Managing bushfire risk essential for Leadbeater’s Possum’s survival

MANAGING future bushfire risk is a central plank in the state government’s policy to ensure the survival of Victoria’s endangered faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum, and guarantee the future of the state’s timber industry.

Fire management is one of the recommendations of the Leadbeater’s Possum advisory group that was accepted by the state government last month as part of its action plan.

The new policy was announced by Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh and Environment and Climate Change Minister Ryan Smith.

The advisory group was set up to assess the huge impact of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires on the habitat of the endangered possum and also the availability of timber for industry, which is mainly concentrated in Gippsland.

The affected forest where the tiny nocturnal possum lives is just north-west of Warragul. The possum was made the state’s faunal emblem in 1968.

The advisory group consisted of representatives of Zoos Victoria, the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, VicForests, Parks Victoria and the Leadbeater’s Possum recovery team.

“Bushfire is the key threat to both the Leadbeater’s Possum and the local timber industry,” said the government, which resolved to prepare strategic bushfire management plans as part of the policy.

Regional teams will bring together experts in fire behaviour, risk modelling, biodiversity and engage with the community across seven risk landscapes.

Fuel load management will be a key issue. The east central bushfire risk landscape plan will be completed by the end of this year.

The possum is mainly found in an area of forest 70 by 80 metres in the Central Highlands.

In total, 65 per cent of potential habitat is located in formal parks and reserves, says the advisory group’s report.

About 63,000 hectares of Mountain Ash forest, 31 per cent of potential habitat, is available for timber harvesting over an 80-year rotation, according to the advisory group.

Of this, about 24,000 hectares is likely to be harvested over the next 30 years.

VicForests draws up to 80 per cent of its highly valued ash timber from this area.

The advisory group noted the importance of the timber industry for Gippsland.

Direct revenue amounted to $340 million Latrobe City ($197 million), Wellington ($56 million) and Baw Baw ($16.2 million).

The government decided to implement all 13 recommendations of the advisory group.

Central to this was protecting known colonies of Leadbeater’s Possum using a 200-metre timber harvesting exclusion zone of a possum colony and identifying new colonies.

How effective this action is will be reviewed after two years or once 200 new colonies are identified in timber harvesting areas, whichever comes first.

Further, from July this year, VicForests will begin retention harvesting in 50 per cent of the ash forest area within the Leadbeater’s Possum range.

“This is a significant and fundamental change in Victorian timber harvesting practice,” the ministers said.

It is estimated to reduce ash sawlog availability by up to five per cent. This is in addition to the 25 per cent reduction VicForests made after the 2009 bushfires.

The thrust of the policy is to take a landscape-based approach, including parks and reserves, to conserve the habitat and increase certainty for industry.

The recommendations include:

Investigate alternatives to high intensity regeneration burns linked to post-burn retention harvest criteria.

Exclude harvesting from within 100 metres of modeled old growth ash forests within the possum’s range.

Protect at least 30 per cent of ash forest of the area where the possum operates so that it can mature into old growth forest.

Draw up fire management strategies to protect identified possum colonies.

Provide artificial nest boxes in a targeted manner at key locations.

Investigate accelerated hollow development.

Investigate the feasibility of translocating the possums from wild to wild.

VicForests chief executive Robert Green said retention harvesting would mean extra areas were reserved, such as ‘islands’ of unharvested trees, providing better habitat and connectivity for animals and helping to establish older forest across the landscape. This would lead to better ecological outcomes,” he said.

VAFI chief executive Tim Johnston welcomed the recommendations, emphasizing that the key threat to the possum’s survival remained fire, as was shown in the 2009 bushfires that burned nearly half their protected habitat.

“As such, the role of a sustainable timber industry in managing fire and maintaining the forest estate is crucial to the ongoing survival of the possum,” he said.

Wilderness Society state campaign manager Amelia Young said the plan would not stop the extinction of the possum.

“The Victorian government is executing the Leadbeater’s Possum, knowingly sending it to meet the same fate as the Tasmanian Tiger,” she said.

“Almost half of the Leadbeater’s Possum habitat was burnt in the tragic 2009 bushfires, so the remaining forest is critical for its survival.”

The full list of recommendations and a technical report can be found at www.depi.vic.gov.au/environment-and-wildlife/wildlife/leadbeaters-possum