Ballina's koalas are under threat.
Ballina's koalas are under threat. Steve Cselka

Ballina koalas faced with extinction

BALLINA koalas will die off over the next 50 years regardless but with the help of Pacific Highway upgrades between Woolgoola and Ballina, the NSW chief scientist has reported.

Mary O'Kane, Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW, sent a requested report to state environment minister Mark Speakman in December after he asked her to set up and oversee a Koala Advisory Committee in March.

The report presents a grim outlook for koalas across NSW, where more than a quarter of the population has disappeared in the past 15-21 years due to a combination of factors including dog attacks, road accidents, land clearing, disease, drought and bush fires.

The state has been left with approximately 36,000 koalas and the O'Kane report says "it may not be possible to ensure all koala populations continue to persist in all locations".

"Government will need to make clear choices and invest resources where it is most likely to make a difference," says the report.

Koala populations may be likened to tribes that need to cross-breed in order to prevent reductions in fertility, survival, disease resistance, growth rates and "adaptability to environmental changes" related to restricted gene pools.

But land clearing for urban development means koalas are often unable to travel as far and wide as needed and when they try, they risk being attacked by domestic and wild dogs or hit by cars.

The report says road building should only happen outside of breeding seasons and times when koalas have grown up and are leaving home but says these times need to be figured out first.

Outside of breeding and weaning, koalas need to roam for food: each koala feeds from over 100 trees and "a koala's home range depends on the variety of food trees available and the quality of the habitat," says the report.

"Some home ranges have been recorded at 10-15 hectares while others have been recorded at up to 500 hectares," the report says.

Ballina Pacific Highway upgrade: koala management plan

Roads and Maritime Services NSW has a koala management plan with a table outlining specific actions it will take to "mitigate" koala deaths due to the upgrade.

One of them is a fence or fences along sections of the highway and byroads including Wardell Road, although the O'Kane report says "creating barriers may exacerbate habitat fragmentation caused by road development".

Another is the display of signs reminding drivers to beware of koalas.

Approximately 174 underpasses are slated for the upgrade after studies suggested koalas were more likely to use them over overpasses.

Predators including foxes, dogs and cats use the underpasses too but RMS authorities say they will work with local wildlife group and land owners to control predatory risks.

Authorities say RMS staff and presumably contractors will stop work for 48 hours if a koala is found.

The koala will then have 48 hours to leave and if they refuse to leave of their own free will, a qualified ecologist will be paid to catch and relocate them.

Relocation is fraught with challenges and the Victorian and South Australian governments have introduced strict rules on koala "translocation.. as it expensive; has unpredictable success results; and is logistically highly complex" says the report.

Other policies adopted by RMS authorities in various sections of the highway upgrade cover domestic dogs, "dust and noise management" and exclusion zones for work trucks.

But in places where all else fails, RMS workers will starve koalas out by "removing food sources", the RMS KMP states.

The koala tourism industry was valued at $1.8 billion in 1997 in a study that found "the income directly contributed $1.1 billion to the Australian economy and provides approximately 9000 jobs", says the report.

"A summary of several economic studies has shown protected areas in north-east NSW to have added $124 million to the local region, and to have supported almost 2000 jobs.

"It is clear that there is sufficient evidence from which government can act now... to stabilise and increase koala populations."

Koala advocates on the Northern Rivers have criticised the O'Kane report and the highway upgrade as projects run by bureaucrats and profiteers.

"The option was available for [the RMS] to go through the cane land further east but it wouldn't have provided them with any fill and that's my contention," said ecologist David Milledge.

"Qualified koala experts with relevant field experience have been completely excluded," said Australians for Animals co-ordinator Sue Arnold.

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