeding and dispersal season is over. The RMS responded that it was ‘not practical’.
In coming weeks, almost 600 collared and ring-barked trees will be clear-felled leaving koalas and other folivores without food or shelter trees. It’s important to note that this exercise is an experiment never undertaken before in NSW or anywhere else in Australia.
In a recently published update on koala management dated August, 2017 the RMS makes following claim: ‘To minimise impact on koalas, we are taking a new approach by phasing the removal of food trees rather than clearing them all at the same time. All food trees at Laws Point have been collared or ringbarked which slowly reduces the habitat value of trees over a 12 week period so that koalas are encouraged to move to new habitat. We are monitoring koalas to ensure they have access to food and water.’
Precisely how the RMS will ensure koalas have access to food and water is unclear. Perhaps the service plans to put out bowls of water and leaves.
The hypothesis that when their trees are dying, koalas will move ‘somewhere else’ ignores substantive research demonstrating fidelity to home ranges and the probability that any other suitable habitat is already full.
The recent fire continues to burn as there’s significant amounts of peat in the area. Several recent flare-ups have underlined the likelihood of more fires.
Attempts to contact Kevin Anderson and roads minister Mel Pavey to request their urgent attention to the ongoing fire risk were met with a message from both offices. ‘The politicians are on leave as it’s school holidays.’