Leadbeater's possum faces 'managed extinction' without action

Rosslyn Beeby -Mar 27, 2012

Australia will witness the ''managed extinction'' of one of its rarest mammals, Leadbeater's possum, unless the federal government intervenes to save its old growth mountain ash habitat, a leading scientist says.

Australian National University ecologist Professor David Lindenmayer has written to federal Environment Minister Tony Burke this week, requesting the possum's conservation status be upgraded urgently from endangered to critically endangered under federal biodiversity protection laws.

''Unless we move quickly, we'll see this animal go extinct within 25 years. If governments do nothing, then Leadbeater's possum is stuffed,'' he said. The possum, named after Victoria Museum taxidermist John Leadbeater, was thought to be extinct until the mid-1960s, when a colony was discovered living in forests near Marysville - one of the areas hardest hit by the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

Professor Lindenmayer, who has studied the possum and its habitat for 30 years, estimates there could be as few as 500 left.

''We are quick to accuse other countries, like Indonesia, of clearing wildlife habitat, but we need to look at our own backyard first. What we are doing to our native forests and wildlife is just as bad,'' he said.

In a recent paper, Professor Lindenmayer warned Australia had already lost lost 99 per cent of its old-growth mountain ash forests, with ''catastrophic implications'' for bushfire control, water harvesting and wildlife conservation. He is finalising a paper which points to ''an alarming death rate'' of old growth trees across his central highlands study area.

''We are seeing old trees dying at a rapid rate, but without the necessary recruitment to replace them.''

Professor Lindenmayer said the forests would be worth more as carbon sinks, based on a carbon price of around $23 a tonne and current woodchip export prices of about $7 a tonne. His comments coincide with a report by ANU environmental lawyer Andrew Macintosh, which estimates 572,00 hectares of Tasmania's native forests will generate carbon credits worth between $765 million to $3.5 billion.

The report is part of a technical assessment of the conservation and commercial values of native forest reserves proposed by a joint agreement between the federal and Tasmanian governments.

Mr Macintosh said the value of the reserves as carbon sinks depended on the commitments Australia chose to make as part of a new Kyoto Protocol still being negotiated.

''The Australian government has not yet decided whether to participate in the Kyoto Protocol's second commitment period or what accounting rules it will apply to forestry management,'' Mr Macintosh said.

The impact of the reserves in reducing Australia's greenhouse emissions will depend on carbon accounting methods, and on whether there is ''leakage'', or continued forestry clearing in other states such as Victoria.

If Australia includes forestry management as part of its national emissions reduction effort under the new Kyoto agreement, the Tasmanian forest reserves will slice 10 per cent off the total task. They could also be worth billions in carbon credits on international markets.

''There's no doubt that carbon offsets are the more attractive option,'' Mr Macintosh said.

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