A federal government decision to allow koala habitat to be cleared in Port Stephens sends the wrong message to the international community, Newcastle-based wildlife conservation scientist Ryan Witt says.
Dr Witt said Australia had received a lot of international support and donations to help with the recovery from the summer bushfires, with the loss of thousands of koalas a key concern.
"As far as the international community is concerned, we've sent the message that we're going to go about clearing koala habitat after all that. That's probably not a message that we want to be sending," Dr Witt said.
Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley approved the Brandy Hill quarry expansion into koala habitat on Tuesday, with conditions that include a 74-hectare koala habitat corridor being established on the quarry site.
Sussan Ley writes in response: Brandy Hill decision 'based on science, not emotion'
A report used by the federal government to justify approving the expansion featured a field study that occurred over only five days.
The report, which the minister's department commissioned, found that "as few as one or two koalas were present in the proposed construction area," Ms Ley said.
Dr Witt, of the University of Newcastle's School of Environmental and Life Sciences, said a five-day survey was "like taking a photo and saying, 'there's no koalas here today'."
The report's author Stephen Phillips, a koala ecologist with Biolink, said the "robust technique" used in the survey was "best practice".
"It's a very objective report. We're evidence-based. I don't shy away from the truth and I'm a very strong koala conservation advocate," Mr Phillips said.
"If there was a battle to be had here, I was going to engage it."
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Nevertheless, Dr Witt said the government's legal frameworks were "not sensitive enough" for animals like the koala.
"We definitely need better ways of locating koalas and understanding their movement," he said.
"Whatever the outcome of this is, it's always bad to take out critical koala habitat."
The Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group previously commissioned Dr Witt and his colleague Associate Professor John Clulow to report on the quarry expansion plan.
The report included three nights of fieldwork on properties neighbouring the quarry. Within that time, the fieldwork team observed "a healthy female koala and a bellowing male koala" within 100 metres. A short time later, another bellowing male koala was heard.
When this report was released on September 3, Dr Witt said there was a "likelihood of healthy males and females utilising that habitat".
Ms Ley referred to this report when she extended the deadline to make her decision. In approving the expansion on Tuesday, she said: "This is not a region where bushfires have impacted local populations or habitat. The area to be cleared is not a site that is supporting resident breeding populations".
In response, Dr Witt said: "It's not sound logic to suggest that koalas aren't breeding in the area, as this was only a five-day assessment. There are local koala records that suggest otherwise. In my opinion, it would need a lot more monitoring to conclude that point".
Minister Ley's decision to approve the quarry expansion includes the establishment of a 74-hectare koala habitat corridor on the site.
She noted this was "larger than the proposed 52 hectares of habitat to be cleared by the expansion itself".
Construction materials company Hanson, which is behind the quarry expansion, said the 74-hectare corridor would be "replanted in five stages", with $2 million spent over 10 years.
"The establishment of this habitat will ultimately provide koala habitat that is of greater quality than currently exists," the company said.
Dr Witt said the 74-hectare corridor was an "excellent initiative, but it needs to be designed well".
He said an independent research project could be established to monitor the corridor and determine whether it worked. If koalas did not respond positively to the corridor, "we'll need to know why".
Minister Ley's media release on Tuesday was headlined: "Brandy Hill approval ensures koala protection".
Dr Witt said: "It remains to be seen whether it is a good outcome or not".
Hanson said approval of the expansion had secured the quarry's existing jobs, including "50 direct positions at the quarry".
Dive deeper: Port Stephens koalas and the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion:
- Brandy Hill Quarry expansion plans will destroy 50 hectares of koala habitat(January 15, 2020)
- Brandy Hill residents fear for koala population if quarry expands(June 30, 2020)
- Resident bid to save koalas from Brandy Hill Quarry expansion(August 21, 2020)
- Koala experts from University of Newcastle urge government to consider impact on habitat in expansion approval(September 3, 2020)
- Federal government under pressure to reject Brandy Hill quarry expansion(September 6, 2020)
- Brandy Hill Quarry expansion plan delayed, Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group say proposal could disrupt koala habitat(September 7, 2020)
- Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley visits Brandy Hill and scene of koala controversy(September 30, 2020)
- Save Port Stephens Koalas vows to keep pressure on as Federal Environment Minister delays Brandy Hill quarry decision(October 8, 2020)
- Save Port Stephens Koalas campaign rolls on with Brandy Hill Hanson quarry decision delay(October 8, 2020)