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Byron Shire
June 18, 2021

Dam doesn’t give a damn about koalas

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This koala, killed by a car near the proposed Dunoon dam, was part of a genetically important population in the Dunoon area that may be able to contribute to the strengthening of the general koala population. Koalas face many threats, including cars and dogs and disease, but the worst is habitat loss. Hugh Nicholson.

The proposed Dunoon Dam is still a possibility, though it has been voted against twice by the members of Rous County Council. Now information has emerged which presents another reason to shut down the threat of the dam once and for all.

Nan Nicholson of WATER Northern Rivers says new information has been revealed about the local population of koalas which would be impacted by the proposed 50 GL dam at Dunoon.

‘The Dunoon Dam was taken off the table by Rous County Council in December 2020,’ she said. ‘The councillors who voted down the dam proposal cited the loss of important ecological systems and fauna habitat, as well as the valuable cultural heritage sites of the Widjabul Wia-bal people.

‘It appears that the Dunoon Dam koalas are even more important than first thought as they can help other koala populations to recover robust genetics.’

Unusual genetics

Internationally renowned koala expert Dr Steve Phillips. Photo supplied.

Dr Steve Phillips from Biolink Ecological Consultants says the Dunoon koala population has different genetic origins.

‘These koalas are more robust and outbred than other koala populations to the south and east, which are, in contrast, immunologically compromised and demonstrably inbred,’ he said.

‘The Dunoon koalas thus have lots to offer these other koalas which suffer from high disease levels and associated mortalities, as well as the manifestation of physical traits of inbreeding such as smaller average body sizes and microcephaly,’ said Dr Phillips.

‘As far as we can tell, the genetic affinity/origins of the population imply a link to hinterland koala populations of SE Queensland, loosely referred to as the SEQ genome,’ he said.

Dr Phillips says we have known about the presence of this special koala population for some time, since at least mid-1990s, but ‘we do not yet know such critical things as population size and the full extent of the population’s distribution in the Dunoon area.’

Why is the population so special? 

Dr Phillips says is it because it carries genetic information known to be missing from the coastal populations of Byron, Ballina, and the Richmond River floodplain around Lismore.

‘The progressive or assisted incorporation of genes from the Dunoon koalas into these other populations will increase their overall genetic and immunological fitness and so increase their capacity to resist change.’

Channon Gorge area to be inundated by proposed dam. Photo David Lowe.

Nan Nicholson says the Dunoon Dam would destroy 23 ha of koala habitat according to the Terrestrial Ecology Impact Assessment prepared for Rous County Council in 2013.

‘This does not include forest damaged or fragmented by construction works, or peripheral impacts on koalas living around the edges of the impact zone.

‘The forest consists of key koala feed tree species such as Tallowwood, linked by rainforest and regrowth,’ she said.

‘In addition to habitat loss, Koala corridors linking this population to others would also be negatively impacted.’

Ms Nicholson says mitigation is not an option because koalas need these trees now and cannot wait for a regrown forest. ‘Northern NSW koalas could be extinct in less than 30 years if nothing is done to halt ongoing habitat loss.’

Future water

Revised Future Water Project plan. Rous County Council.

A new Future Water Plan, without the Dunoon Dam, has been prepared by Rous County Council and released for public comment. Submissions close on May 28.

WATER Northern Rivers Alliance represents local groups promoting diverse water options and opposing the Dunoon Dam: https://waternorthernrivers.org/

The organisation is urging people who care about koalas to put in a submission supporting Rous’ new Future Water 2060 plan. This plan has taken the Dunoon Dam off the table.

More information here: https://rous.nsw.gov.au/future-water-for-our-region

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