Conservationists are fearing for the welfare of endangered wildlife at a Western Australian construction site.
Footage shot minutes after a habitat tree was felled shows an authorised wildlife handler removing a critically endangered western ringtail possum from a tree hollow.
Yahoo News Australia understands while possums are generally released at night, the animal in the video was controversially released in the afternoon, leading to criticism from a major wildlife rescue group.
FAWNA argues releasing nocturnal possums during daylight hours exposes them to predators.
While the animals are monitored once released, the rescue group warns such a release could lead to death from stress myopathy. FAWNA requires its carers to release possums at dusk or dawn.
The WA Department of Main Roads, which oversees the project said the practices captured in the video comply with its management plan.
It permits fauna spotters to “coerce (or) move” wildlife affected by clearing “to a safe area outside of the clearing footprint”.
Concern for critically endangered possums
Western ringtail possums and other wildlife living in the Gelorup Corridor, are at the centre of an ongoing conflict between government and conservationists.
The possums number less than 8000 in the wild and only 10 per cent of their original range survives.
The native species are being displaced after Environment Minister Tayna Plibersek permitted the WA government to bulldoze 70 hectares to make way for the $1.25 Bunbury Outer Ring Road (BORR).
Her delegate gave the project the green light, days before she released her State of the Environment Report, warning habitat loss was playing a significant role in Australia’s poor environmental health.
“Habitat destruction and fragmentation” is also at the top of the Department of Biodiversity’s (DBCA) list of “main threats” to western ringtail possums.
How authorities are managing displaced possums
Because the site is home to a species protected under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, Main Roads must adhere to a number of possum protection conditions.
They include “passive relocation management actions” designed to protect wildlife from being injured or killed.
As part of its separate management plan, Main Roads employs a zoologist and fauna specialists, who conduct health checks on all displaced possums.
These experts ultimately make the call on how to release animals removed from hollows. An independent monitor and the DBCA also frequent the site.
“Main Roads takes its responsibility very seriously and is adhering to our commitments to protect and support the Western Ringtail Possum,” a department spokesperson said.
‘They are being brutally ripped from their homes’
Despite assurances from Main Roads, Dr Sue Chapman, vice-president of community group Friends of the Gelorup Corridor, remains concerned about general possum welfare.
“They are being brutally ripped from their homes. This is not passive relocation," she said.
"This is destruction of the environment and forcible removal."
FAWNA president Suzanne Strapp described the displacement of wildlife from its habitat as “just horrendous”.
“Imagine how absolutely blown out of its mind the possum would be," she said.
There’s also the volume of noise from the machinery. We know these animals can die from stress."
Three dead possums found near construction site
While western ringtail possum deaths have not been recorded since the works began at the south end of the BORR project, Main Roads discovered three dead in July.
It said the deaths have no relationship with previous works at the north or central ends of the project, but confirmed animals were fitted with radio collars.
Tracking the possums through radio collars forms a contentious part of the project management plan, with conservationists arguing they are too heavy, leaving them open to predation.
Dr Chapman has raised the collar issue and other EPBC compliance concerns with the federal Department of Environment and remains frustrated it has not responded to her emails.
The department confirmed with Yahoo News Australia it had “received allegations” but said it could not comment on details of this matter, in line with its compliance policy.
Habitat loss occurring during birthing season
When the project was challenged in the Federal Court more than a week ago, the state’s solicitor general argued stalling the project could interfere with western ringtail possums' breeding patterns.
Local wildlife carers argue the current season is not ideal for the destruction of the forest. It is occurring when South Western Australia Indigenous Wadandi people traditionally refrained from hunting western ringtail and brushtail possums.
The DBCA also identified the western ringtail possum birthing season as late autumn and winter, with some coastal populations breeding throughout the year.
Volunteers from wildlife rescue group FAWNA confirmed they have admitted a number of possum joeys into care in recent months. They were displaced due to incidents unrelated to the project.
Ms Strapp argues it’s “ridiculous” to be clearing habitat while baby possums are being born.
“Imagine if they were doing that to a koala or a quokka,” she said.
“It’s just appalling and it astounds me that no one with power has called a halt to this whole thing.”
Minister Plibersek's office has not responded to Yahoo News Australia's repeated requests for comment.
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