The Likelihood of the existence of The Leadbeaters Possum in the Strzelecki State Forest
Sometime between 1942 and 1944 Fred Blunden, a farmer and timber worker, who lived on the southern side of Mt. Fatigue and worked in the Strzelecki forest at times, sighted Leadbeaters possums beyond Mt. Fatigue. His son Keith, who at that time was a schoolboy, had a great interest in native animals and plants and was familiar with the gliders and possums of the forest, including the sugar glider, which is a similar size to Leadbeaters possum. He quizzed his father, who was also familiar with the flora and fauna of the Strzelecki forest, about these sightings and was confident that his father had indeed seen Leadbeaters possum. Keith passed the story on to his class mate, Claude Trenery, who was also a keen observer of nature. At the time, the Leadbeaters possum was thought to have become extinct in 1909, but neither the Blundens nor Claude thought anyone would be interested so the sighting was not reported. Both Fred and Keith Blunden are now deceased, but Claude Trenery, who still resides in South Gippsland felt it was appropriate to pass this story on very recently, after hearing about surveys being conducted in the Central Highlands to count and discover colonies of Leadbeaters possum on ABC radio. Claude is now retired from farming, but retains a keen knowledge of the local environment.
The Leadbeaters Possum colony known to have existed last century in the Bass River area, some 60 km east of Mt. Fatigue indicates that their distribution extended southward to the same latitude as the Mt. Fatigue - Gunyah area. Their disappearance from the Bass area seems to have been total, due to land clearing. The Leadbeaters Possum was thought to have died out by 1907. In 1961, however, a Leadbeaters sighting in the Central Highlands was confirmed and since that time new colonies discovered at Yellingbo, Lake Mountain and Baw Baw indicate that they exist in the Central Highlands throughout an area stretching 60 by 80 kilometres.
Yellow Bellied Gliders, Sugar Gliders and Greater Gliders are all present in the Strzelecki State Forest. All three Gliders have very similar feeding (insects and sap from acacia and eucalypt) and nesting habits (hollows in eucalypt trunks) as the Leadbeaters Possum (although the Greater Glider also eats eucalypt leaves) and inhabit the same type of forest (mature ash type forest, preferably with acacia forest).
The conditions, forest structure and mix of acacia, mountain ash and cool temperate rainforest of the Central Highlands where Leadbeaters are known to exist share many characteristics with the forests of the Strzeleckis. The Strzelecki Range and the Great Dividing Range were once linked by continuous forest cover, converging near Warragul. The Mt. Fatigue-Gunyah district is around 70 km south of Baw Baw, the nearest confirmed surviving Leadbeaters colony.
The Strzelecki State Forest is a Mountain Ash and Acacia stronghold. Present conditions suggest that within the 30,000 hectare 'hardwood zone' of the Strzelecki State Forest and the 5,000 ha. of existing reserves, there may be many sizable patches which are and would continue to be ideal Leadbeater Possum habitat. Land Conservation Council data identifies numerous areas of Zone 1A forest in this area ( at least 12 Mountain Ash older than 120 years per 3 hectares, with regrowth and a mixed age understorey) - prime Leadbeaters Possum conditions.
If Leadbeaters Possum existed in the Eastern Strzelecki Ranges, it is likely that conditions in certain areas remained undisturbed enough to allow them to continue living there to the present. If they have not survived, there is ample evidence that the conditions now existing in certain areas makes it prime Leadbeater Possum habitat. If they don't live there now, they could possibly be reintroduced.
Since the 1940s, much of the Strzelecki State Forest has seen a certain reduction in the proportion of old growth and acacia forests as forestry has endeavoured to increase the proportion of young eucalypt in these Ranges. However a significant amount of old growth and Acacia forest remains. The Mt. Fatigue-Gunyah area was declared a permanent timber reserve more than a century ago. The area has mostly only received reasonably restrained selective logging. The extremely steep terrain and the narrowness of ridges meant that when clearfelling practices were introduced, a relatively small proportion of the overall area was deemed suitable. Therefore, the habitat values of this area have remained relatively intact. The continued presence of the three species of glider attest to this.
The lack of recent sightings of the Leadbeaters Possum in the Strzelecki State Forest may not be through the disappearance of the possum, but through the disappearance of human beings. The entire Eastern Strzelecki Ranges have been radically de-populating since the 1920's, first through abandonment, later through a large scale State buy-back. As a result, far fewer people live near enough to the Mt. Fatigue-Gunyah area to observe it in any detail. At one stage Gunyah had its own school building, hotel and post office. Not a village as such, rather a series of clearings in some of the least disturbed parts of the forest, serving as a gathering place for people who lived elsewhere on blocks scattered throughout the ranges. As such, people had the unusual experience of being able to observe undisturbed forest life while going about their errands. Today, forest life carries on largely un-observed.
Obviously, Leadbeaters Possums are hard to find because they are rare, but they are also small in size (and their droppings are tiny), nocturnal, well camouflaged, hidden inside their nests an estimated three quarters of their lives, and usually about 30 metres above the ground.
For all the above reasons, Leadbeaters possums can usually only be found if someone deliberately sets out to look for them. This too can be difficult as Leadbeaters Possums are known to switch between a dozen different nesting places.
The Leadbeaters Possum's greatest vulnerability is its total dependence on the availability of nesting hollows. Hollows begin to form in montane Ash tree-trunks from the age of around 120 and, if they are not killed by fire or forestry, these trees can provide habitat for hundreds of years. In 1939, 70% of the Central Highlands was burnt by fire, killing off old growth and bringing on a new generation of trees which now are nearly 60 years old. As the old hollow-bearing trees ( that escaped the fire-killed salvage operation that followed the 39 fires ) gradually collapse, the already small population of Leadbeaters Possum known to exist in the Central Highlands is expected to crash further over the next 30 years, with no improvement in conditions until later in the 21st century when the 1939 regrowth matures and begins to form new hollows.
The Strzeleckis endured many big fires at several points in post-settlement history, but there were no fires that burnt the majority of the forest all at once, as was the case in the Central Highlands in 1939. As such the Strzelecki State Forest may provide ideal conditions for Leadbeaters Possum during the period when hollow bearing trees are at their rarest in the Central Highlands. Along with the existing old-growth, mature regrowth stands of various ages exist in the Mt. Fatigue-Gunyah district ,either in the process of forming hollows or at least set to do so many decades sooner than the 1939 regrowth of the Central Highlands.
Presently, a major effort to find the Leadbeaters possum is underway in the Central Highlands involving some 500 volunteers searching some 200 areas, co-ordinated by Ruth Singer of Environment Victoria. Drawing on the momentum created by this program, it could be possible to extend the search to the Strzelecki State Forest, with Bruce Atkins as trainer and co-ordinator and the South Gippsland Conservation Society as organisers.
It is requested that :
A. A search is carried out in the Mt Fatigue-Gunyah district for Leadbeaters Possum
B. A survey is carried out to ascertain the extent and distribution of suitable Leadbeater Possum habitat in the Strzelecki State Forest
C. Should conditions prove to be suitable for Leadbeaters Possums, but none are found, the feasibility of a re-introduction program be explored.
D. Should Leadbeaters Possums be found, an appropriate land-use strategy be put into place which would best ensure their future survival