Cool country could prove a koala refuge

The cooler climate of the Northern Tablelands could prove an important refuge for koala populations and other animals in NSW as heatwaves become more frequent.

Field work on the Cool Country Koalas project is nearing completion following extensive surveys in the Delungra and Ashford regions, and also in the area from Black Mountain south to Nowendoc. The findings are expected to be released in late autumn.

“The information gathered in this project will help us implement strategies relevant to the local area that will protect and enhance existing koala habitat,” said Carina Johnson, Cool Country Koalas project officer with Northern Tablelands Local Land Services.  

“The data we have gathered will also feed into the NSW Government’s Saving our Species Iconic Koala Project which aims to secure the survival of the koala in the wild in NSW.”

Research on koalas west of the Great Dividing Range, cited in a report by the NSW Chief Scientist, indicates there has been a dramatic decline in koala populations of up to 80% since the 1990s, due partly to drought and extreme heatwaves.

NSW has just experienced the warmest summer on record after a season of significant heatwaves, and climate scientists have warned hotter summers could become the new norm. 

The Independent Review into the Decline of Koala Populations suggests the impact of extreme weather events on koalas is likely to increase. Predicted climate change is also expected to exacerbate other threats to the species such as disease.

“Koalas have likely been struggling in inland areas like Moree where prolonged hot weather has broken new records over summer,” said Carina Johnson.

Early findings of the Cool Country Koalas project indicated that previously strong populations around Ashford and along the Severn River may be suffering too.

“We hope that the higher elevations and significantly cooler climate of the Northern Tablelands might provide a refuge for koala populations in northern NSW,” said Carina.

According to Environmental Consultant, John Lemon, the Northern Tablelands could prove extremely important to the future of koalas in NSW,

“Prior to 2008, I would observe between 8 and 12 koalas a week during my daily three kilometre morning walk at the Gunnedah Research Centre. In the last six months at GRC I have sighted only one koala,” said John.

“Long term, cooler areas like the Northern Tablelands are likely to become a refuge not only for koalas, but for birds and other animals too as they move east to escape the heat. We are already seeing some bird species turning up in regions that are well east of their known range.”

The Cool Country Koalas project is an initiative of the Northern Tablelands Koala Recovery Strategy funded through Catchment Action NSW. For more information about the Cool Country Koala project contact Carina Johnson at Northern Tablelands Local Land Services on 02 6770 2000