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Black Saturday Bushfires

By His Excellency the Governor of the State of Victoria and its Dependencies in the Commonwealth of Australia

Devastatingly, the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 burned around 45% of Leadbeater’s Possum’s reserved habitat. There are now estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 Leadbeater’s Possums.

The Black Saturday Bushfires, which occurred in February 2009 in Victoria, Australia, had a significant impact on the population of Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) and its habitat. Leadbeater’s Possum is a critically endangered species endemic to Victoria’s Central Highlands, particularly known for its reliance on old-growth mountain ash forests for habitat.

  1. Population Impact: The Black Saturday Bushfires devastated significant portions of Leadbeater’s Possum habitat, resulting in a substantial decline in population. The population of Leadbeater’s Possum did indeed diminish drastically, with estimates suggesting a reduction of around 50%. Prior to the fires, it was estimated that there were around 3,000 individuals. However, following the fires, this number plummeted to around 1,500 individuals. This sharp decline in population size underscores the severe impact of the fires on this already endangered species.
  2. Habitat Impact: Approximately 45% of the Leadbeater’s Possum’s habitat was burned during the Black Saturday Bushfires. The fires ravaged large swathes of the possum’s preferred old-growth mountain ash forests, which are crucial for their survival. These forests provide essential habitat features such as tree hollows for nesting and shelter, as well as a diverse array of food sources. The loss of such a significant portion of their habitat further exacerbated the challenges faced by Leadbeater’s Possum in terms of finding suitable areas for shelter, foraging, and breeding.
  3. Conservation Efforts: In response to the devastating impact of the Black Saturday Bushfires on Leadbeater’s Possum, various conservation efforts have been initiated. These include habitat restoration projects aimed at regenerating forest areas affected by the fires, as well as targeted conservation programs focused on protecting and enhancing remaining habitat patches. Additionally, there have been efforts to monitor the remaining population closely to better understand their distribution, behavior, and ecological needs, in order to inform conservation strategies and mitigate further population decline.

Overall, the Black Saturday Bushfires had a profound and detrimental impact on both the population of Leadbeater’s Possum and its habitat, further highlighting the vulnerability of this already endangered species to environmental disturbances such as wildfires. Conservation efforts aimed at restoring habitat and protecting remaining populations are critical for the long-term survival of Leadbeater’s Possum in the face of ongoing threats.

  • 1867
    First specimens were collected in the scrub on the banks of the Bass River in Gippsland, Victoria.
  • 1909
    LbP last collected from Sunnyside, in the high country near Omeo. The specimen was mis-identified and its significance was not realised until the 1930s.
  • 3rd April1961
    Eric Wilkinson rediscovered LbP at Cambarville and Tommy’s Bend, near Marysville in the Central Highlands
  • 1967
    Des Hackett secretly begins keeping Leadbeater’s Possums in his backyard in Blackburn
  • 1971
    LbP declared the Victorian State Faunal Emblem, alongside the Helmeted Honeyeater
  • 1972
    LbP first bred in captivity by Des Hackett
  • 2006
    Death of the last Leadbeater’s Possums in captivity in Australia
  • February 2009
    Black Saturday bushfires destroy around 45% of reserved LbP habitat and population numbers in the wild are halved.
  • 2010
    Kasia died peacefully in her sleep at just over 10 years of age at Metro Zoo, Toronto, Canada. At the time she was the last captive Leadbeater’s Possum anywhere in the world.
  • 2011
    DSE and Parks Victoria ‘rescue’ the last 3 LbP’s from Lake Mountain (a population of around 300 having been destroyed in the 2009 fires) after a feral cat is filmed hunting near their nest box and a number of animals had ‘disappeared’. They are taken to Healesville Sanctuary. One later dies from unknown causes in its enclosure.
  • 2012
    Healesville Sanctuary
    begins a new Captive Breeding Program for lowland Leadbeater’s Possums from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (NCR). The program’s “founders”, wild possums, were brought into captivity to establish a breeding population. The breeding program is based only on the genetically distinct Yellingbo population of Leadbeater’s Possums. (June 2022, no breeding has been reported)
  • July 2013
    Two Lake Mountain LbP’s are put on display in the Nocturnal House at Healesville Sanctuary after DEPI refuses to issue a permit to return them to their wild habitat.
  • August 2013
    Professor David Lindenmayer calls on the Victorian Government to expand the current LbP Reserve System to include all LbP remaining habitat in the Central Highlands (including areas currently available for clearfell logging) in a new Great Forest National Park.
  • April 2015
    EPBC (Federal) Conservation Status uplisted to Critically Endangered.
  • July 2015
    Action Plan states that revised Recovery Plan will be in place by mid-2016
  • November 2017
    The first hearing in the Possums’ Case in the Federal Court.
  • June 2019
    The full hearing of the Possums’ Case over three weeks in the Federal Court, Melbourne
  • June 2019
    Federal Conservation Status confirmed as Critically Endangered following an unsuccessful application to downlist by an industry lobby group. FLbP lobbies for release of revised Recovery Plan
  • May 2020
    Judgment in the Possums’ Case in favour of Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum on all counts.
  • June 2020
    Bunnings announces that it will no longer retail VicForests’ timber as a result of the court decision.
  • August 2020
    Final Orders in the Possums’ Case including declarations of unlawful logging and injunctions preventing further logging in 66 coupes.
  • September 2020
    VicForests lodges appeal on 31 grounds.
  • October 2020
    Translocation trial of Lowland LbP to Wallaby Creek in Kinglake National Park. After early indications of success, trial abandoned due to predation by a cat and remaining animals returned to Yellingbo.
  • April 2021
    VicForests appeal heard in Sydney.
  • May 2021
    VicForests appeal allowed on one ground. Other findings of fact were not disturbed and the award of costs against VicForests was upheld.
  • June 2021
    FLbP filed application for Special Leave to Appeal to the High Court.
  • September 2021
    Again, FLbP lobbies minister for release of revised Recovery Plan
  • November 2021
    A second translocation trial established at a site north-east of Mansfield.
  • December 2021
    Application for Special Leave to Appeal to the High Court refused.
  • June 2022
    FLbP lobbies new Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, for release of revised Recovery Plan
Leadbeaters-Possum-Distribution-Map-Dec23-v1_1080x1080

Leadbeater’s Possum Distribution Map and Extent of the Black Saturday Bushfires
Image: c/- A Fletcher

Friends-of-Leadbeaters-Possum_Young-Wollert-Leadbeaters-Possum-on-Taungurung-Country_Steven-Kuiter

Around 50% of the Leadbeater’s Possum population was wiped out during the Black Saturday bushfires with 45% of their habitat range affected by fire.
Photograph: Copyright Steve Kuiter.