Citizen scientists have discovered a significant population of Australia's largest owl species in forests north-west of Ballarat.
Using acoustic recorders (also known as song meters) citizen scientists working for the Victorian National Park Association discovered a significant population of Powerful Owl in the forests of Mount Cole for the first time in decades.
The Powerful Owl, listed as a threatened species in Victoria under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, can grow up to 80cm tall with a wing span close to 1.5 metres.
The recorders were deployed through the forest near Raglan, with the survey conducted during June and July last year. It was the first survey of threatened wildlife in these forests for many decades.
The ecologists who analysed the records confirmed the population of Powerful Owls was present in and around the planned logging coupe at Mount Cole State Forest, the VNPA said.
Calls for other wildlife were also captured, including of the Krefft's Glider (formally Sugar Glider), Southern Boobook Owl, koalas and the Australian Wood Duck.
VNPA spokesperson Jordan Crook said it was a significant discovery.
"The Powerful Owl lost a substantial amount of habitat in the 2019-20 bushfires. With several detections confirmed, Mount Cole appears to be a strong-hold for this declining giant of the sky.
This reaffirms the importance of both protecting these areas in new expert-recommended national parks, and of undertaking further survey work before these critical habitats are irreparably damaged by logging.Jordan Crook, VNPA
"This reaffirms the importance of both protecting these areas in new expert-recommended national parks, and of undertaking further survey work before these critical habitats are irreparably damaged by logging."
It comes after the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) recommended a swathe of new parks to protect areas across the central west in June 2019.
Its recommendations included increasing 58,115 hectares in protecting forest areas across the central west through national or conservation parks - including the Wombat Forest (near Daylesford), Wellsford Forest (near Bendigo), Pyrenees Ranges Forest (near Avoca), and Mount Cole Forest (near Beaufort) as well as many smaller forest areas.
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An additional 19,728 hectares of regional park would accommodate almost all recreational activities including prospecting and dog walking.
VEAC recommended that 1406ha of Mount Cole State Forest be added to adjoining Mount Buangor State Park to establish the Mount Buangor National Park to protect the area's natural and cultural heritage and the headways of rivers.
It would also protect threatened species such as the critically endangered Mount Cole Grevillea and the Powerful Owl, threatened by activities such as logging.
The report was tabled in Parliament in August 2019 and under the legislation, the government was to respond within six months (by February 20). It has yet to do so, meaning it is almost a year late in responding to the recommendations.
The proposed new protected areas in the Central West would mean forests are protected from activities such as mining and logging, but environmental groups fear the impact the delay is having.
This is because in late 2019, after VEAC had submitted its report, native forest logging company VicForests released its plan to increase the intensity and amount of logging in the Mount Cole State Forest.
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Mr Crook said that without being permanently protected as a national park, the Mount Cole area would likely be logged - impacting 380 threatened species as well as the headwaters of rivers.
Asked when the recommendations would be responded to and about mining and logging activity last week, a spokesperson said the state government was aware that stakeholders and communities were "keenly interested in the response to the VEAC report".
"We'll have more to say in due course," they said.
"All currently permitted activities in the investigation area can continue as normal until the response is finalised and publicly released."
The VNPA's citizen science detection report will be formally submitted to the Victorian Government and the Office of the Conservation Regulator.
Review of Wildlife Act
On Monday, the state government announced it had appointed an independent expert advisory panel to leads its review of the Wildlife Act.
It comes as the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D'Ambrosio announced the "most comprehensive review of the Wildlife Act since its introduction more than 45 years ago, to ensure that it keeps pace with contemporary issues, changes in policy settings and community expectations".
The four-person panel, announced on Monday, will be a key part of the review. It will be chaired by Deborah Peterson, Fellow of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.
The review will engage with the community about changes to the Act and could also look at how best practice regulatory frameworks for issues such as rehabilitation of wildlife and the private and commercial keeping and trade of wildlife could be applied in Victoria. Deterring crimes against wildlife and the illegal capture and trade of wildlife on the black market will also be considered.
It will align with the current review of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
Community consultation with the panel will open via Engage Victoria in March 2021, with the panel to report its recommendations by mid-2021.