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Tom Arup. June 14, 2013.

Environment editor, The Age

Under increasing pressure to ensure the survival of Victoria’s endangered faunal emblem, Leadbeater’s possum, the Napthine government will create a taskforce headed by the timber industry and Zoos Victoria to consider how to save the species.

The move was immediately rejected by green groups, which refused to take part and criticised the creation of another committee when there was already a scientific recovery team dedicated to saving it.

Scientists say the possum lost more than 40 per cent of its habitat in the central highlands forests in the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, and the forests continue to be logged. Possum numbers have dropped to 1500 on some estimates.

In a recent letter published in the journal Science, the Australian National University’s Professor David Lindenmayer said the state government was knowingly driving the species to extinction by relaxing logging laws.

The timber industry says fire is the predominant contributor to the species’ decline, not logging.

State Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the taskforce would make recommendations by September on how the species could be helped to recover.

Asked the difference between the existing recovery team and the taskforce, he said the new body would bring together people from ”both sides of the spectrum” to find common ground.

He said he created the new group after receiving yet-to-be-released survey results of the health of key species, including Leadbeater’s possum.

It was ”a body of evidence that makes me take the matter seriously”, he said. According to its draft terms of reference, the group will consider how much central highlands forest is dedicated as possum habitat, how much is available for the timber industry and the role of captive breeding programs. Mr Smith said while focusing on the possum, the group would also consider other threatened central highland species.

The government says it will spend $1 million on fulfilling short-term options put forward by the panel. The taskforce will be co-chaired by Zoos Victoria head Jenny Gray and Victorian Association of Forest Industries chief Lisa Marty.

Ms Marty said: ”By working co-operatively we will have the best possible chance to balance multiple needs and find innovative solutions to support the recovery of the Leadbeater’s possum.”

The Wilderness Society was approached to join the taskforce but declined. State-owned timber agency VicForests has joined, and invitations have been sent to Parks Victoria and the Department of Environment and Primary Industries.

Fairfax Media has revealed that the existing possum recovery panel has recommended several measures to save the species, including listing logging as a threat to the species’ survival and introducing tougher prescriptions for logging to slow habitat loss.

Wilderness Society campaigner Amelia Young said the government did not need a new suite of recommendations on how to save the possum as it was one of the most-studied animals on the planet.