He is expected to list koalas in southeast Queensland as endangered and those in eastern New South Wales as vulnerable.
Those campaigning for koala protection say he is not going far enough, and the iconic creatures should be listed as a threatened species throughout the country.
Once koalas are listed as endangered, restrictions come into force on development projects in their habitats in the area in question.
Chief executive of the Australian Koala Foundation, Deborah Tabart, says it is the mining, logging, and development industries that are standing in the way of koalas being protected throughout Australia. “Those industries are afraid of a national listing, and have lobbied hard against it.”
The Wilderness Society says koalas must be included on the national threatened species list, especially in the Gunnedah region of New South Wales, and the Pilliga Forest, where they face the additional threat of expanding coal mining and coal seam gas operations.
“The koala is an Australian icon that deserves federal protection. Koalas need to be protected across Australia as they are rapidly declining in numbers, especially in the Pilliga Forest, where three-quarters of the population has been wiped out since 2000,” said Wilderness Society spokeswoman Naomi Hogan.
“Gunnedah is known as the ‘Koala Capital of the World’, yet recent scientific studies show koala numbers across the region are seriously declining.”
Zoologist David Paull has recorded a 75 percent decline in koala numbers in the Pilliga Forest from 1993 to 2011. “The population was relatively stable until 2000, but there are now only between 500 and 2,000 koalas left in the area.”
Hogan said: “The spread of mines and gas wells, tree kills from coal seam gas spills, and increased vehicles through the Pilliga Forest are likely to put extra strain on these already declining koala populations.
“The 2011 senate inquiry recognised that the major threats to koalas are habitat degradation, vehicle strikes, and fire – all of which are likely to increase in the Pilliga Forest, Liverpool Plains and Gunnedah areas if coal seam gas mining proceeds.”
Long-time defender of koalas Wanda Grabowski was an expert witness at the senate inquiry. She is secretary and education officer for the non-profit group, Koala Action Pine Rivers (KAPR).
“KAPR believes that the federal legislation must protect koalas across their natural range, which includes Victoria and South Australia,” Grabowski said. “All states are experiencing an escalating decline in koala numbers.
“The evidence in Queensland and New South Wales is indisputable. However, lack of surveying and a focus on sterilisation and contraception in Victoria and South Australia has meant insufficient evidence for a decline is readily available. Carers and rescuers in those states are fully aware of the problems facing koalas in their locations, but both state and federal governments have ignored emerging problems.”
Grabowski points to the many causes have brought about the decline of koalas in Australia. “What is required to reduce the decline is complex. Essential to the entire process is the need to stop clearing bush land in urban and peri-urban areas, and to halt the fragmentation of remaining habitat.”
Burke will rule on the basis of advice from the national Threatened Species Scientific Committee.
His decision has been awaited since last year’s senate inquiry into the status, health, and sustainability of the koala.
The senators stated in their report that the committee was not qualified to determine whether or not the koala should be listed as threatened, but was deeply concerned about the sustainability of Australia’s koala population.
The committee made 19 specific recommendations including the recommendation that the Australian government fund a properly designed, funded, and implemented national koala monitoring and evaluation programme.
According to the Australian Koala Foundation, when European settlers first arrived in Australia, there were 10 million koalas in the wild. It is hard to say how many koalas remain. There is little doubt that there are a few hundred thousand at most; and the senate inquiry was told that there are probably between 50,000 and 100,000.