Can koalas survive Queensland's housing crisis?

Offsets and habitat protections could be falling short of what's needed to save the species in Queensland, experts warn.

While koala populations in Queensland’s southeast have crashed by between 50 and 80 per cent in the last 20 years, the human population has skyrocketed.

To save koalas from encroaching development the state government has designated over 700,000 hectares of land in the region as a koala habitat. But, while the measures are well-intended, experts are increasingly identifying problems, leading to concerns the species is in danger.

Left - an aerial view of the Gold Coast. Right - a koala at the site of a new rail line.
While the government has unveiled new protections to help save koalas from extinction, experts say more must be done. Source: Getty/WildCare

This is the second story in a series examining whether endangered koalas can survive growing pressure to open up more land for housing. Last week we looked at NSW, and today we're examining two areas of concern in Queensland:

  • Habitat protection

  • Offsetting habitat destruction

Why government offset program could be failing koalas

When developers destroy koala habitat, they are required to contribute to an offset program to regenerate or protect land elsewhere. NSW has its own controversial program and the Commonwealth has proposed one too, but this article is concentrating on Queensland.

A new report published in People and Nature on Monday by the University of Queensland found offset payments in the state are falling short of what’s required to save koalas.

A key problem, according to lead author Professor Jonathan Rhodes is that there isn’t enough land left to protect or rehabilitate. The human population in the southeast jumped from 2.4 million in 2001 to 3.5 million in 2016. By 2041 it will likely hit 5.3 million and he expects this will make protecting koalas more difficult.

“This problem will become worse as the region expands and competition for land for development intensifies, making offset sites either impossible to find or more expensive to secure,” he said.

Left - a koala on a tree next to a suburban fence during the day. Right - a koala on a roof at night.
Koalas routinely require rescuing from backyards across the Gold Coast. Source: Michael Dahlstrom/Amy Wregg/WildCare

In Queensland, developers can either deliver the offset themselves or make a financial payment to the state government to complete it on their behalf. Most choose the latter, and Professor Rhodes believes this can be a good thing as the government is able to strategise how to spend the money most effectively.

But he's concerned that with land prices increasing, critical analysis is needed to determine whether payments by developers actually represent the true cost of delivering an offset.

Expert says habitat protection is crucial to saving koalas

Decades into the direct conflict between housing development and koalas in southeast Queensland, Professor Rhodes believes it remains unclear whether our environmental management is improving.

“I think we need to be very clear about where we allow development and where we don’t. We need to make sure core important koala habitat is protected and we don’t allow development in those areas,” he told Yahoo. “I’m not sure offsets are the solution.”

However, as Professor Rhodes concedes, protecting the habitat is also "tricky".

The problem with protecting koala habitat

The government has a plan to secure the future of koalas in the southeast that involves achieving an overall net gain in core koala habitat. However, critics say official government maps don't actually include large parcels of land where the species is found, meaning they could be bulldozed, and it would appear no koala habitat was lost.

An example is the northern Gold Coast suburb of Coomera where known koala hotspots haven't been mapped as habitat.

A map of Coomera with koala habitat mapped.
In Coomera green-highlighted koala habitat sits next to forest that has been excluded. Source: Queensland Globe

More on Coomera and koalas:

Why special koala priority areas aren’t safe from development

Within the areas mapped as koala habitat are a further 330,660 hectares that get special treatment — they're known as koala priority areas. While the state government's conservation strategy initially states clearing this land is “now prohibited”, later in the document it outlines several exemptions to this rule and that's something local conservationists are concerned about.

“It’s fantastic that we do have these priority koala areas, but you shouldn't assume that they’re absolutely protected,” Karina Waterman a campaigner with Coomera Conservation Group told Yahoo.

Exemptions include major projects like roads or housing. One such project is the Coomera Connector, a major highway that could stretch from the Gold Coast to the edge of Brisbane — a proposed option for its route would see the road cut through a koala priority area.

Can koalas survive the housing crisis?

The housing shortage in Queensland is dire — in May, the state's environment minister Meaghan Scanlon was shifted to the planning portfolio to help combat the crisis.

While her replacement Leanne Linard was unavailable for comment last week, a Department of Environment and Science (DES) spokesperson responded with a statement in response to questions from Yahoo about the conflict.

It said despite them facing threats, there is “no indication that koalas risk immediate extinction” in the southeast of the state.

So far it has funded private landholders to plant almost 170,000 trees to restore over 255 hectares of koala habitat at seven sites, and funded a number of research projects to support the species' long-term conservation.

While these initiatives will benefit koalas, many wildlife advocates remain unconvinced they will be enough to stop the species disappearing from much of the state.

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