Leading koala scientist casts doubt on RMS koala data

LOCAL, national and international conservation groups are accusing the Roads, Maritime Services agency of submitting inaccurate and misleading information in the Ballina Koala plan.

A new review of the RMS's Ballina Koala Plan, by leading koala ecologist Dr Stephen Phillips, concludes that the current location of Section 10 from Wardell to Ballina is almost in the worst possible area for Ballina's nationally significant koala population of 196.

Even without the road, the RMS' Ballina Koala Plan acknowledges that the population is already on a steep decline trajectory to extinction and needs urgent help to survive.

If Greg Hunt approves this proposed route he is green lighting their extinction, koala conservation activists claim.

Yet the RMS has totally failed to consider alternative routes that will avoid or minimise impacts to the koala population, the activists said.

The impact of allowing Section 10 to proceed is unacceptable to koalas and does not satisfy the conditions imposed by Greg Hunt, a statement from the activists (inluding Lorraine Vass from Friends of the Koala, Jeff Johnson from Save Ballina's Koalas, and Josey Sharrad, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare) said.

The RMS failings leave Mr Hunt no option but to direct RMS to find an alternative route, they said.

For over ten years, RMS has ignored community and scientific concern, regarding the construction of a four-lane highway through a nationally significant koala population that is already in decline largely thanks to roadkill.

The RMS stands accused of manipulation of independent data in order to "fit their own agenda", the statement said.

The RMS appears to be totally fixated on motoring ahead with their preferred route of the Pacific Highway Section 10 upgrade, hanging the fate of around 200 Ballina koalas on the guarantee that its mitigation measures including building fences, wildlife crossings and new tree plantings will work; and that no koalas will be killed or injured as a result of the Highway construction.

The "unsound science" according to Dr Phillips includes:

  • Significantly underestimating the numbers of koalas that will be displaced by the road construction process.
  • For each year of the 50 year Population Viability Analysis (PVA) time frame, as outlined in the Ballina Koala Plan, the RMS has significantly overestimated the numbers of young female koalas in the population. This has led to a grossly exaggerated overestimate population size which in turn works to lower the extinction risk of the population as a whole and so the impacts of road construction.
  • Failing to acknowledge and accommodate worst-case scenarios in the modelling process, instead utilising simplistic, overly optimistic and indefensible outcomes to justify the selected route. .
  • Failing to acknowledge the fact that more than 50% of food trees currently being used by resident koala populations along the route will be lost due to road construction. The loss of these trees, coupled with disturbances arising from the road construction process, may well jeopardise the viability and survival of each of the local populations affected.
  • Failure to model alternative routes which could lessen the impact on resident populations

According to Josey Sharrad, Native Wildlife Campaigner at IFAW: "IFAW believes that the RMS has deliberately directed the science to fit their already selected route. It is now abundantly clear that the proposed Section 10 upgrade is in the wrong place; Ballina's koalas need help not a highway, there's no U-turn on extinction".

Lorraine Vass, President of Friends of the Koala said: "Poor planning over 10 years by the RMS does not justify the extinction of Ballina's koala population. Greg Hunt can't approve the Pacific Highway Section 10 Upgrade based on incorrect science. He must demand that the RMS find a more koala friendly route".

According to Jeff Johnson, of Save Ballina's Koalas: "The RMS has ignored community concerns for 10 years. This ill-conceived highway route will have a devastating impact on a nationally significant koala population while decimating a number of Aboriginal sites and scar trees. It would be a national tragedy if this upgrade were to go ahead in its current location when there are alternative route options. We urge Minister Hunt to red light the proposed route, and save Ballina's koalas" concluded Jeff Johnson.

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