Environmentalists estimate that tree clearing in regional and rural Queensland is now 15 times more destructive to the state’s koala populations than urban sprawl.
Development, and the loss of koala habitat for housing and infrastructure, was considered a key reason why the koala was added to the “vulnerable” species list in 2012.
But analysis by WWF conservation scientist Martin Taylor challenges the idea that the state’s koala populations are most at threat by the growth of Brisbane, the Gold Coast and sunshine coast.
Taylor concludes that of more than 5,000 estimated koala deaths due to loss of habitat in Queensland from 2012 to 2016, almost 94% occurred outside the heavily developed south-east.
The analysis comes amid a heated debate in Queensland about new tree-clearing laws. The Palaszczuk government has tabled a bill to restore many of the restrictions that were removed by the Newman government in 2013.
Taylor said once thriving populations of koalas in the south-east corridor had “collapsed” over several decades. But he said the scale of that problem is now dwarfed by the clearing of agricultural land, putting the species under further threat.
“There’s this illusion out there that somehow koalas only occur in south-east Queensland and it’s just not the case at all,” Taylor said. “The difference is we just don’t hear about the koalas dying in the regions.
“The facts are quite clear, koalas occur broadly throughout the state and if you bulldoze koala habitat you’re pushing them closer towards extinction.”
The debate is complicated by an incomplete picture of the Queensland koala population. Most reported sightings occur in the south-east, close to population centres.
Taylor’s study, which he said was “deliberately conservative”, estimated koala deaths across the state by mapping the marsupials’ habitat. The study assumed that when habitat was bulldozed, the animals there mostly died.
Andrew Freeman from AgForce Queensland, the peak group for rural producers, said land clearing could by done carefully, without bulldozing areas where koalas were spotted or known to live.
“You can do it with a fair bit of precision,” Freeman said.
“Landholders across the state in areas where known koala habitat exists are reporting sightings and a return of koalas to some areas that they haven’t been seen for many years.”
He said it had been several years since a comprehensive statewide study of koala numbers had been undertaken, but that “the highest concentrations of koalas still appear to be in the south-east corner, where there are significant pressures from urbanisation, vehicles and dogs”.
A committee examining the state’s land-clearing laws is expected to report back on 23 April.