Last year the North East Forest Alliance found an unusually dense Koala colony, part of a regionally significant population in a forest proposed for logging. As we geared up for a blockade, the Busbys Flat fire changed direction on the night of the 8 October last year and burnt out most of our proposed 7,000 ha Sandy Creek Koala Park. Some 90% of the Koalas were lost from the burnt forests, along with vital source colonies.
Across the fireground, the dry leaf litter, logs and understorey were incinerated, along with their inhabitants. The canopy was cooked by the intense understorey fire, much of it desiccated. Numerous Koalas were killed or injured in the flames, while the starving and dehydrated survivors continue to decline. No one came to their rescue.
Over the months the Busby’s Flat fire joined with others to burn out a contiguous 1.9 million hectares.
In north-east NSW 24-33% of Koala habitat was burned. Thousands of Koalas were consumed in the conflagration, with the survivors suffering dehydration and starvation. Eight of the 29 Koala populations in the region had 73-90% of their habitat burnt, leaving them in particular danger of imminent collapse.
The Banyabba population, which encompasses the Sandy Creek Koala Park, had 60,000 ha (81%) of modelled potential Koala habitat burnt in a series of fires, twice in places.
In 2012 the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) caught the Forestry Corporation actively logging Koala High Use Areas (HUAs) in Royal Camp State Forest. (south of Casino on the Richmond River lowlands). Koala HUAs are defined by areas with unusually large numbers of Koala scats (faecal pellets), and were not allowed to be logged. Forestry were fined a paltry $900.
In a 2013 pre-logging audit we found numerous Koala HUAs in an adjacent area where logging was due to start. Forestry were claiming there were no Koalas. Having temporarily stopped logging, we then pushed for protection of Royal Camp and Carwong State Forests for Koalas.
An EPA (2016) study found Koalas occupied 58% of Royal Camp and 80% of Carwong, while confirming that they contain resident Koalas forming source areas for a regionally significant population.
In a July 2019 pre-logging audit in the adjacent Braemar State Forest we identified a 3ha Koala HUA about to be logged. The high use area extended well outside the area we had assessed, and indicated that others were likely. We had found another source colony of the Banyabba Koala population.
The Forestry Corporation’s logging plan was finalised and the forest was marked-up ready for logging. The plan then was to log under the old rules which required the identification and protection of Koala HUAs and the retention of 5 Koala feed trees over 30cm diameter per hectare.
We assumed that the Koala HUA we had identified would have to be protected. While we successfully searched for others, we wrote to Premier Gladys Berejiklian asking her to urgently intervene to ensure that independent surveys were undertaken to identify and protect all Koala HUAs before logging started.
Instead on 31 August 2019 Forestry released a new plan using the new logging rules. They removed the requirement to search for and protect Koala HUAs, instead if they see a Koala in a tree they have to wait for it to leave before cutting it down. They still needed to retain 5 potential feed trees per hectare, though the minimum diameter had been reduced from 30cm down to 20cm.
Our assessments identified that most of the logging area qualified as Koala HUAs, we also found Koalas in most suitable habitats at sites elsewhere in Braemar and the adjacent Ellangowan State Forests.
The future prospects were bright, as if we could stop logging ,the forest would mature and provide increasing resources for Koalas. As we prepared for a blockade, we worked on a proposal for 7,000 ha of State forests to be made into the Sandy Creek Koala Park.
Then there was the Busbys Flat fire, almost overnight the canopy was killed over 55% of the proposed Koala Park. Another 38% suffered loss of understorey and over the next month over half of its canopy, with Koala feed trees the worst affected. Fire crowned in some patches, though canopy damage was mostly caused by the heat of the intense understorey fire. Only 7% escaped the fire.
Many Koalas were killed outright. While we have only found 3 dead we have not been able to find any scats in the heavily burnt areas, including where we had previously identified Koala HUAs. There is no food and no evidence that any Koalas survived. Hundreds died.
Over the next month in the partially burnt areas numerous large Grey Box collapsed from having their bases and roots burnt out, while the thin barked Grey Gum and various red gums shed most of their leaves. These are Koala’s primary feed trees.
Despite an ongoing decline in tree use by Koalas, and presumably their numbers, Koalas have persisted in the partially burnt forests. With continuing drought, desiccated canopies, black ash heating the ground, and a series of heatwaves, the stresses on them were immense. Some possibly moved to remnant unburnt patches outside the State forest.
We put water out, which helped a few Koalas, though we did not have the resources to do this on the scale required, particularly as these firegrounds remain closed to the public.
Overall there was a loss of over 80% of the canopy in the burnt forests Because of the other stressors and the particular vulnerability of feed trees, Koala loss is likely to be around 90%.
From Koala scat searches it was apparent, both before and after the fire, that the bigger trees are essential. Over 90% of trees used since the fire are over 30 cm diameter, with use increasing with tree size (proportional to their abundance). As expected the largest trees also retained more canopy, emphasising their importance both as fire refuges and for post-fire survival.
In a stand of apparently suitable feed trees Koalas are only using select trees for feeding and roosting, with many of these also used before the fires. Some trees are used intensively and thus are key resources. So randomly protecting 5 small potential feed trees per hectare will do little, if anything, to mitigate logging impacts.
When good rain finally came in late December, an intense downpour washed the loose ash and unprotected topsoil off the steeper slopes into streams. The rain did however kickstart the recovery. It is only now, 3 months after the fire, that some trees are beginning to resprout, though the vast majority remain leafless. Time will tell how many have died because of the combination of fire and drought.
At last with Koala feed beginning to increase the worst is over. While the surviving trees will soon begin to recover their canopies, it will take many decades for the surviving Koalas to rebuild their populations. I hope that some Koalas did survive by moving out of the firegrounds and may return.
With droughts and fires increasing in intensity and frequency as climate change progresses, and panic clearing now rampant, time is not on Koalas’ side. The Banyabba population was already in decline before the fires, with the loss and degradation of the known source colonies, this population (as with many others) is now in danger of extinction.
If we want to give Koalas a future it is absolutely essential that we immediately stop logging and clearing of their remaining refuges, including those from before the fires for re-population. We need to allow the surviving feed and roost trees to grow in size to provide more browse and better refuges from the next fire.
We are proceeding with the proposed Sandy Creek Koala Park.
Equally important is an immediate fire response next time to identify survivors and provide resources (i.e. water) to support them remaining in their homes.
Dailan Pugh OAM was arrested at Terania Creek in 1979 and has since devoted most of his life to protecting the forests and koalas of north – east NSW. He was a co-founder of the North East Forest Alliance in 1989 and is currently its President.