Threat to koala numbers: Roads and Maritime Services has been accused of endangering a rare ancestral koala population. Photo: Getty Images
A koala expert has quit after a NSW government backflip resulted in ecologists being phoned as they were surveying for koalas in the bush near Wardell on the north coast and told to stop.
Roads and Maritime Services has been accused of endangering a rare ancestral koala population with the genetic diversity needed to ensure the survival of koalas on the NSW coast, because of pressure to avoid delays in the Pacific Highway upgrade.
After awarding a contract to Ecosure to fully assess koala activity along the planned Wardell bypass, the department changed its mind a fortnight ago, and told the company it could only check for koalas in the immediate vicinity of animal underpass sites already chosen by the department.
Steve Phillips, an ecologist who sits on the federal government’s koala expert group, quit on the spot. He says koalas will die.
In his resignation letter to Ecosure, Mr Phillips said the department direction ”compromises the integrity, independence and veracity of the field assessment that was agreed to”.
The letter said the underpasses chosen were ”very poorly informed”. The department appeared concerned that what he might say in his report ”may damage the ‘progress’ they have made” on the highway design.
In response, Ecosure reminded Mr Phillips the department’s contract required confidentiality to be maintained.
Environmental impact statements for this stretch of the proposed upgrade were conducted before the NSW koala was listed as ”vulnerable to extinction” under federal law in 2012, and contain little information about koala activity. The advice to the federal minister that resulted in the koala’s listing was based, in part, on Mr Phillips research.
Genetic tests and new research by Mr Phillips last year discovered the Wardell koalas were a ”linchpin” colony, and vital for the survival of coastal koalas, which suffered high rates of disease because of in-breeding.
Mr Phillips has previously worked with the roads department along other sections of the Pacific Highway to move koalas. But he said there was more at stake at Wardell, where a curve would be introduced to the highway, taking it straight through the middle of the koala colony.
”This is a line in the sand. All the data is there. The federal government needs to take a strong position on this,” said Mr Phillips.
Marcus Ferguson, a ranger with the local Aboriginal land council, questioned why the department was continuing to buy land along the route when it did not have federal environmental approvals.
Mr Ferguson said the department had ignored information he had provided on koalas and potoroos living in the bush earmarked for clearing. ”The department really needs to change the route,” said Mr Ferguson.
A spokesman for Roads Minister Duncan Gay said the Wardell bypass route was approved by the former NSW Labor government in 2005. It was being assessed for approval by the NSW planning department, he said.
“Due to a conflict of interest detected earlier this month with a consultant carrying out the monitoring study, it was agreed the consultant should no longer work on the project,” said the spokesman. Mr Phillips rejected he had a conflict of interest.
Labor’s roads spokesman, Walt Secord, said: “It is no wonder the scientific community is questioning Barry O’Farrell’s commitment to the environment. [He] is hiding behind the fig leaf of so-called green tape and is using it as an exercise to wind back Labor’s achievements in environmental protection.”