Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) populations in Queensland (QLD), New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have been listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). This listing came into legal effect on 2 May 2012. The listed threatened QLD, NSW and ACT populations are hereafter referred to in these guidelines as the koala.
If your action is likely to have a significant impact on the koala, you must refer the action to the federal environment minister through the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (the department). Projects referred or approved under state, territory or local environment laws in QLD, NSW or the ACT, which have not commenced and are likely to have a significant impact on koalas, will require referral under national environment law. This includes relevant projects given ‘significant project’ status by state governments.
Certain actions are exempt from the requirement of assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. These include lawful continuations of land use that commenced before 16 July 2000, or actions that were legally authorised before 16 July 2000. An example of such actions would be ongoing farming practices that are not being intensified or expanded.
There are a number of criteria that must be satisfied to rely on any such exemptions. More information on exemptions under the EPBC Act is available at www.environment.gov.au/ epbc/publications/exemptions.html.
Under certain circumstances a Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) forestry operation that is undertaken in accordance with an RFA may also be exempt from having to be referred under the EPBC Act. For more information on RFAs see www.daff.gov.au/rfa.
It is your decision whether to refer your proposal in relation to the potential for a significant impact on the koala or other matters of national environmental significance. The department will produce referral guidelines to assist you to determine whether you need to refer your action for assessment under the EPBC Act. The development of these guidelines will require expert and public consultation over the coming months.
In the interim, this document provides preliminary advice on whether you may need to refer your action. This advice is based on the current understanding of the ecology and biology of the koala, which is outlined in the species’ profile in the department’s Species Profile and Threats Database, and written in accordance with Significant impact guidelines 1.1 – Matters of Environmental Significance. This advice complements the koala species listing fact sheet available on the department’s koala webpage.
What is known about the koala and its habitat?
Koalas live in a range of temperate, subtropical and tropical forest, woodland and semi-arid communities dominated by eucalypt species. Their distribution is affected by altitude, temperature and leaf moisture, particularly at the western and northern ends of their range.
As a leaf-eating specialist, the koala’s diet is restricted mainly to foliage of eucalypt species1. There are around 120 species of eucalypt in which koalas have been observed sitting in and/or feeding. Whilst koalas are known to feed on the leaves of Eucalyptus-related genera, they usually get most of their nutrition from one or a few eucalypt species found at a single site. Preferences may also vary between regions or seasons.
1 The koala may also consume foliage of genera related to Eucalyptus, including Corymbia, Angophora and Lophostemon, and sometimes supplement its diet with other species, including those from the genera Leptospermum and Melaleuca (Martin and Handasyde 1999; Moore and Foley 2000).
What is the first step in deciding whether your action is likely to have a significant impact on the koala?
Firstly, you need to consider whether koalas or their habitat could occur within the area to be impacted by your action. For quick reference, you can refer to the habitat map presented in the koala species listing fact sheet. However, this is a static map and you should use the department’s Protected Matters Search Tool (PMST) for an up to date indication of potential koala occurrence in your area. You also need to contact your relevant local and state governments for confirmation as to whether a koala population or habitat has been recorded in your area.
What survey methods and level of effort are required to characterize a koala population and habitat?
If the PMST indicates that your action may have an impact on the koala, you need to gather adequate information on the characteristics of any koala populations and the quality of potential habitat within your study area2. This information, including lists of primary and secondary food tree species in your area, is best sought through your relevant local and state governments.
2 For the purposes of these guidelines, the term, study area, refers to the geographical area that is likely to be affected by your proposed action and, therefore, should be assessed for potential impacts on the listed species or habitat within. The study area includes the project area and any additional areas that are likely to be affected and should extend as far as necessary to take into account all potential direct or indirect, positive or negative, impacts
If adequate information is available on the distribution and abundance of koalas, and the character of potential koala habitat in your study area, there would be no need to undertake a koala survey or habitat assessment. Where the PMST indicates that koalas may be present, but there is little or no information available on koala populations and habitat in your study area, you should conduct both a habitat assessment and a koala survey (see koala survey and habitat assessment information below).
All koala population and habitat information collected through research and/or on-ground studies should be presented in your referral if you decide that it is necessary to refer your action.
The information gathered during a koala survey is required to properly assess the likely impact of your proposal on the koala. Where suitable habitat for koalas occurs, but records and/or other population information are limited, a koala survey should be undertaken to detect the species. Your koala survey should be undertaken concurrently with a habitat assessment. Once koalas have been detected, the size, density and distribution of the population needs to be measured as accurately as possible with the use of line-transects.
The application of the survey techniques outlined in Policy 4 (page 72) of the Queensland Government’s Nature Conservation (koala) Conservation Plan 2006 and Management Program 2006-2016 (QLD EPA 2006 - see www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/koalas/legislation/pdf/conservation-plan-06-16.pdf) is an appropriate approach in this regard.
Where koalas are identified as occurring in the study area, it is recommended that you use the Spot Assessment Technique (SAT), which was developed by Phillips and Callaghan (2011), to provide an indication of how much or frequently the area of habitat is being used by koalas. This method should help to identify the relative importance of the habitat.
A habitat assessment is necessary to ascertain whether habitat critical to the survival of the listed species (see below) occurs in the area. Koala abundance, distribution and habitat quality is influenced by tree species, topography, water availability, leaf nutrients, soil fertility, fire regimes and land use. According to Jurskis (2001), features of the study area which should be recorded include:
the canopy tree species composition
the percentage of the canopy cover of each of the above species
the vegetative ground cover (% of the ground area)
the leaf litter cover (% of the ground area)
the bare ground (% of the ground area)
the area of surface water (% of the ground area)
the distance to surface water (m) (in drought years, survival of a population may be dependent on the presence of vegetation near permanent waterways; Gordon et al, 1988).
evidence of dogs in the area (the potential threat of mortality from dog-attacks will influence impact assessment and impact-mitigation measures required).
What are the key considerations in deciding whether your action is likely to have a significant impact on the koala?
Important populations and habitat critical to the survival of the listed species are important considerations in deciding whether your action is likely to have a significant impact on the koala (see the significant impact criteria
for vulnerable species page 11 of Significant impact guidelines 1.1). Habitat and population information will help you to decide whether an important population or habitat critical to the survival of the listed species exists in your study area.
A koala population is defined by the capacity of individuals to move from one habitat patch to another. If two groups of koalas are separated by a substantial barrier to movement (e.g. river, mountain range, greater than15 km of cleared rural land or artificial barriers), and there is very little likelihood of exchange of individuals between the two groups, then the two may be considered separate populations.
If you identify a koala population in your study area, you need to determine whether it is an important population. Until important populations can be adequately identified through consultation with koala experts, apply the criteria for an important population of a species outlined in Significant impact guidelines 1.1:
An ‘important population’ is a population that is necessary for a species’ long-term survival and recovery. This may include populations identified as such in recovery plans, and/or that are:
key source populations either for breeding or dispersal
populations that are necessary for maintaining genetic diversity, and/or
populations that are near the limit of the species’ range.
Koala habitat is described generally on the 2nd page of this document. Habitat critical to the survival of the koala is currently considered to be areas of forest or woodland where:
primary koala food tree species comprise at least 30% of the overstorey trees3,
primary koala food tree species comprise less than 30% of the overstorey trees, but together with secondary food tree species comprise at least 50% of the overstorey trees3,
primary food tree species are absent but secondary food tree species alone comprise at least 50% of the overstorey trees
the above qualities may be absent in a forest or woodland but other essential habitat features are present and adjacent to areas exhibiting the above qualities (e.g. koalas in the Pilliga are known to escape the heat of the day by taking refuge in white cypress pines, which are not food trees), or
3 Callaghan, unpublished, in NSW DECC 2008 (pages 93 and 94)
a relatively high density of koalas is supported, regardless of the presence of food tree species. Koala population densities vary across their range and regional data should be used to judge relative density.
Habitat critical to the survival of the koala is also considered to be any form of landscape corridor which is essential to the dispersal of koalas between forest or woodland habitats.
What options are there to avoid or reduce the level of impact on the koala from your action?
The main identified threats to the koala are loss and fragmentation of habitat, vehicle strike, disease, and predation by dogs.
When designing your action, avoiding impacts on the koala should be your principal aim. This can be achieved by preserving important koala populations, retaining habitat critical to the survival of the listed species and avoiding actions that are likely to have a significant impact on the species in other ways, such as constructing a road adjacent to habitat which is likely to increase vehicle-related koala fatalities. If you believe that your options to avoid such impacts are not feasible, you should then mitigate or reduce the level of impact. Impacts can be mitigated through actions such as:
retaining koala food trees
promoting safe movement corridors
implementing koala friendly road and easement designs using fencing, culverts and other structures, and
preventing the access of dogs to koala habitat (or ensuring that existing dog accessibility is not increased).
Relevant state or local government koala management/recovery plans for the koala also provide information on best-practice impact-mitigation and should be consulted. Impact-mitigation should be monitored to ensure that it is effective and to allow for adaptive management responses.
What actions are likely to have a significant impact on the koala?
This guidance is not intended to be comprehensive. Other types of actions or impacts may constitute varying degrees of risk. For further information on significant impact, refer to Significant impact guidelines 1.1.
Significant impacts on the koala are most likely to result from direct or indirect impacts on habitat critical to the survival of the species and / or on important koala populations. Significant impacts may include:
the loss, fragmentation or permanent degradation of habitat critical to the survival or recovery of the listed species,
the permanent fragmentation of an important population (e.g. through proposed actions such as power lines and easements, and main road developments)
the clearing or burning4 of habitat where an important population (see above) is known or suspected to occur, or
the removal of primary food trees to the extent where an important population declines.
4 ‘Burning’ refers to medium to high-intensity burning – not low-intensity, prescribed burns.
In addition to impacts on important populations or habitat critical to the survival of the koala, you need to consider the potential for your action to have a significant impact on the species in other ways. Significant impacts on the koala are also likely through indirect or facilitated impacts such as:
an increase in vehicle-related koala fatalities leading to a long-term decline in a population, or
an increase in dog attack-related koala fatalities leading to a long-term decline in a population.
If your action is likely to have a significant impact on the koala, referral is recommended. If you are uncertain whether your action is likely to have a significant impact, the department recommends that you refer or contact the department. Examples of actions, where uncertainty about the significance of the resulting impact on the koala may arise, are those that:
facilitate the introduction or spread of diseases/pathogens, such as koala retrovirus or Chlamydia species
result in the loss, fragmentation or permanent degradation of quality habitat that is identified during surveys as not currently supporting a koala population, or
result in the temporary fragmentation of important populations or disruption of the movement of koalas between patches of habitat critical to the survival.
What actions are considered unlikely to have a significant impact on the koala?
There is a low risk that significant impacts on the koala will occur through impacts such as:
actions occurring in low-quality habitat where koalas are known not to occur
selective logging of eucalypt species identified during surveys as not being used by koalas as food trees, or
the removal of a single primary food tree.
Where there is a low risk of your action having a significant impact on the koala, referral is not likely to be required.
Gordon, G., Brown, A. S., and Pulsford, P. (1988). A koala population crash during drought and heatwave conditions in south-western Queensland. Australian Journal of Ecology 13: 451–461.
Jurskis, V. (2001). A review of some techniques used to describe koala habitat and its use by koalas with particular reference to low density populations at Eden. In The Research and Management of Non-urban Koala Populations (Eds. Lyons, K., Melzer, A., Carrick, F. and Lamb, D.) pp.71–88. Koala Research Centre of Central Queensland, Rockhampton.
Martin R and Handasyde K (1999) The Koala: Natural history, conservation and management. UNSW Press, Sydney.
Moore BD and Foley WJ (2000) A review of feeding and diet selection in koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus). Australian Journal of Zoology 48:317–333.
New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change (2008). Recovery plan for the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). Sydney, NSW: New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change. Available from: www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/ threatenedspecies/08450krp.pdf
Phillips, S. and Callaghan, J. (2011). The Spot Assessment Technique: a tool for determining localised levels of habitat use by koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus)”. Australian Zoologist, 35: 774–780.
Queensland Environment Protection Agency (QEPA) (2006). Nature Conservation (koala) Conservation Plan 2006 and Management Program 2006–2016. Queensland Government – Environment Protection Agency, August 2006.