Koala conservationists have again expressed grave concerns for a nationally significant koala colony following the approval of the next section of the Pacific highway upgrade.
The Federal environment minister, Greg Hunt has approved the controversial section of the Pacific highway upgrade despite koala population modelling which suggests the route will lead to the extinction of the Ballina colony.
Eleven koalas have already been killed at the McLeods Shoot section of the highway upgrade according to koala rescue and conservation organisation Friends of the Koala.
Friends of the Koala believe these fatalities occurred as a direct result of the highway construction and expect more koalas to die when building begins on the next section.
The Ballina to Woolgoolga stretch of the highway was approved with 26 strict environmental conditions that Greg Hunt says will ensure the survival of the koalas.
The conditions require a comprehensive Ballina Koala Plan to be produced that will contain peer reviewed population modelling measuring the impact of the highway on the koalas over the next 50 years.
“The conditions require the NSW Roads and Maritime Services to demonstrate that impacts to the Ballina Koala population will be acceptable, before section 10 of the highway can be undertaken.”
Koala Ecologist, Dr Steve Phillips is pleased with the inclusion of the Ballina Koala Plan in these conditions.
“The bar has been set high in terms of consideration of wildlife during planning and development,” he said.
Phillips welcomes the new protection measures and "increased scrutiny of koala conservation at the Federal Government level" following what he perceives as the failure of the State government to protect the koalas.
The NSW Roads and Maritime Services commissioned Dr Phillips to produce a report assessing the Ballina koala population during intial planning for the highway, then contentiously narrowed the skope of the study resulting in Dr Phillips' resignation.
Dr Phillips' population modelling research had predicted the Ballina koalas would not survive the impact of the highway construction.
He believes there is a simple and more effective way of protecting the Ballina colony.
“The obvious solution is to move the highway, moving the road just 300 metres west would significantly improve the survival of the colony,” he said.
The Australian Koala Foundation’s chief ecologist, Douglas Kerlin also believes Section 10 of the planned highway should be moved.
Kerlin cited the planning guidelines produced by the Foundation which strongly recommend not building any new roads through or between koala habitat patches.
“Increased mortality and habitat fragmentation imposed by roads is a serious concern for long-term koala survival.
“The direct effect of roads on wildlife populations are wide-ranging and include the destruction and modification of habitat, modification of animal behaviour, fragmentation of habitat by the formation of barriers.”
Pat Barnidge has witnessed this first-hand as the Care Coordinator at Friends of the Koala based in Lismore.
Barnidge expressed her dismay at the Pacific highway approval which cuts straight through the habitat of the koala colony.
“It's devastating, it's a crime against wildlife,” she said.
Construction is expected to begin on the highway upgrade in early 2015.