Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley is being urged to "go with the science" after a crucial independent recommendation for her to list the iconic species under national environment laws as endangered in the wake of the devastating Black Summer bushfires.
The Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) has made a tentative assessment on the koala's threatened species status for the populations of the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland, recommending that "the koala is eligible for listing as endangered" in eastern Australia because of population declines.
"Given that the Koala is demonstrably close to lower threshold
of endangered and that ongoing trends suggest further events likely to be sufficient to worsen
the decline, the committee considers that the Koala is eligible for list as endangered," the TSSC said in its assessment.
The marsupial is currently listed as vulnerable on the east coast. Any change to the listing now requires the Minister's approval after a period of public consultation.
Environmental groups have been seeking such a listing for many years as it would give stronger legal protections for the species, but the World Wide Fund for Nature - Australia (WWF), the Humane Society International and International Fund for Animal Welfare had pushed again in the wake of the recent bushfires and drought.
"I smiled and cried this morning when I read it," WWF's Stuart Blanch told The Canberra Times.
"[It was] based on the criteria, that the threatened species experts also agreed on, which is a 50 per cent decline over 18 years, based on our own reports, and they agreed.
"So there's some consolation that, as conservation scientists, we have been trying to protect koalas for a long time that we were right, and great sadness that it's come to this that koalas are now on the cusp of being listed as endangered on east coast."
The Federal Government has just released a Draft National Recovery Plan for the #Koala along with Draft Conservation Advice supporting an #Endangered listing in response to @hsiaustralia@WWF_Australia and @ifawAU EPBC Act nomination. More to come! #auspolhttps://t.co/u3MDN41eNH— Evan Quartermain (@EvanQuartermain) June 17, 2021
WWF estimates that more than 60,000 koalas were affected by the 2019/2020 bushfire crisis.
East coast koalas have also been heavily impacted by drought, land clearing, disease, domestic dog attacks and road accidents, but the bushfires garnered world attention.
"It was the fires that brought it into the living rooms of people in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. I think, politically, that is hard for the government now to escape," Mr Blanch said.
"Within a decade, our icon has plummeted to being at risk of extinction. And I think that that's a combination of a lot of factors over that decade."
The federal environment minister has now called for public comment on the threatened species status as well as for a reworking of a draft National Koala Recovery Plan for the species.
Ms Ley said the government understood that koalas needed help to recover, including rebuilding destroyed habitats.
"The images of burnt, injured, dehydrated and frightened koalas suffering during the bushfires were haunting," she said in a statement.
"It has been critical that, as part of our $200 million wildlife and habitat bushfire response, we have had scientists assessing the best path forward for supporting the koala."
The WWF has just one piece of advice for the minister.
"Go with the science," Mr Blanch said.
There's a likelihood that federal coalition colleagues, the Nationals, may have difficulties with the Minister approving an endangered listing for koalas. A stoush over the protection of koalas - and restriction of farm land use - in New South Wales earlier this year threatened to tear the state Coalition apart and only ended with the Nationals leader John Barilaro backing down.
The environment minister announced an $18 million package to help protect koalas last November including a national audit of koala populations which was criticised by some environmental groups as waste of time.
Public submissions to the draft recovery plan close in September, while the opportunity to submit to the draft Koala Listing Assessment and Conservation Advice is open until July 30.
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