Digging the dirt on koalas

HOW MUCH CAN A KOALA BEAR?: Dailan Pugh records the details of an assessed koala tree.
HOW MUCH CAN A KOALA BEAR?: Dailan Pugh records the details of an assessed koala tree.

IT'S easy to tell if a tree's been checked for koala scats. The litter of dead leaves, bark and grass will have been raked back to reveal the dung so a proper count can be made.

The Echo ventured into Compartment 16 of Royal Camp State Forest near Casino last Sunday with Dailan Pugh from NEFA (the North East Forest Alliance) to see if Forests NSW (the state agency charged with managing state forests) had carried out proper pre-logging inspections.

Logging was suspended at Royal Camp two weeks ago pending an investigation by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), after NEFA claimed to have evidence of logging activity in a high-density koala area that had not been properly assessed. Logging has now resumed and it appears that not one tree had been examined for koala scats.

When interviewed two weeks ago, Dean Kearney, Forests NSW north east manager, said that all potential logging coupes are routinely searched for evidence of koala habitat.

Mr Pugh searched around 100 potential feed-trees in the compartment and found no evidence that anyone had been there before him to look for scats.

"We found 17 trees and three stumps with koala scats under them," Mr Pugh said.

"Six trees had more than 20 scats beneath them and so qualify as high-use feed trees. These are the trees that Forests NSW are required to identify and undertake detailed surveys around. This is the only way to identify koala high-use areas before they are logged.

"It is totally outrageous that Forests NSW continues to openly flout environmental laws designed to protect koala high use areas."

Mr Pugh, who was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his services to the environment, regularly goes out bush to check such things as koala dung. He is scrupulous in his data recording, disqualifying scats he's unsure of that could be possum or wallaby. He uses a GPS and records the position and girth of each searched tree.

Up the road by a log dump, tree markings for a significant yellow-bellied glider population, as indicated on the Forests NSW map we were using, were conspicuous by their absence. Down towards a creek we did find some spindly surviving trees, marked with a 'K' for koala.

None of the trees had been searched. Others were incorrectly marked. One tree, marked with an 'H' for habitat - a large, hollow-bearing specimen, was a hands-breadth wide. Other hollow-bearing trees were dropped randomly - not even taken for timber.

Under one tree marked with an 'R' for recruitment (a designation that they will mature into habitats) we found 52 scats. That makes it a primary residence for these iconic, endangered creatures. Indeed, we found the requisite number of scats to define this as a high-use area. But it was full of smashed trees and bulldozer tracks.

The ABC's Four Corners program aired a documentary last Monday night called Koala Crunch Time, which graphically illustrated the grim outlook for koalas. It's plain that the koala, already under stress from disease, wild dogs, development and climate change, is in great danger here in its home range.

The Echo attempted to contact Dean Kearney regarding our findings at Royal Camp, but had received no reply by the time of going to print.

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