Environment editor, The Age
Leadbeater’s alone have a deep connection to Victorian history. Their loss would be a black mark on the soul of the state.
There are big problems to be solved to save Leadbeater’s possum, Victoria’s endangered faunal emblem. And it is good a new group formed by the Napthine Government has been charged with considering some of them.
But it is hard not to conclude that to date the state government has been dragging its feet.
The Leadbeater’s possum is an elusive species. First discovered in 1867, it later disappeared only to be found again in 1961 after a long search.
Its future is also proving elusive, but any disappearance this time could be permanent.
The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires wiped out 42 per cent of its habitat, and conservationists and scientists say continued logging in the Mountain Ash forests to Melbourne’s north is exacerbating the problem and driving Leadbeater’s towards extinction.
A scientific Leadbeater’s recovery team has already existed for many years. Since the fires it has made several, seemingly ignored, pleas for greater protection of the species including tougher prescriptions on logging and tightening the definition of Leadbeater’s habitat.
Several drafts of an updated plan to recover the possum have also been written, some as early as 2009, but have not been put in place.
The government has moved quicker to bolster the timber industry. Measures are now in front of parliament to allow logging contracts to be signed up to 20 years and give the state-owned timber company VicForests more control over when and where to log.
So why convene a Leadebeater’s taskforce now?
Firstly, the results of extensive monitoring of a number of species living amid the Mountain Ash have been handed to government. Not yet released to the public, it is believed that many were found in ill health, including Leadbeater’s.
Secondly, a Supreme Court decision in 2011 (which ultimately rejected a green group bid to stop logging in three Central Highland coupes) found evidence for the need to review areas set aside for Leadbeater’s habitat following the fires.
Thirdly, the species is being considered for an upgrade in its conservation status at the federal level from endangered to critically endangered, one step before extinction.
Finally, Victoria’s logging industry has struggled financially, though not to the extent of Tasmania. At the same time industry is worried its social licence could disappear as its operations are questioned by conservationists.
In short, the fate of Leadbeater’s is becoming a proxy for a broader debate about native timber harvesting in Victoria.
The decline in Mountain Ash forests not only hurts Leadbeater’s, but also a range of key species such as the Sooty Owl or Spot-tailed Quoll, whose protection should also be considered.
But Leadbeater’s alone have a deep connection to Victorian history. Their loss would be a black mark on the soul of the state.