Leadbeater's Possum - The Conservation of Leadbeaters Possum by J.H. Seebeck

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Leadbeater's Possum - The Conservation of Leadbeaters Possum by J.H. Seebeck is associated with Cumberland Valley and Tommy's Bend, Victoria located at these coordinates -37.547421, 145.8495128


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Report by John Hilary Seebeck summarising the biology and ecology of the Leadbeater's Possum

Record Citation: PROV VPRS 11559
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Agency: VA 551 Ministry for Conservation
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Conservation of Leadbeater's Possum - Seebeck 0026.jpg THE CONSERVATION OF LEADBEATERS POSSUM


J.H. SEEBECK


1. INTRODUCTION

In recent years there has been widespread concern about the effects of forest management practices on wildlife populations in forests. In particular, considerable concern has developed about the effects on population of leadbeaters possum, Victoria's only endemic marsupial. This paper traces the development of that concern.


2. HISTORY

Leadbeaters possum, Gymnobelideus leadbeateri was described in 1867 by Professor Frederick McCoy, from two specimans collected near the Bass River in South Gippsland, Victoria. During the next 42 years (to 1909) 3 more specimens were obtained. One came from near Tynong (South Gippsland), another from Mt.Wills (north-eastern Victoria) and the third was assumed to have come from the Bass River Valley. Searches by C.W. Brazenor and D.H. Fleay in the 1930s failed to locate any further trace of the possum and the species was presumed to have become extinct. Then April 1961 H.E.Wilkinson of the National Museum of Victoria found Leadbeaters possum at two places near Marysville - Cumberland Valley and Tommys Bend. The "rediscovery" was greeted with considerable public and scientific interest which is reflected in the publicity afforded it at the time and soon after. Subsequently, a considerable amount of exploratory surveying has been carried out by staff of thhis Division, members of the Fauna Survey Group. Field Naturalist's Club of Victoria (later Mammal Survey Group, F.N.C.V. and the Mammal Survey Group of Victoria), university staff and students and otherinterested individuals. Some further locality records were published.


These surveys have resulted in our present knowledge of the species distribution (See Section 3).


Less emphasis has been placed on investigation of the ecology of the animal, but Mr K.C. Norris, LaTrobe University, Zoology Dept. studied the field biology of Gymnobelideus during 1971-2, prior to


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joining the Division. His Studies, together with incidental observation by others form the basis for our present limited knowledge of the species in the wild (Section 4) A detailed study of the husbandry of captive animals has been under way by a private student for almost 10 years, and the criteria for continued survival and breeding under captive conditions are being empitically established. Close co-operation with staff at the Veterinary Reaserch Institute at Werribee had led to the recognition of disease and physiological problems of captive animals.


The significance to the State of leadbeaters possum was recognised in 1971 when it was chosen as one of the State Faunal Emblems.


3. Present Status and Distibution

The distribution as known at this time is shown in Map 1. This reveals that the species range is extremely restricted. The areas of original discovery (which are out side the modern range) have been searched in the past and recently, without success, and it is considered unlikely that further survey will extend the modern range to a significant degree. This Gymnobelideus seems wholly restricted to a small part of central Victoria, where about 50 individual sites have been recorded since 1961.


The species only occurs in or on the margin of montane ash forests. Map 1 relates the modern distributiion to the age of the forest (as mapped by the Forests Commission, Victoria). It is clear that most sites are in areas of forest not burnt in 1939. Those sites shown in 1939 regrowth forest which have not been able to be shown due to the scale of the map.


We have no knowledge of the numerical status of the animal at any of the known sites, and hence no indication of population density throughout the forest as a whole. The frequency of sightings by experienced wildlife survey teams suggests that it does not attain the general levels of abundance exhibited by some other species of possum family.


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Conservation of Leadbeater's Possum - Seebeck 0028.jpg In mid-1976 members of a study group formed by the Australian Conservation Foundation began to examin the habitat at selected known sites, with the aim of objectively characterising the habitat requirements of the possum. Several staff members are actively involved in this study which is expected to continue at least until mid-1977.


4. Ecology in the field. Very few of the important biological paramaters required to understand the ecological relationships of the possum and its enviroment are yet known. However, a number of factors relating to the habitat are pertinent. Shortly after the rediscovery of the possum in 1961 a document was prepared by Warneke which provided a detailed description of the animal and the habitat in the area then known to contain Gymnobelideus. This document has formed the basis for the majority of public comments about the species - and many of those public comments have mis-interpreted the assumptions made at the time. Warneke pointed out that the animal was ohysically well adapted to movement in the lower levels of the dense ash forest that had regeerated after the 1939 bushfires. He also described the presence of large old trees and assumed that these provided suitable nest-site hollows. It is now clear from filed observations that the animals do nest in hollows in mature or over-mature trees and it is probable that the presence and density of these old trees is what determines the presence and density of the possums. Recent searches in young ash stands where old trees are absent have shown a complete absence of leadbeaters possum.


It must be emphasised that at all known sites the populations centre on mature or over-mature ash forests. Myrtle beach Nothofagus cunninghamii is often present, indicating that this is indeed a mature stage of the vegitational succession. Recent studies by Graeme Ambros (LaTrobe University) indicate that ash does no develop hollows at ages less than 100 years- and these hollows are a natural consequence of growth stresses, not an indication of decadence in the tree. Ecologically then, Gymnobelideus is an animal of mature forest and regenerating forest which contains old, hollow-containing trees available for shelter. It is a forest-dependant resident in the sense used by Tyndale-Biscoe and Calaby although those authors quote (from Ride) the incomplete view that it is the characteristics of the post-fire regeneration which provide the factors enabling the possum population to "fllourish". It is clear that this view, which has been widely


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quoted by forestry authorities to illustrate the beneficial aspect of forest activities is now completley untenable. It has been stated on several occasions that Gymnobelideus is benefitting from forestry operations. This is not so. There is no documented case of this species recolonizing any clearcut and regenerating pulpwood site. On the contrary, the sites of several known colonies have been harvested, the mature trees removed and possum population destroyed. There is simply no evidence to support the statement to the Senate Woodchip Inquiry by Mr A.G. Hanson, Acting Director of the Commonwealth Forestry and Timber Bureau that"you will find that if you never log the forest where the leadbeater possum is, the leadbeater possum will disappear. The habitat of the leadbeater possum is a forest of an age between about 20 to 40 years. So if you nev er log it you are very rapidly going to lose the possum"


No detailed analyses of diet throughout the year have been attempted, although we know that Gymnobelideus feeds on certain insects. We know that the normal litter of young is two, and that these are born in spring, and that a pervios litter may remain with the parents for a time to form an extended family group. We know that nests are constructed in hollow branches or trunk cavities using finely shredded bark and from an extended studies of captive animals it appears that nests size and construction is very important in the maintenance of an optimum temperature range for dependent young. This information however merely scratches the surface of the basic biological information necessary for effective conservation and management. Basic to the study of these fundamental parameters is the conservation of suitable habitata - and this is the crux of this submission.


5. Management needs.

In 1963 Warneke indicated that reservation of the then-known main colony area at Tommys Bend, near Marysville was of great importance. The area then and now controlled by the M.M.B.W. was considered "virtually inviolate". Forestry practices were not considered to be a danger to the habitat "for a number of years at least", but an earlier memorandum (1962) indicated that the colony would be seriously affected by logging or the felling of cull trees.


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A warning was also sounded of the danger of fire in the colony area. It was recommended that all responsible authorities should be informed to ensure adequate protection for the habitat and that the Division should be informed of any proposed developments which might involve the area in question. By 1967 it was recognised that the preservation of existing water catchments may not be sufficient to ensure the security of the possum indefinitely and that some management processes may become necessary.


In 1974, in response to the requirements of the Land Conservation Council the Division submitted a recommendation for a series of wildlife reserves in the ash forest zone.


These recommendations were inter alia, as follows:-


1. BUNYIP - LATROBE

It is recommended that a substantial portion of the public land in this block be set aside as a State Wildlife Reserve. The area proposed includes small sections of the Upper Yarra Block. The boundaries of the proposed reserve are approximately Powelltown - Gentle Annioe - Tonimbuk - East Gembrook. This area includes a very wide range of forest habitat, from heathland to wet sclerphyll forest, and offers a superb opportunity to conserve a wide range of wildlife species within one area. Two species may be mentioned in particular, the broadtoothed rat which occurs east of Gembrook, and Leadbeaters possum Gymnobelideus leadbeateri from the Pioneer Creek area in this block, at the present southwestern limit of distribution of the species. The Division proposes that a number of reserves be set up with the object of conserving Leadbeaters possum which is endemic to Victoria, and has recently been gazetted as the State Faunal Emblem and this area includs one such proposed reserve. Other reserves for this species are proposed and will be indicated later, but at this point suffice to say that each of these reserves for this area includes one such proposed reserve. Other reserves must be large enough to ensure their viability, as the practical guarantee that the species will not be destroyed by calamitous forest fire. (It must be recognised that this proposal was based on the wide range of forest habitat in the area concernedd, and that the ash forest component was but part of this proposed reserve.)


2. UPPER YARRA THOMSON TYRES


These blocks contain a large amount of public land, of high value for forestry, recreation, water catchment and native conservation. The Division recommends that all land use in these forest areas be planned with adequet provisions which will perpetuate their wildlife values. It is proposed that a large area be set aside at the intersection of these three blocks. This is centered on the site known as "Upper Thompson" where a wide range of native mammals have been


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located. It forms one of the additional reserves proposed for the coservation of Ledbeaters possum and also includes colonies of the rare native rodents Mastacomys fuscus and Pseudomys fumeus. A total of 18 species of native mammals have been recorded for this site, excluding bats. Boundaries have not yet been established but the area of the proposed reserve must be of the order of 2-4000 hectares to have a chance of viability. It is therefore proposed that this area be proclaimed as a State Wildlife Reserve under the management of this Division for the conservation of Leadbeaters possum and other native mammals and birds.


3. DONNA BUANG CERBEREAN.


The forest areas in these block have basically the same wildlife values as in the proceding group, and the same safeguards in management are necessary for wildlife conservation. A third wildlife reserve for conservation of Leadbeaters possum is appropriate within this area. Again precise boundaries are in need of definition but the reserve is proposed to centre on the Tommy's Bend area, the site of the 1961 rediscovery of the species. An area of the order of 2-4000 hectares is again envisaged. This area brings in the Mount Margaret and Lake Mountain zones, both of which are of high wildlife value. The existing tourist/recreation area at Lake Mountain may be excluded from the reserve, but certainly the subalpine complex ought to be included.


The areas proposed are indicated on Map 2. The result of these and other submissions is also shown on Map 2 - the proposed recommendations of the Land Conservation Council. No area was specifically assigned to the control of the Fisheries and Wildlife Division for Leadbeaters possum or any other forest wildlife ! Subsequent submissions to the L.C.C. resulted in the following reconsiderations:- (a) that "Within the zone indicated on the map the conservation of leadbeaters possum should be provided for in Forests Commission management prescriptions, which should be submitted to the Fisheries and Wildlife Division for agreement". This refers to part only of the reserve area proposed in 2 above. And (b) that "The conservation of Leadbeaters possum and other species closley associated with mountain ash forest should be provided for in managgement prescriptions, in agreement with the Fisheries and Wildlife Division". This applies to the Marysville, Rubicon and Tarago-Latrobe forests. The situation has now become even more urgent. In 1974 the Forests Commission published the document "Utilization of Regrowth Ash Forests" in which it is shown that less than 6% of the ash resource in central Victoria is older that regrowth from the 1939 fires - a total of just 5420 ha.


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Compare this figure with the recommendations of Tyndale - Biscoe and Calaby for the area necessary for an effective reserve to conserve the greater glider, Schoinobates volans - 6000 ha. Population densities for all forest possums in tall open forest range between o.17 and 1.20 animals/ha. (data from Tyndale - Biscoe and Calaby). It is unlikely that Gymnobelideus densities will exceed the upper limit if and when they are determined. We are probably looking at a total stock of around 5000 animals, even if no detrimental change were to occur in the forest as it stands. But the Forests Commission document goes on to show that harvesting of regrowth ash will be by clear-felling, and regeneration from this will be on a 60 year rotation i,e, all areas will be clearfelled every 60 years. It has already been shown that trees less than 100 years at least are not suitable for nest trees. The implications of these proposals are obvious if hardwood extraction is to continue at the forecast rate. Many of the sites with apparent strong populations are in areas which were selectively logged in the past, and the natural regeneration coupled with mature trees which were left standing has provided what seems to be ideal conditions for leadbeaters possum. It must be understood that his Division is not against select logging for sawn timber provided the prescriptions for such logging are written after consultation with the Division. However the Division does oppose widescale clwearfelling and short rotation re-cropping.


The Socio-Economic Study of the Timber Industry in the Alpine Area accepts the community benefit of "habitats for viable wildlife populations", and goes on to say "Conditions suitable for widest range of species of wildlife require a diversity of habitats ranging from seedling forests to mature trees.(P.18). This will hardly be the result if the ash forests of central Victoria are to be clearfelled and regenerated on short rotation-times. If a balanced age class distribution and a variety of habitats are to be provided for, then logging of mature timber ought to cease and the industry concentrate on the large areas of 1939 regrowth.


Rawlinson as analysed the relationships between pulpwood agreements and the ash resource, and it is clear that almost 50% of the estimated annual sustainable yield of central Victorian forest is already committed to one company (A.P.M.) for pulpwood. In fact the entire range of Gymnobelideus is in the A.P.M. hardwood concession


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Conservation of Leadbeater's Possum - Seebeck 0033.jpg zone, and there is no area specifically excluded from hardwood extraction operations. The cost to the community of excluding hardwood extraction operations from forests, often quoted by forest industries in measured only in terms of timber values. Dargaval and Ferguson have provided a recent estimation of values, and estimate regrowth ash forest to be worth $2271/ ha - the "net social benefit" to the State. They argue that the net social benefit of any alternative use should exceed this figure before timber extraction is excluded. But that formula appears to commit all land to whatever use can be most simply evaluated in economic terms, and leads to loss of variety of use and loss of options for future planning. It is not possible to place a dollar value on leadbeaters possum and all the other wildlife forms in an ash forest. Is the "net social benefit" only to be measured in dollars and cents? Is leadbeaters possum any less valuable as a community resource than say the helmeted honeyeater? The State has already accepted that that species warrents a major expenditure of funds.


6. Conservation at international level. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.) has published a world-wide compendium of information about threatened wildlife - the "Red Data Book". the sheet concerning leadbeaters possum was rewritten in 1972. It is reproduced below and contains a number of errors. These include 1. The sheet is colored green. The book is color-coded and green means the species is now considered to be out of danger. In 1975 a working group on endangered fauna, convened by CONCOM (Council of Nature Conservation Ministers in Australia) and including Divisional representatives examined the appendices to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to recommend changes which might be made at the time or ratification. The following guidelines for inclusion of species were agreed upon by the Working Group.


Appendix 1


"Species threatened with extinction which are or may be affected by trade." Included are species which are known to occur in small isolated populations within a greatly restricted range, and/or appear to be


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limited to a narrow and fragile enviroment. Provisional inclusion of a species may be justified if it is known from one specimen or from a few specimens collected from one small area which suggests a small population of restricted range. However, the basis of such an inclusion must be indicated with the froviso that removal may be justified at a later date in the light of increased knowledge.


Appendix II


"Species not necessarily now threatened with extinction but which may become so unless trade in specimens of such species is subject to strict regulation in order to avaoid utilization incompatible with their survival.

Included are species which have a limited range and/or appear to have some narrow and uncommon habitat requirement; species the range of which has still to be in the process of reduction. Provisional inclusion of a species may be justified if it is known from a small number of specimens collected from widely seperated localities (which suggests an uncommon species with a narrow habitat requirement.) However, the basis of such an inclusion must be indicated, with the proviso that removal may be justified at a later date in the lighrt of increased knowledge.


Leadbeaters possum was proposed to be included in Appendix II.


2. Status: The habitat is most certainly not secure - otherwise this review would not be necessary.


3. Distribution: There is no reason to belive that the range will be extended into N.S.W. or significantly in Victoria.


4. Population: The increasing number of sightings probably really reflects increased search activity more than population increase or expansion.


5. Habitat: As has been shown above the essential habitat is not second-growth forest.


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6. Conservation Measures Taken : Legislative protection now under Wildlife Act 1975 (8699). Protection in State Forest and water catchment areas is relatively meaningless.

7. Remarks: There is no official document or factual assessment to support the statement that the Fisheries and Wildlife Division no longer considers the species rare or endangered.

The Division's viewpoint was included in the CONCOM working group recommendations (see 1 above)

The international conservation status of Gymnobelideus is thus erroneously documented - an unfortunate situation indeed.


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Extract from I.U.C.N Red Data Book

LEADBEATER'S POSSUM Gymnobelideus leadbeateri McCoy , 1867 Order MARSUPIALIA Family PETAURIDAE

STATUS This species was regrded as extinct until a small colony was rediscovered by H.E.Wilkinson in 1961. Since that time the Mammal Survey Group of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria has found this possum in numerous localities. Its habitat seems secure for the foreseeable future and it appears to have increased in both its population and its range. (1,2).

DISTRIBUTION The vicinity of the Bass Valley, South Gippsland, Victoria (1967); Mount Wills (1909); Koo-Wee_Rup swamp near Tynong (1910) and the Cumberland Valley (1961). They are found in numerous localities extending over some 1,030 km2 of forest from Lake Mountain, east of Marysville, some 50 km to Tanjil Bren east-noorth-east of Noojee, at altitudes between 730 and 1,200 m. It is believed that the species may yet be found through the Australian Alps across the Victorian border. (1,2).

POPULATION It is believed that the increasing number of locality records since its rediscovery argues an increasing population which appears secure for the foreseeable future. (2)

HABITAT Second-growth Mountain Ash forests;now recovering from devastating wild fires. (2).

CONSERVATION MEASURES TAKEN Fully protected by Victorian legislation, under the Game Act, 1958 (6258). Protected in a Permanent State Forest and in adjacent catchment areas of three important water storages for Melbourne.

CONSERVATION MEASURES PROPOSED None.

REMARKS The Victorian Fisheries and Wildlife Division no longer considers it rare or endangered. The fact that this species is now common and increasing its range substantiates this. (Calaby, 1971 pers. comm.)

REFERENCES 1. Brazenor, C.W. (1962 : Rediscovery of a rare Australian possum Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond. 139 (3): 529-531.

2. Ride, W.D.L. (1970) : A guide to native mammals of Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.


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7. CONCLUSIONS. This review has shown that the conservation of leadbeater's possum poses problems to which there are no immediate solutions. Research directed at determining the management requirements for the species is long overdue, and must obviously be carried out urgently to ensure the continuing presence in our forests of this engaging marsupial.

8. REFERENCES

1 McCoy, F., 1867. On a new genus of phalanger. Ann.Mag.Nat.Hist. Series 3, 20: 287-8

2 Brazenor, C.W., 1932. A Reexamination of Gymnobeldeus leadbeateri McCoy. Aust.Zool. I:106-9

3 Brazenor, C.W., 1946. Last chapter to come. Wild Life 8 : 383-4

4 Brazenor, C.W., 1931. Twelve days in north-east Victoria. Victorian Nat. 48: 165-67.

5 Fleay, D.H., 1933. A beautiful phalanger. Victian Nat. 50:35-40

6 Wilkinson, H.E.,1961. The rediscovery of Leadbeater's possum. Victorian Nat. 78: 97-102

7 Lindsay, H.A., 1961. Naturalist's Diary The Age, 10 July 1961

8 McCance, N., 1961. Find of the Century - Leadbeater's possum rediscovered at long last. The Weekly Times, 29 November 1961.

9 Fleay, D.H., 1961. Made most exciting Natural History. The Weekly Times, 20 December 1961.

10 Anon.,1962. Half a century of playing possum. Life, February 1962.

11 Brazenor, c.w., 1962. Rediscovery of a rare Austrlian possum. Proc.Zool.Lond. 139 : 529-531.

12 Warneke, R.M., 1963 Notes on Leadbeater's Possum Gymnobelideus leadbeateri. McCoy, 1867. Unpublished memo. Fisheries and Wildlife Dept. Vic.

13 Pizzey, G., 1963 Elements of survival : Leadbeaters possum and sugar gliders in our forests. The Age , 2 March 1963

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14 Wakefield, N.A., 1965. Rare possums living in sanctuary. The Age, 2 March 1963

15 Wakefiled, N.A., 1966. The fairy possum of Victoria. The Age, 25 October 1966

16 Owen, W.H.,1963. Further sight records of Leadbeaters possum. Victorian Nat. 79 : 292-3

17 Wilkinson, H.E., 1963. Leadbeaters possum at Warburton. Victorian Na. 80 : 147-8

18 King, W.H., 1963. Leadbeaters possum near Powelltown. Victorian Nat. 80 : 148-9

19 Fauna Survey Group, 1966. Mammal Reports, Novembeer 1965. Victorian Nat. 80:116

20 Baldwin, R. & Wheeler J. 1973. The Baw Baw Expedition. Geelong Naturalist 10:12-17

21 Victorian Government Gazette No 20, 10 March 1971

22 Australian Conservation Foundation Newsletter 8(4):6

23 Australian Conservation Foundation Newsletter 8(6) :6

24 Jacobs,R. 1974. The future of cellulose. Aust. For. Industry. J. February 1974 : 37-45

25 Tyndale-Biscoe, C.H., and J.H.Calaby. 1975 Eucalypt forests as refuge for wildlife. Aust.For. 38:117-133

26 Ride, W.D.L., 1970 A guide to the Native Animals of Australia. Oxford. Melbourne.

27 Moulds,F.R., 1976. Submission to Senate Standing Committee on Social Environment

28 Hanson, A.C., 1975. Submission to Senate Standing Committee on Social Environment

29 Brabin, T., 1976. Submission to Senate Standing Committee on Social Environment

30 Ryan,R.M., 1963. Feeding habits of Leadbeaters possum. Victorian Nat. 79 : 275

31 Fisheries and Wildlife Division. Memorandum R.Warneke to the Director 10 May 1962

32 Fisheries and Wildlife Division Memorandum J.K.Dempster to the director 2 October 1967

33 Fisheries and Wildlife Division: Submission to LAnd Conservation Council June 1974

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34 Land Conservation Council 1975. Melbourne Study Area, Proposed Recommendations

35 Fisheries and Wildlife Division : Submission to Land Conservation Council 1976

36 Land Conservation Council 1977 : Melbourne Study Area, Final Recommendations

37 Forests Commission, Victoria 1974. Utilization of Regrowth Ash Forests

38 P.A.Management Consultants P/L 1976 : Socio-economic study of the timber industry in the Alpine Area.

39 Rawlinson,P.A., 1975. Native forests versus pulpwood industries C.C.V. Newsletter 15:3-11

40 Rawlinson, P.A.,1976. Native forests versus pulpwood industries Victoria's Resources 18:2932

41 Rawlinson, P.A., 1976 Submission to Senate Standing Committee on the Social Environment

42 Dargaval,J.B., and I.S.Ferguson 1975. Forest use conflicts in Victoria . Aust.For. 37:215-224

43 International Union for the Conservation of Nature 1972. Rad Data Book - Leadbeater's possum.

44 ad hoc working group on endangered fauna. Report to CONCOM, 1976.

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