Victoria is on the verge of losing its state emblem – to climate change.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt has accepted a recommendation to list the tiny Leadbeater’s possum as “critically endangered”.
The possum grows to a maximum of 17cm in its 10-year lifespan. It spends as much time as possible off the ground, living in hollows of preferably dead trees.
Its biggest enemy in Victoria’s Central Highlands is bushfire, which occurs in the region approximately every 10 years, but is expected to increase in frequency and ferocity under likely climate change scenarios.
The possum took a big hit from the Black Saturday fires in 2009, which wiped out 68,000ha of its potential ash forest and snow gum habitat (35%) and 45% of its favourite habitat within montane ash forest, an area that was already small to begin with.
It has a strong tendency to never return to sites touched even by minimal bushfire, mainly because it needs understory growth to travel from tree to tree. Post-fire logging for saleable timber makes any thought of a return even less desirable.
Two of the largest sites, Lake Mountain and Mt Bullfight, were completely wiped out in 2009. Of the 300 known possums around Lake Mountain, just four have been recorded since Black Saturday.
It was once found from Mt Willis in north-eastern Victoria to the Yarra Valley near Melbourne, and south to the Westernport region.
Since 2009, the population has been confined to a 70km x 80km region south of the Central Highlands, including the Baw Baw Plateau, the Toorongo Plateau, state forest near Powelltown, Toolangi State Forest and southern parts of the Upper Yarra National Park.
The possum prefers hollow logs and lives in colonies of up to 12, but there’s rarely more than one breeding, strictly monogamous male and one adult female in a single colony.
The federal environment department couldn’t put a precise figure on how many Leadbeater’s possum still existed, saying it could vary from 1000-10,000.
But climate change fuelled bushfire and to a lesser extent, loss of habitat to harvesting, would see a further 80% decline in numbers by 2031.
“The committee considers the most effective way to prevent further decline and rebuild the population of Leadbeater’s possum is to cease timber harvesting within montane ash forests of the central highlands,” it recommended.
The Victorian government has also announced it would fast-track surveys to identify new possum colonies, particularly in areas planned for logging and undertake aerial surveys to identify new habitats.
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