How to rescue the Fairy Possum from extinction

9 Jan 2015

The Leadbeater’s Possum

Victoria’s gorgeous animal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum is smaller than a human hand and notoriously shy. The species was thought extinct until 1961, when it was rediscovered in the tall forests of the Central Highlands about 80 kilometres northeast of Melbourne.

Estimates vary, but surveys show that today, only a few hundred to 2000 Leadbeater’s Possums exist outside zoos. By way of comparison, a 2004 study estimated the wild population of Orangutans to be in the vicinity of 61,000.

The critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum is one of the most-studied animals on the planet. After three decades of extensive research, the science is very clear, as is the extinction trajectory of the animal.

Extinction is of course not something that happens overnight; it does not simply occur the moment the last individual of a species dies. Extinction occurs over years and decades.

The Mountain Ash forests of the Central Highlands have existed for 60 million years, the Leadbeater’s Possum for 20 million. There is now a crisis in biodiversity in these forests, driven by the major change introduced in just the last 100 years.

The global expert on the Leadbeater’s Possum, Professor David Lindenmayer, has developed a new suite of forest management prescriptions to help rescue the species and to restore their forest home.

Professor Lindenmayer has set out the steps that need to be taken in our forests to solve the biodiversity crisis in the Central Highlands. He’s explained the science, and his recommendations, to government and to forest managers. But the Napthine state government is not yet listening, as Leadbeater’s habitat continues to be logged.

Read on for a summary of the management prescriptions developed by Professor Lindenmayer and the team at the Australian National University.

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Enigmatic Leadbeater’s (Fairy) Possum

Restoring the Great Forests of the Central Highlands

Setting areas aside from logging is the cornerstone of any credible plan for the Central Highlands.

The existing network of parks and reserves must be expanded if the Leadbeater’s Possum is to stand a chance of surviving.

Victoria’s Great Forest experience – Melbourne’s new playground.

Just 60 kilometres east of Melbourne grow some of the tallest trees on Earth. In their high canopy a plethora of gliders, owls and the tiny Leadbeater’s Possum dwells.

These forests have flourished along the great divide under rich rainfall patterns and provide most of Melbourne’s drinking water.  The forests been scientifically shown to be the most carbon rich forests on Earth due to their cooler climate and epic growth rates.

The new Great Forest National Park is a proposal to create a two tiered park system for bush users and bush lovers alike that protects and maintains this important ecosystem function. The park stretches from the Kinglake National Park right through to the Baw Baw’s and to the North East up to Eildon. The park will host a range of activities such as bike riding, bushwalking, bird watching, 4wd driving, camping, zip line tours and more.

The Great Forests Park will be an investment for the long-term because it will secure Melbourne’s domestic water supply catchments, a suite of new economic opportunities for the region will roll-out, and the state’s mammal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum will be brought back from the brink of extinction.

Find out more about the Great Forest National Park and what you can do to help create it.

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Toolangi | Mel Erler

Six steps to protection – prescriptions for management

1. A new zoning system for Leadbeater’s Possum – protection of trees that are the animal’s forest home

The zoning in state forests is not working for the Leadbeater’s Possum.

One reason is that the zoning prescriptions for the forest are based on tremendously out-of-date data – at more than thirty years old, it’s clear it’s time for a review.

Forest habitat for Leadbeater’s Possum is classified in certain ways, according to whether the hollow tree a family of Leadbeater’s is nesting in is a living tree, or a dead tree (often referred to as a ‘stag’).

Long-term research shows that both living, and dead, trees are important as nesting sites for the Leadbeater’s Possum. Unsurprisingly, the more hollow-bearing trees at a forest site, the more Possums live there.

Despite dead, hollow-bearing trees are very popular for Leadbeater’s Possums, they receive extremely poor protection from logging and fire under current zoning prescriptions.

The zoning system must be revised so that both living and dead hollow-bearing trees are protected from logging. Should logging occur in the vicinity, the trees must be protected by a buffer of at least 100m.

2. Increasing protection of areas known to contain Leadbeater’s Possum

Currently, forest areas known to contain Leadbeater’s Possum are still logged – on an almost daily basis.

Long-term research shows that once inhabited, sites are often used for nesting multiple times over many years.

One of the first steps to rescue the Leadbeater’s Possum from extinction is to protect animals where they are known to be living, rather than go ahead and deliberately log those sites despite evidence of Leadbeater’s Possum nests in the area.

Logging must be excluded from forest known to currently contain, and to previously have contained, Leadbeater’s Possums, with a 1km buffer around these sites should logging occur in the vicinity.

3. Protection of living and dead habitat trees

Large, old trees are in decline around the world. In the forests of the Central Highlands, the rates of collapse in numbers of old trees is catastrophic: in 1998 there was an average of 5.1 trees per hectare.

Projections show that by 2067 only 0.6 old trees will remain per hectare, due to fire (bushfire and regeneration burns), natural attrition, and logging.

Projections have been made for the year 2067 as that is when the forests that started growing after the 1939 bushfires will begin to form hollows.

The so-called 1939 ‘re-growth’ is in actual fact recruitment old-growth. But these are the forests targeted by industry for pulp to make copy paper.

Once logged, it is very difficult to replace these trees, as they take so long to grow.

There must be a 100m buffer around each living and dead habitat tree, and every tree 100 years or more old must be protected by a buffer of unlogged forest.

4. Protect all old-growth

Old forests are often the richest sources of habitat, and the most biodiverse. They are ‘irreplaceable’, as they take hundreds, if not thousands of years to re-grow;  well beyond our lifetimes.

Only 1.15% of the forest that stood in the Central Highlands when Europeans arrived remains today.

In order to retrieve the species from extinction, at least 30% of forest in the Central Highlands must be old-growth. To achieve this, 50% of the currently oldest forest must be designated for immediate protection.

5. Protect riverside forests

Streams and rivers are important part of healthy forest ecosystems.

Known as riparian bush, this is where some of the oldest, and biggest trees grow.

Current buffers need to be expanded to at least 100m to protect these forests from the effects of logging.

6. An end to clearfell logging

We can no longer afford to clearfell log. In fact, in a wealthy, developed nation like ours, we can and must do better.

Clearfelling has caused massive disturbance in the landscape. This method of logging involves the removal of all vegetation – bar a few so-called habitat trees that remain, solo, in a desecrated landscape.

After the clearfell log, an intense fire is lit, causing a post-logging burn. This kills the biodiverse seedbank, changes the health of the soil, and kills any wildlife remaining on site.

The Mountain Ash forests of the Central Highlands have existed for 60 million years, the Leadbeater’s Possum for 20 million. There is now a crisis in biodiversity in these forests, driven by the major change introduced in just the last 100 years – logging.

In 2002 conservationists, scientists and the logging industry agreed that clearfelling should be phased out. But over a decade later the practice continues, and we are losing forests and precious wildlife.

Professor David Lindenmayer and the research team at the ANU have called for an end to clearfell logging by December 2013.

Read the forest management prescriptions in full.


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