NSW Roads and Maritime Services has released its long awaited koala plan of management for the remainder of the colony it plans to route the Pacific Highway through south of Ballina.
The plan has drawn the ire of supporters of the endangered marsupial, who say that it is a recipe for managing the local colony into extinction.
They add the authority has ignored an opportunity to reroute the highway through flatter, existing farmland that would have left the colony intact.
But, in a startling irony, the RMS argues that as the colony is already in decline its plan to fence in the sections adjoining the new freeway and provide a series overpasses to prevent total isolation of the animals will benefit them, despite swathes of their range being clear-felled.
Pacific Highway general manager Bob Higgins said the Ballina Koala Plan and Population Viability Analysis (PVA) prepared for the Woolgoolga to Ballina Pacific Highway upgrade has been endorsed by the Koala Expert Advisory Committee and submitted to federal environment minister Greg Hunt for approval.
‘The PVA found extra mitigation measures on existing roads near the project would offset any impact of the upgrade on the local koala population and further proposed mitigation could improve the situation for koalas based on current predictions,’ Mr Higgins said.
‘The study found the Ballina koala population will decline with or without the upgraded highway due to disease, predators and koala deaths on roads other than the highway,’ he added.
‘The upgrade would be fully fenced to prevent animals from entering the road corridor and koala grids would be installed on interchange ramps to stop animal strikes from occurring.’
Mr Higgins said that additional fencing would also be provided ‘on key sections of Wardell Road near the new highway and the existing Pacific Highway north of Wardell and Coolgardie where the risk of koala strikes is higher. ‘
‘About 26 wildlife crossings would also be installed as part of the upgrade, substantially increasing safe crossing points and about 130 hectares of koala feed trees will be planted to provide additional habitat.
‘The koala feed trees will be planted early so there can be good growth before the highway opens in 2020,’ Mr Higgins said.
But koala support groups have repudiated the authority’s claims that fencing, wildlife bridges and tree planting will be sufficient to avert the catastrophic collapse of the north coast’s last un-fragmented breeding colony.
In a joint statement, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Friends of the Koala and Save Ballina’s Koalas said the government should be ‘putting in strong measures to either maintain or improve this significant population of koala which is the standard measurement for other conservation issues.’
‘Analysis of mortality data from Friends of the Koala dating back 26 years proves that the population is already in dramatic decline, thanks to vehicle strike and domestic dog attacks,’ the groups said.
‘Yet, the RMS seems to be intent on going ahead without any changes to its proposed route. This is despite previous data indicating that the current Section 10, Pacific Highway upgrade would exacerbate and increase the rate of decline towards a potential localised extinction of the Ballina 200 [the estimated remaining population of the colony].’
Friends of the Koala president Lorraine Vass said the plan’s sole purpose was to ‘enable RMS to realise its decade-long investment in a route that’s in the wrong place.’
‘You only have to look at the scale of destruction, fragmentation and loss that’s already occurred at Halfway Creek and in other upgraded sections to know that Ballina’s koalas are doomed. You can’t mitigate against extinction – it’s forever,’ Mrs Vass said.
IFAW native wildlife campaigner Josey Sharrad said the fate of the Ballina 200 had ‘garnered world-wide attention ‘and there were ‘lots of people watching the process closely’.
‘Over the next few weeks all the stakeholders will be working together to closely review the plan with a view to passing on our input to the minister,’ Ms Sharrad said.
Save Ballina’s Koalas spokesperson Jeff Johnson said it was ‘madness’ that the RMS ‘won’t even consider an alternative route that protects our critical koala populations and irreplaceable Aboriginal sites.’
To see the plan go to www.rms.nsw.gov.au/koala