A two-year program to increase and enhance koala habitat near Gunnedah will provide local marsupials with a fighting chance amid worsening weather conditions ahead.

The $1 million Kamilaroi Guda Koalas program, delivered by Local Land Services and funded by the Australian Government, recently finished its activities. It sought to give the local koala population the best chance of survival and recovery in a changing climate.

An area between Carroll and Gunnedah adjacent to the Namoi River was targeted for the program due to the proximity of permanent water, existing remnant native vegetation and suitable koala habitat.

On travelling stock reserves (crown land), 275 hectares of targeted weed control (tiger pear and African boxthorn) and 17 hectares of tree planting took place. These practices increase the diversity of shelter, feed species and age of trees, as well as remove obstacles to koala movement. Additionally, 50 hectares of improved management practices were also undertaken on private land, which included tree planting and weed control.

To create an important link between habitats, significant remediation activities and revegetation was carried out at a site along the Namoi River, and a wildlife drinker with a permanent water source was installed at another location.

Senior land services officer at Gunnedah, Angela Baker, said the habitat links are an important part of koala survival as the animals are most vulnerable when on the ground.

“Koalas use a lot of different trees and this allows them to move through the landscape more safely,” she said.

An ecologist also carried out a koala presence survey using a detector dog to update previous koala survey data from 2016 and 2017. The findings showed a significant decline in koala activity and will influence where additional surveying will take place over spring and summer this year.

Ms Baker said the dogs are trained to detect koala scat, or poo, and while they don’t usually sniff out individual animals, the canines help better inform koala surveys particularly after good seasons and high grass growth.

“It is more about presence and absence [of koalas],” she said.

“The dogs are particularly helpful after rain, when there is a lot of grass cover and it’s difficult to see [the scat].”

First drink: A top down view of early success at the wildlife drinker with a brushtail possum visiting regularly as soon as the drinker was installed.

Gunnedah koalas have been in serious decline since at least 2008, largely attributed to prolonged heatwaves in summer and drought. Coupled with the extreme weather, high rates of chlamydia infections have further decreased the population.

Now with the looming threat of El Nino and the dry weather forecast, Ms Baker said the koalas will again be under immense pressure to survive.

“It is going to be pretty severe,” she said.

“Koala numbers are already incredibly low, and combine that with chlamydia, it’s just one more added stress for them.”

It is not just koalas that are expected to suffer from the dry weather ahead.

Ms Baker said all tree-dwelling arboreal animals will be impacted and there is some evidence their populations are already being affected.

“From the early data we have, it’s looking like numbers have declined,” she said.

Ms Baker stressed the data was not conclusive and could also indicate their activity has decreased.

There has been recent evidence of a koala population existing at Coolah Tops National Park. It was possible there may also be some at Kaputar National Park but recent koala sightings in the Gunnedah area are rare.

To assist local koalas, Ms Baker encouraged property owners and landholders in the area to apply for a free Tree Troff through WIRES which can help koalas access water during dry times.

Even an ice cream container of water, weighted with a rock inside, located at the base of a tree can help koalas and other native wildlife manage heat stress.

The two-year program at Gunnedah was assisted by Aboriginal community support officer, Wally Hammond, who worked closely with the community to increase awareness and engagement in the project and about koalas. Initial consultation with the local Aboriginal community recognised that the Kamilaroi/Gamilaary word for koala should be used, hence including the word “guda”.

Local events in Gunnedah were held to help educate people about the plight of the koala. This included an expert workshop, a Gunnedah community event called Kamilaroi Koala Stories and Star Night and the release of a short documentary titled “What has happened to the koalas around Gunnedah?” which is available free online via Local Land Services.

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