Court gives new hope for critically endangered possum

A critically endangered Leadbeater’s possum. Photo Victorian State Government.
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VicForests acted illegally, the Federal Court has ruled – and it’s a big win for the Leadbeater’s possum and the greater glider, and their passionate supporters. Justin Hanger reports.

The Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum group has welcomed as a “landmark decision” a Federal Court ruling that VicForests broke the law in its timber harvesting.

The judgment last month said VicForests was guilty of breaking environmental laws and breaching their own standards of timber harvesting and animal protection.

Leadbeater’s group president Steve Meacher said the group gave VicForests “repeated warnings that what they were doing was against the law”.

“They ignored their obligations. It’s wonderful that the Federal Court supports that view,” he said.

“VicForests is not doing what it is required to do under the law.”

The win is very good news for the animals, he said.

By logging areas of Central Highland’s old-growth mountain ash forests, and not undertaking animal detection activities before carrying out work, VicForests broke the law, the court found.

Steve Meacher, president of Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum group. Photo Eddie Jim.

The ruling concerned “past and proposed forestry operations”, and said they “did not apply the precautionary principle to the conservation of biodiversity values”, as required by the Code of Practice for Timber Production (2014).

This directly threatens the greater glider, which is listed as vulnerable, and the Leadbeater’s possum, listed as critically endangered under the EPCB Act.

Mr Meacher said the critically endangered animal’s population was still declining, though the numbers were hard to judge.

We want to “halt the decline”, he said.

Volunteers “stagwatch” in the summer months and groups like WOTCH are now using infra-red technology to count animals. Stagwatching involves sitting on the forest floor and looking at the silhouette of a stag tree (an old tree with hollows) against the night’s sky to watch for emerging animals.

Estimates put the number of remaining Leadbeater’s Possums at 1000-2000, and the situation was urgent, he said.

“There is a sub-population at Yellingbow in the Yarra Valley which has been separate from the Ash Forrest population for 10,000 years or so.”

But it may be a lost cause for them, with estimates that there may be as few as 28 left.

“They are not a sub-species, they haven’t diverged that far yet, but they are genetically distinct, so an important population,” he said.

Mr Meacher said Healesville Sanctuary had abandoned the breeding in captivity program they had been running for a few years, without success.

It was unclear why, he said.

Mr Meacher said the group was instrumental in recruiting the Australian Conservation Foundation to help fund the services of Environmental Justice Australia to fight VicForests.

The Australian Conservation Foundation is now also actively raising awareness for the small marsupial.

The Leadbeater’s possum is found only in Victoria, and is the state’s official faunal emblem.

VicForests was contacted for comment, but declined.