In January 2020, we speculated that following the devastation of the then recent bushfires, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee might bring forward an assessment and decision as to whether koalas ought to move from a vulnerable listing under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to an Endangered listing in some parts of the country.

Eighteen months on, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment has now released a consultation document on Species Listing Eligibility and Conservation Actions for the koala (Consultation Koala Conservation Advice) that considers the eligibility of the koala for inclusion on the EPBC Act threatened species list in the Endangered category and the necessary conservation actions. Members of the public are invited to provide their views on this proposal by Friday, 30 July 2021.

The listing assessment relates to koalas in the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland. From 2 May 2012, the koala populations in those states and territory were listed as threatened species in the vulnerable category of the EPBC Act. The current proposal looks to up-list koalas to the of Endangered category.

Alongside the Consultation Koala Conservation Advice, the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has also released for consultation a draft National Recovery Plan for the koala (combined populations of Queensland, New South Wales and ACT). The draft National Recovery Plan is made under the EPBC Act and outlines national actions to support the recovery of listed koala populations. The draft National Recovery Plan is open for public comments until Friday, 24 September 2021.

The Consultation Koala Conservation Advice sets out the basis for the Threatened Species Scientific Committee forming a view that the relevant koala populations are eligible for listing as Endangered under the EPBC Act. An integral reference point for the conservation advice are studies and data undertaken following the 2012 vulnerable listing that endeavour to form an accurate baseline for koala population numbers across the bioregions, states and territories. The highest koala population estimates were reported for the Brigalow Belt North, Mulga Lands and South East Queensland regions.

The key threats on koalas outlined in the Consultation Koala Conservation Advice are loss of climate suitable habitat, increased intensity and frequency of drought/ heatwaves/ bushfire, declining nutritional value of foliage, human related activities (such as clearing koala habitat and encounter mortality with vehicles and dogs) and koala disease and health. Of those threats, the Consultation Koala Conservation Advice categorises shrinking climate envelope resulting in habitat loss, increased frequency of drought, heatwaves and high intensity bushfire as risks with catastrophic consequences.

The Koala Conservation Advice outlines four supporting strategies and two on-ground (direct) strategies, namely:

  1. build and share knowledge;
  2. strong community engagement and partnerships;
  3. increase habitat protection;
  4. koala conservation is integrated into policy, and statutory and land-use plans;
  5. active metapopulation management; and
  6. strategic habitat restoration.

The key assessment parameters that form the basis for an assessment of eligibility for listing as Endangered are metrics including the number of mature individuals, the extent of occurrence, the area of occupancy, the number of sub-populations, fragmentation and fluctuations. The data contained in the Consultation Koala Conservation Advice shows that between 2001 to 2021, the estimated decline of total population reached the Endangered threshold of 50% (without taking into account the effects of the 2019/2020 bushfires).

The Committee acknowledges that the estimated decline sits on the lower end of the threshold for the Endangered category but because a drop in the numbers due to the 2019/2020 bushfires cannot be accurately quantified, the Committee conclude confidently that the koala moves into the estimate for the Endangered range. The Committee also conclude that currently koalas are unlikely to reach the threshold for the critically Endangered category which would require an overall decline of 80%.

Interestingly, the koala conservation advice breaks down the estimated population sizes for the bioregions. In relation to the South Eastern Queensland bioregion, total koala numbers were anticipated to have been 15,821 in 2012 reflecting a 51% decline when compared to the preceding three generations (based on the number of koalas in 1992 being calculated as 32,288). The 2021 exponential decline is calculated to be 11,477 koalas and the forecast numbers for 2032 (by applying the three generation trends) would see the total SEQ koala numbers at 7,752.

Given that the koala is demonstrably close to the lower threshold of Endangered and ongoing trends suggest further events likely to be sufficient to worsen the decline, the Committee concludes that the koala is eligible for listing as Endangered under the relevant criterion.

Our January 2020 article looked at the existing operative provisions of the EPBC Act regarding changes to listings, and outlined the way in which a proposed or existing project may be impacted by any such change. The matters set out in that alert remain relevant noting that at the current time so far as we are aware there is no proposal to amend the listing provisions within the EPBC Act.

The Consultation Koala Conservation Advice confirms that the assessment should be considered “tentative” as it may change following responses to the consultation process. At the current time, any up-listing of the koala under the EPBC Act is not yet operative.

If approved, there are a number of instances under the EPBC Act when the Minister must have regard to an approved conservation advice, including in deciding whether or not to approve the taking of an action that has or will have, or is likely to have, a significant impact on the koala listed threatened species.