The Mountain Pygmy Possum (MPP) is Australia’s only hibernating marsupial. It has been declared by the IUCN Redlist as being Critically endangered. In 2000, the population estimate was less than 2,000 individuals from the three combined isolated populations that exist across the Australian Alps.
A number of ski resorts have been running possum recovery programs. They are delivering some excellent results and represent true good news stories for this critically endangered species.
Georgina Boardman is the Technical Services and Environment Officer at the Mount Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board, where she and the rest of the Environmental Team work to protect the Mountain Pygmy Possum population on the mountain.
How did you come to work at Mt Hotham?
I’ve been visiting the mountain since I was 20. My boyfriend at the time introduced me to the snow on a ski holiday and I loved it straight away. I’ve always loved the environment up here. Before coming to work at the mountain, I was a florist with a background in horticulture. In 1998 I worked my first ski season at Hotham as a towie. I travelled around a lot, back and forth for a few seasons before I met my partner at Hotham. 20 years and three kids later we all love the snow. I’m a snowboarder and my three children all ride.
I started with the Mount Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board (RMB), in an administration role. When my children were younger I did an Environmental Science degree by distance with Charles Sturt University and eventually moved into the Tech Services and Environment arm of the RMB.
My journey here is a classic story of nature versus nurture. I grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, right next to some of the best surf in the state. I never really surfed, and although I love the coast, the mountains and the snow always felt like home. My sister is the same, both she and I love it up here.
One side of my family is from the Czech Republic. When I first visited family there, I discovered that my grandma had been a national cross-country champion. So maybe it’s something in my family line that’s drawn to the snow. I tried to leave a couple of times but I always come back. I feel at home in the mountains.
Tell me about your work
Mt Hotham is a large resort with well over a hundred thousand visitors annually. We need to manage services for these visitors in an environmentally sustainable manner. Waste generation, water management and biodiversity protection are the key elements of my job.
The Mt Hotham resort developed over many years from a strong mining and grazing history along a route that the Great Alpine Road (GAR) follows today. The village, buildings and ski-field infrastructure grew as skiing became a popular tourism option. We’re proactively managing the impact of this growth on the habitats of several species, especially the population of the Mountain Pygmy Possum.
The Mountain Pygmy Possum (MPP) program. These animals are super cute, so placid and beautiful. The restoration program is a key part of my work.
It had been thought that the possum was extinct on the mountain, until one was discovered in a lodge in the 1960s. Because of the historic development of the village along the Great Alpine Road (GAR), habitat fragmentation and degradation by sedimentation is the greatest immediate threat to the MPP population. Hotham village grew around MPP habitat and we proactively mitigate the impacts of this. A rock filled culvert tunnel was installed under the GAR at Mount Higginbotham within the village in the early 1980s. The MPP lives in the boulderfields on the higher mountains, and the males tend to live down the mountain while the females live up higher. Before Hotham was established the possums would have traveled up the mountain via natural boulderfields. The GAR now cuts the slopes of Mt Higginbotham and Little Higginbotham. Crossing the road puts the males at risk from both cars and predators, so Mt Hotham Resort Management Board co-ordinated the construction of a boulderfield tunnel under the GAR (called ‘the tunnel of love’).
We have just completed a second tunnel, which links the boulderfields above and below the GAR on Mt Little Higginbotham, about 1.5 kilometres along the road from the first one in conjunction with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and Zoos Victoria.
The second tunnel was a major construction operation and took about six weeks. We were assisted by a local civil contracting company and we had to close half the road at a time to do the construction, so it was done in two stages. The possums migrate through the boulderfields, where they are protected from predators like foxes, and we needed to ensure the structure of the boulderfield would ‘work’ for the possums while also maintaining the integrity of the infrastructure. We installed storm water infrastructure adjacent to the culverts under the road, avoiding a high voltage electric mains cable in the process.
The operators on-site were incredibly skilled. After digging up the road, we put the culverts in place, then filled them with basalt rocks to create an artificial boulderfield, which linked up the remaining natural fields above and below the road. The section above the road was a particular challenge – the boulderfield was built effectively as a chimney, like a dry-stone wall, up the slope, and then rocks were placed loosely behind the wall. The top section was built by hand. There were 14 culverts in total.
We plan to install the monitoring system soon, which will allow us to track how successful the tunnel is. We will also have a system that will allow us to monitor individual possum’s movements using microchips and readers and camera imagery, which will be really helpful for monitoring and research.
I was introduced to the possum by Dean Heinze, before I was the environment officer. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the possum and was on the mountain doing survey work. He brought a possum into the RMB office once when I was working the front desk. It was so beautiful. And when we were working on the second tunnel, we were able to also introduce the local contractors to a possum. After that they really understood what they were doing and why, and they put such attention into building the boulderfield so it would be perfect for the movement of the possums.
I’ve learnt a lot about the MPP, from Dean and other experts and now I am the resort representative on the state recovery team for the Mountain Pygmy Possum.
The MPP recovery effort is a great story for Mt Hotham. A range of government departments, researchers and land managers have all been working together for years to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. We share skills and knowledge across the different resorts. I am very grateful to be involved in helping the possums long term and especially glad we could finally get this second tunnel built! I also genuinely appreciated ALL the people that helped contribute to the tunnel project.
You can contact Anita Coia, Media and Communications Officer for Mt Hotham Alpine Resort Management Board by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
For further information of the resort’s environmental policy and actions please check here.
For details on the Mountain Pygmy Possum please check here.
For details on Hotham’s work to ensure the survival of the possum please check here.