Four koalas will be left homeless as plans to log the blue gum plantation in Gordon are set to go ahead on Friday, wildlife advocates say.
Statistics on the number of koalas at the site were gathered through a survey conducted by Central Highlands Water (CHW) and Geelong-based wood processor Midway Limited in March 2022.
However, wildlife advocates say this number could be larger.
Midway Limited was leased about 45 hectares of this land by CHW to aid with its "timber and paper production industries" where the blue gum plantation sits, however, in 2021 its lease expired, resulting in CHW asking Midway Limited to clear the land to expand Gordon's wastewater treatment plant.
Wildlife Victoria rescuers Jessica Robertson and Heidi Johnson fear the blue gum plantation, bordered by Cartons Road and the Western Freeway, could result in another "Cape Bridgewater massacre" if appropriate action is not taken to ensure safe koala relocation.
"None of it would have been a problem had there not been so much clearing around Gordon," Ms Johnson said.
"There's been so much development around here and infrastructure and various other things, not to mention storms and a lot of our original manna gum, and swamp gum forest is disappearing so koalas and other wildlife have moved into this plantation which is smack bang in the middle of a corridor of vegetation with a freeway running through the middle of it.
"Because of all the fractured habitat in this region koalas are now really vulnerable, because they're going onto roads and they're having to cross roads to get to habitat and they're getting hit doing so," Ms Robertson added.
Ms Robertson said the issue of habitat destruction is part of a greater issue impacting not only Western Victoria but wider Australia.
"Unless we see we see greater policy around habitat destruction and encroaching urbanisation addressed, we are going to lose the koalas we've got left 100 percent."
In January 2022 Ms Johnson and Ms Robertson organised a petition requesting the state government to stop further habitat loss in Gordon.
The petition raised by Western Victorian MP Andy Meddick in state parliament garnered over 1700 signatures from Gordon locals opposing felling in the area, yet the petition did not proceed further.
However, CHW did seek the advice of conservation and wildlife expert Ray Draper after community consultation on how to best proceed with the relocation of koalas during the harvesting process.
Mr Draper suggested the following: a 30m buffer of blue gums along Cartons Road be retained; koalas present be relocated to a suitable habitat 5km away from the plantation as well to revegetate a future corridor of koala food trees.
However, CHW and Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), which is in charge of overseeing the site's clearing and koala relocation process, reportedly did not support the relocation of koalas to a habitat 5km away.
"Stakeholders have tried to find out why DELWP made this decision, but they have refused to answer any questions," Ms Robertson said.
"It's their responsibility and they are shirking it," Ms Johnson said.
Ms Robertson also asked CHW about the possibility of erecting temporary fencing to direct koalas away from the Western Freeway during and after the harvest. So far, she has received no formal response.
Additionally, Ms Robertson and Ms Johnson along with other stakeholders have repeatedly asked CHW to see Midway Limited and DELWP's koala management plans, however their attempts have been futile, the pair said.
"CHW shared with us the Timber Harvesting Plan but they refused to share the koala management plan as this is owned by Midway and DELWP," Ms Robertson said.
"DELWP can share it with us and they've chosen not to," Ms Johnson said.
Under DELWP regulations, if Midway Limited does spot a koala, it must leave the tree the koala is in as well as an additional nine trees surrounding it and if the koala has moved on they are permitted to fell the remaining trees.
Ms Johnson expressed her concern over this management practice as it could result in a dramatic loss in koala habitat.
"If they leave the koala that day and come back the next day and they've moved out, then they're permitted to knock them all down, and that can happen until all the koalas are crammed into one tree," she said.
A DELWP conservation regulator spokesperson said the individual details of koala management were not published and they refused to respond to how the four koalas identified would be looked after during the harvesting process.
"Blue-gum plantation companies must comply with our standards for koala detection prior to and during harvest and must retain habitat trees in plantations when koalas are detected," they said.
"Companies undertaking harvesting operations where koalas may be disturbed are issued an authorisation which includes strict conditions to ensure koalas are detected and managed during operations."
For Gordon resident Trevor Gillespie, the whole situation has left him dismayed, with his anger directed towards CHW.
"As a local resident, seeing what these idiots are doing just leaves me dismayed about the lack of care for our wildlife," he said.
"Central Highlands could pay Midway out if Midway still wanted the money and Central Highlands could've said 'we don't want them gone but we've got environmental concerns' but instead they're ducking and weaving and that's the bit that disappoints me."
Mr Gillespie said the rate at which Gordon's remaining vegetation is being lost had also impacted his young children.
"Even my primary school aged children without being emotionally attached actually can't believe what they're going to do when they hear about the facts," he said.
"It just seems like there is no one saying, 'hey, this area is actually important and hey, we do need to breathe oxygen and we like animals.'"
Ms Robertson and Ms Johnson who approached both MP for Gordon Michaela Settle and Environment Minister Lilly D'Ambrosio for further support said the whole situation is being "handballed."
"Minister of Environment, Lilly D'Ambrosio has faith in the conservation regulator protocols and regulations; she has shirked all responsibility in keeping these koalas safe," Ms Robertson said.
Ms Robertson and Ms Johnson also made contact with Member for Ballarat Catherine King about their grievances.
Ms King escalated it to the Shadow Minister for Environment and Water Terri Butler however, no further actions have been eventuated.
DELWP in February 2022 sought community consultation to develop a new draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy.
Both Ms Johnson and Ms Robertson gave feedback on the plan specifically asking for greater stringency on conservation laws and a national koala act.
"In terms of conservation laws, there are conservation laws, but they're really weak, so we actually need a national koala act which says if there are koalas in this region that rely on this habitat you cannot develop on this land," Ms Robertson said.
A final draft of the strategy, which outlines a need to continue minimising the impact blue gum plantation harvesting has on koala welfare will be released later in 2022.
Ms Robertson and Ms Johnson are currently looking for volunteers to oversee the blue gum plantation harvesting process and ensure the safety of wildlife present there.
"We need a group of volunteers willing to give their time over the harvest period, to monitor the goings on at the Cartons Road plantation," Ms Robertson said.
"This does not include breaking the law; we should all remain on public land at all times, and we are not there to provoke or insult plantation workers.
"We are there to keep an eye out for injured wildlife and to document this or any suspicious activity with our phones or cameras."
For more information email email@example.com
In a wildlife emergency contact Wildlife Victoria on 8400 7300.
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