A leading expert says the Victorian Government is deliberately driving the state's faunal emblem to extinction. The State Government says that's not true. The Federal Government is concerned though.... it wants the Leadbeater's Possum to be listed as critically endangered.
EMILY BOURKE: There are accusations that the Victorian Government is deliberately driving the state's prized animal emblem to extinction, by allowing logging in its habitat.
It's estimated there may be as few as 1500 Leadbeater's Possums left in the wild.
In a letter, published in the journal 'Science', two respected conservation scientists say the Victorian Government is taking calculated actions to substantially reduce the viability of the endangered species.
While the Victorian Government says it's committed to protecting the Leadbeater's Possum, the Federal Government says it has concerns and it's trying to get the possum listed as a critically endangered species.
Simon Lauder reports.
SIMON LAUDER: South Australia has the Hairy Nosed Wombat, Queensland has the koala, Western Australia has the numbat, Victoria's animal emblem is the Leadbeater's Possum.
The Leadbeater's Possum was believed to have perished in the bushfires of 1939. It was rediscovered in 1961, then the 2009 bushfires destroyed large areas of its habitat.
DAVID LINDENMAYER: So that's less Leadbeater's Possums than there are Siberian Tigers, fewer Leadbeater's Possums than there are orang-utans. Our estimate is that Leadbeater's Possum is probably got between 15 and 30 years left.
SIMON LAUDER: Professor David Lindenmayer has studied the Leadbeater's Possum and its habitat for more than 30 years. Until last year he was an expert adviser to a Victorian Government committee committed to saving the possum.
But then he quit, in protest against the Government's logging practices.
Now the Australian National University ecologist, in partnership with Professor Hugh Possingham from the University of Queensland, has written a scathing letter in the journal Science.
DAVID LINDENMAYER: What we wanted to do was tell the world that in Australia, in Victoria, there are changes to legislation and changes to practice on the ground which are deliberate actions to drive a highly endangered species to extinction.
It's a world first.
SIMON LAUDER: And you're accusing the Government of driving it to extinction deliberately?
DAVID LINDENMAYER: That's correct.
SIMON LAUDER: The possums live in old growth Mountain Ash, in hollows high up in the trees. Professor Lindenmayer says new government standards for identifying Leadbeater's Possum habitat in logging areas are not good enough.
DAVID LINDENMAYER: One of the changes is ensuring that places that we know Leadbeater's Possum will occur are no longer going to be surveyed in ways which will detect the animal.
So it's an effort to deliberately miss the fact that the suitable habitat exists. It's really quite extraordinary.
The situation is that we know what Leadbeater's habitat looks like, we know where it occurs and we know where we shouldn't be logging, but this new approach will mean that suitable areas of forest will be logged and they'll be clear felled in ways which will mean that the habitat will remain unsuitable for at least 150-200 years.
SIMON LAUDER: Isn't it very illusive and quite difficult to prove that it's in a particular area?
DAVID LINDENMAYER: Not if you know what the habitat of the animal looks like, and that's what we've been working on for 30 years.
SIMON LAUDER: Lachlan Spencer is the director planning at the state government-owned logging company Vic Forests.
Mr Spencer rejects Professor Lindenmayer's attack on the new survey standards.
LACHLAN SPENCER: The survey standard doesn't replace anything. In the past there was simply the prescription which had some interpretive elements to it. This has led to differences of opinion in the forest and including in a court case which VicForests was involved in.
The regulator has created these survey standards to clarify what the prescription that have been in place for some 15 years mean, so that we're all on the same page in regards to what should and shouldn't be protected.
SIMON LAUDER: David Lindenmayer says surveyors won't be looking up properly, they won't be looking for the hollows that the possums live in.
LACHLAN SPENCER: We don't agree that the survey standard changes what's been looked for, for the past 15, 20 years since the prescriptions required for the protection of Leadbeater's Possum habitats been in place in the Central Highlands.
SIMON LAUDER: Victoria's Environment Minister, Ryan Smith, and the Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh are both in a cabinet meeting and unavailable for an interview.
In a statement Mr Smith says the Government is committed to doing all it can to protect the Leadbeater's Possum, including identifying better ways to protect the species and its key habitat.
But the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, says he's deeply concerned by continued reports that the Leadbeater's Possum is being put at risk.
Mr Burke says he's taken the unusual step of writing to the chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, asking the committee to consider listing Victoria's emblem as critically endangered.
EMILY BOURKE: Simon Lauder.