Doomed Planet

Bushfires and Koalas: It’s Not That Simple

Environment Minister Sussan Ley recently hosted a workshop and ministerial roundtable to discuss bushfire impacts and other ‘issues’ affecting koalas. This was announced in, amongst other outlets, the aptly named Mirage News, which ran the minister’s press release verbatim.  “As the Morrison Government implements its initial $50 million wildlife and habitat recovery package,” the minister’s handlers wrote, “this is an opportunity to focus on specific issues affecting koala populations across different parts of the country.”

One hopes the minister’s “expert panel” lives up to its billing and understand some home truths about koalas and why there were so very many caught up in the summer’s fires.

Before Australia’s fire regime changed, koalas were naturally rare because they eat tender, juicy and nutritious new leaves which are a rare commodity in healthy, mature eucalypt forests. Europeans didn’t see a live koala until 15 years after they arrived in Australia. The Sydney Gazette of August 21, 1803, reported that “its food consists solely of gum leaves, in the choice of which it is excessively nice”. This was common knowledge for more than a century. In 1933, childrens’ writer Dorothy Wall wrote that Blinky Bill’s mother “climbed down the tree, with Blinky following close behind, and went to another tree where they had a good meal of young leaves and tender shoots”.

But two centuries after the first report of koalas was published, the “experts” have completely revised our history. With one notable exception, explorers and pioneers didn’t see koalas, which didn’t live in the open, grassy woodlands of the river valleys sought by pastoralists. They were virtually invisible in forests because each large home range contains a single koala amongst thousands of trees. After Europeans cleared the valleys, established pastures and disrupted Aboriginal burning, koalas irrupted. Dense young forests grew up in the foothills, providing a feast of tender new shoots. Paddock trees in improved pastures got sick in the roots, started to die back and reshoot. Continual resprouting of soft young leaves added to the feast. Expanding populations of koalas moved into the valleys.

Pawel Strzelecki was the only explorer who reported seeing koalas. In 1840, his party avoided starvation by eating them because there were no kangaroos or emus to be had as they struggled for 26 days through 50 miles of dense young forest. This ‘Great Forest’ of South Gippsland was only 20 years old when the Polish nobleman and scientist battled through it. The Yowenjerre people had maintained an open, grassy forest of big old trees with the firestick. After they were devastated by disease and virtually finished off by blood feuds with their neighbours, dense woody understoreys spread from deep gullies and took over their country. The thick scrub blew up when it was ignited by dry storms in extreme weather around 1820 and eucalypts germinated “as thick as hairs on a cat’s back”. Koalas were in plague proportions by the time Strzelecki arrived.

Much of the area was incinerated a second time in 1851, after Europeans settled in Victoria, when five million hectares exploded in the Black Thursday holocaust. There were two ages of young eucalypts, dating from the two megafires, when pioneers started clearing the Great Forest in the 1870s and found plagues of dingoes feeding on plagues of koalas. This was some of the most difficult, intense and extensive clearing of forest that has been done anywhere in Australia. Some koalas that were caught in the process were moved to islands in Westernport Bay, but high numbers persisted in the remaining forests.

At the same time, koalas were irrupting throughout southeastern Australia in the broad grassy valleys that were first occupied by pastoralists. By 1896, hundreds of thousands of koala skins were being exported from Australia, and a major Melbourne tannery was still sourcing its skins from South Gippsland. The Red Tuesday fires burnt a quarter of a million hectares of the area in February 1898, destroying some 2000 buildings and claiming 12 lives. Undoubtedly, tens of thousands of koalas also perished. In 1939, the Black Friday holocaust raged through the area. There were 13 high intensity wildfires between 1899 and 1938, and two others in the 70 years between Black Friday and Black Saturday in 2009, when 20,000 hectares of the eastern Strzeleckis were incinerated.

In total, there were 20 megafires in 200 years. Koalas are still there in unnaturally high densities. There is an average of one koala per three hectares anywhere that monkey gums, blue gums or yellow stringybarks grow. I visited the eastern Strzeleckis only seven years after Black Saturday and spotted one within a few minutes in a row of planted blue gums. Five experts from various Victorian and Queensland universities recently produced what they described as an ecological history of the koala in South Gippsland. However, they somehow missed the fact that koalas irrupted in the dense young forests that grew up after the demise of the Yowenjerre people. Koalas have persisted for 150 years despite heavy clearing and repeated megafires. The experts claim that clearing and hunting caused extreme declines and loss of genetic diversity in Victoria’s koalas.  However, the South Gippsland population is supposed to be “of high conservation significance” as a population retaining its naturally diverse gene pool.

In fact, declines of koalas as a result of droughts across eastern Australia followed their irruptions into agricultural lands after clearing. For example, the Cumberland Plain at Sydney was cleared by 1860 and koalas irrupted around its fringes from 1836 until the Federation Drought in the early 20th Century. Koalas irrupted progressively a few decades behind pastoral development as it extended through their range. The least pronounced fluctuation was in north Queensland, where development was late and not intensive. Koalas were recorded there as “uncommon” in 1919.

Massive clearing and repeated megafires had no impact on the viability of koalas in South Gippsland. They retained their full complement of genes. ‘Reintroduced’ populations in other parts of Victoria are said to lack genetic diversity after supposedly being squeezed through ‘genetic bottlenecks’. However, there is no difference in genetic diversity between the native-bred Strzelecki koalas and the supposedly reintroduced Cape Otway koalas. Koalas are not threatened with extinction, and have never been,  as a result of European occupation and post-European development.

In announcing the latest gabfest, Minister Ley reported that her government has already committed $3 million for Koala habitat ‘restoration’ in northern NSW and south-east Queensland. When I worked there 40 years ago, the bush was open and healthy and safe. Koalas were rare. Greg Richards was a sawmiller at Wyan Creek near Rappville, where two people and many hundreds of koalas have recently been killed. One day in the late Seventies, Greg told me he’d seen a koala, so he’d caught it and took it to the little local primary school to show the kids. Now koalas aren’t a novelty anymore, but you’d have no chance of catching one in the thick scrub. That school is long shut because no one is working in the bush anymore. It has probably been burnt down too.

Late in November 2019, I saw a koala crossing the Princes Highway south of Eden, where ‘experts’ claim they’re extinct. Koalas were actually irrupting in chronically declining, scrub-infested forest on either side of the Victorian border. On December 9, I tendered photos at the NSW Koala Inquiry to illustrate the healthy koala, the declining trees and the “three-dimensionally continuous fuel” that feeds firestorms and megafires. (In the final photo, the koala is barely visible in a fork of the small tree, just at the top of the scrub layer, in the right foreground.) My evidence starts on page seven.

During late December/early January, vast areas of forests and very many koalas in East Gippsland and the far south coast of NSW were incinerated by megafires. The Princes Highway (Australia’s Highway 1) in this area was finally reopened to through traffic in early February after extensive clearing of burnt-out trees along the roadway. I have since returned to the site where I saw the koala to find the trees where the koala perched were cleared to re-open the highway.

My photos, though technically poor, illustrate the process of forest decline in the absence of mild fire; invasion of scrub, irruption of koalas, development of three-dimensionally continuous fuels; consequent explosive understorey and crown fire; and subsequent resprouting of an abundance of soft, juicy and nutritious eucalypt foliage. History indicates that dense forest, scrub, koalas and explosive fuels will ‘recover’ quickly. Healthy and safe landscapes will certainly not, unless we reinstate mild fire.

The $3 million being handed out by Minister Ley would better be spent reintroducing mild fire to areas burnt at high intensities, before the scrub bounces back. This was the recommendation of traditional burning expert Victor Steffensen at the Koala Inquiry on December 9 (p. 27).

While-ever our leaders continue to take advice from green academics and bureaucrats, emergency services generalissimos and misguided children, instead of people who know and love the land, our future will get progressively sadder and badder.

Vic Jurskis, a veteran forester and fire expert, is the author of the just-published The Great Koala Scam: green propaganda, junk science, government waste & cruelty to animals. It can be ordered here

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