Fuzzy words endanger koalas’ lives and habitat

A koala at Trinity Beach in far north Queensland. Flickr/Mshai (Michael Fontenot)

It was a breath of fresh air when, in 2012, the federal government listed koalas as being “vulnerable” in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory under national environment law. It was an essential step towards arresting the alarming decline of koalas in eastern Australia in recent years.

But koalas are not yet out of the woods. Until next Friday, February 7, Australians have the chance to read and comment on a set of new draft guidelines, mainly aimed at people wanting to develop land in known koala habitat.

Where koalas are found in eastern Australia. www.environment.gov.au

Commendably, the federal environment department consulted widely with koala researchers (including me) in its endeavours to make the guidelines as scientifically robust and ecologically accurate as possible. There were also great efforts to make the guidelines clear and instructive.

However, I am still concerned about whether this new process will adequately protect koalas.

For a start, it is likely that the “proponents” (potential developers) may find the process outlined in the guidelines laborious, and its terminology and key concepts unfamiliar and ambiguous. But there are other reasons too, including the voluntary nature of the referral process, and the danger of death by a thousand cuts.

Voluntary referral

The process relies on voluntary referral, which in turn relies on self-assessment of the effects on koalas by the proponents.

That puts the onus of deciding how big a threat a development might be squarely on the shoulders of the developer. And it’s not a simple process, as the figure below shows (you can read it in detail on page 3 of the draft guidelines).

The step-by-step process that people should go through before deciding whether their project might endanger koalas. Draft EPBC Act referral guidelines for the vulnerable koala, page 3

A proponent must initially become familiar with the EPBC Act’s Significant Impact guidelines 1.1 and understand the criteria for a “significant impact” on an “important koala population”. The proponent must also understand the koala’s ecology and recovery needs, as identified in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act’s Referral Guidelines.

Next, the proponent needs to determine whether the impact of the proposed action occurs within the koala distribution area and affects koala habitat.

If this is found to be the case, then desktop and on-ground koala surveys are required and the draft guideline’s Koala Habitat Assessment Tool scoring system can be used to determine the sensitivity, value and quality of the “impact area” to decide if the action will adversely affect “habitat critical to the survival of the koala” and so on.

Again, these terms carry ambiguity, particularly to people without expert knowledge - and even to those with it!

Death by a thousand cuts

Of greater concern is that the new guidelines also don’t account for the risk of cumulative adverse effects on koala habitats from multiple clearing proposals.

For instance, let’s say there are several new housing developments in the one region, each being put forward by a different developer. On their own, each of those developments might not pose a significant threat to koalas - but together, it could mean a corridor of important trees and land being cut down, with potentially devastating effects.

This can lead to the well-acknowledged risk of death by a thousand cuts.

Tennis champion Roger Federer cuddles a koala at Brisbane’s Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary last month. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Some of the examples in the draft paper are also confusing. The guidelines define “habitat critical to the survival of the koala” as an impact area that scores five or more using the Habitat Assessment Tool.

Yet in an example scenario, despite achieving a high score of eight, referral to the federal government is not recommended because food trees will be retained and habitat is not being fragmented. This seems contradictory.

Better protecting koalas

How could these guidelines be made less ambiguous and less onerous for the proponent, while also doing a better job of protecting koalas?

As an example, the criteria for “significant impact”, the term that underpins the entire referral process, needs to be clarified because there is no clear definition of what an “important population” of koalas is. Due to the wide and fragmented distribution of koalas, it is virtually impossible to determine whether koala populations are or aren’t “important”.

So why does that lack of clarity matter? Essentially, we would be asking people if their project could have a “significant impact” on an “important population” of koalas - without proper guidance on what that means in practice.

Given koalas’ vulnerable status, one solution would be to consider all koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT to be “important”.

As the Queensland government notes, koala numbers have fallen by more than 50% in some areas of south east Queensland since 2006, primarily as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, dog attacks and vehicle strikes.

In light of such significant declines in koala populations, it is a reasonable assumption that remaining populations are indeed “important”.

Other areas also need addressing, including taking into account cumulative impacts, rather than working on a development-by-development basis.

As they stand, the draft guidelines represent an excellent foundation for the referral process. But they do need further clarification and streamlining - otherwise they risk leaving open wide loopholes for proponents who’d rather avoid referring their proposal to the government.

This is a chance to significantly improve protection for koalas in areas where their numbers have fallen sharply.

If we get it right, other native species that share koala habitat will also benefit. And that would be a welcome good news story for biodiversity and ecosystem health in Australia.