By - Wayne Linklater 09/05/2017 11

Predator Free 2050 is good politics but it is scientifically flawed.

It can’t be done. Predator-free 2050 was described as a “moon shot” but, actually, its an Andromeda Galaxy shot – unattainable. New Zealand’s, and the world’s, leading experts in animal eradication have already concluded that it is not possible to eradicate introduced mammalian predators from New Zealand. That consensus of expert opinion has been ignored.

PF2050 and the Department of Conservation (DOC) guiding it are under resourced. Its estimated cost is $32 billion but just a thousandth of that number has been set aside ($26 million).

The success of PF 2050 rests entirely on complicated solutions that are largely unknown, undeveloped and untested, like the genetic manipulation of wildlife. Those solutions have enormous technical and biological uncertainties to their use. The chances of actually being able to apply one of those solutions is next to zero.

Even if they could be made to work in the laboratory, the genetic manipulations of wildlife being proposed, like gene drive and Trojan females, will not eradicate predators because they attempt to work against biological evolution. The predator populations are genetically variable and they will mutate, there will be survivors, and they will repopulate. The first examples of gene drive failing because of genetic resistance has already been published.

On top of the uncertainties about the development and efficacy of new technologies, there are also large risks and barriers to scaling up existing technologies or releasing new ones. For example, while aerial broadcasting 1080 is understood to be necessary for the moment, it is also understood to pose a risk in our export markets because consumers are sensitive to inhumane practices and environmental toxins. The increase in 1080 broadcasting that PF2050 will require poses an ongoing political and economic risk.

Another example: the New Zealand public and international consumers of our produce are already wary of genetically modified organisms. Even the scientists at the forefront of developing gene-drive techniques are warning about their potential social and ecological risks. It is highly likely that a significant number of the public are going to find the release of genetically engineered organism into their backyards and schools unacceptable. These types of uncertainties and risks are greater than the technological and biological ones.

Ordinarily, no government, NGO, corporate or business would pose a goal that is not within it capacity to achieve. They would especially not pose such a high-risk strategy and then under-resource it. And for conservation the prospect of failure carries with it the potential to sacrifice public support for its broader goals.

Consider also that PF205 is much less useful to biodiversity than we are led to believe. It is a single issue-single solution approach to biodiversity loss when it is, of course, more complicated. Predator eradication will improve the prospects for the few of our endemic and charismatic biodiversity (e.g., birds and reptiles) but not address the decline in the vast majority of New Zealand’s biodiversity that continues to be impacted by poor environmental standards and enforcement and ongoing habitat loss and pollution across most of the country. Moreover, ecological science has taught us that removing species will create new, and there will be additional, threats – competitors, other predators, parasites and diseases. Thus, PF2050 is not the best way to protect New Zealand’s environment and biodiversity over its greatest extent. PF 2050 is a political distraction from solving the greater environmental problems that we face as a country.

Given the above points, it becomes clear that PF2050 is a “green-wash” by the current government while it has worked to erode environmental and biodiversity protections everywhere else.

Fortunately, there is a better alternative to Predator Free 2050 that is based on better science and policy developed over the last 50 years. I describe that in my next post.


Featured image: Brisbane City Council

11 Responses to “Predator Free 2050 is scientifically flawed”

  • We are in real danger of letting naysayer semantics rob this vision of its tremendous value. In fact, the paper Linklater cites simply says what we all know perfectly well: we cannot eradicate these species (with the possible exception of possums) with any combination of tools we now possess. That’s why PF 2050 is a vision, but one that quite justifiably anticipates enormous advances in gene editing capability. It will easily fulfil one of its first ambitions – to inspire more research and investment in pest control. It was probably inevitable that a few contrarians would seize the opportunity to showboat, but we must remember that the rest of the scientific community has already set to work on this.

    • Dear Dave – thank you for your comment.

      Conservation policy, it be effective and sustained, needs to be based on the information we have, our evaluation of its quality, and our estimate of the uncertainties. Science’s essential role is to provide information of a known quality and make estimates about the uncertainties (so that future science can reduce the most significant of them). My role as a scientist and professional is to help make this process happen. Thus, I produce, interpret and evaluate information and estimate the likely difficulties and their importance. Inevitably, to be effective, I must also do that in a context and on topics that are also culturally, socially and politically important.

      You label people unfairly when you use terms like “naysayer semantics” and “contrarians” just because they have different opinions to yours. Yours is not a constructive contribution to the debate.

      Actually the scientific work I referred to [Past, present and two potential futures for managing New Zealand’s mammalian pests by John Parkes, Graham Nugent, David M. Forsyth, Andrea E. Byrom, Roger P. Pech, Bruce Warburton, David Choquenot] does actually conclude that predators cannot be eradicated from New Zealand and that trying to do it might be counterproductive:

      “The national scale pest- or predator-free aspiration is not currently (and may never be) feasible and risks diverting resources from more optimal solutions, as occurred with the ‘last rabbit’ and ‘last deer’ programmes promoted last century”

      and they recommend almost exactly what I do: ” We consider some form of nested management across space and over time to suit these different parameters, at least in the major areas of indigenous habitats, will at present provide the best way to improve outcomes. All this pest management can be done based on the current wildlife management toolkit, such that improvements in efficiency will allow more areas at larger scales (and more pest species) to be added to the portfolio.”

      Dave – I think you need to be more circumspect before you push the REPLY button.


      • Wayne

        I don’t think you have correctly represented Parkes et al conclusion and your lack of scientific rigour is disappointing. You have said they: “actually conclude that predators cannot be eradicated from New Zealand and that trying to do it might be counterproductive:” They did nothing of the sort. The relevant text from their paper is: “Unless we develop new tools, gain the social licence to use them everywhere, develop much more cost-effective tools and systems to prevent most reinvasion and to detect and kill survivors and invaders, local elimination of pests from unfenced mainland areas will usually be undone by reinvasion.”

        There a big void between your “cannot” and their ” unless we develop”.

  • Hi Wayne:

    Thanks for your reply. If we’re discussing labels, I’d add that branding people as “science deniers” simply for supporting a worthy aspiration is every bit as unhelpful, as is dismissing their enthusiasm as “extremist, absolutionist, and jingoistic.” My failing is that I responded to such taunts with like, so mea culpa. I always find it amusing when the defenders of the Victorian vision of New Zealand as a vast egalitarian hunting estate for the working class accuse visionaries of wanting to turn back time. I stand by my statement about semantics, which I notice you invoke again to create the false impression of agreement between the authors of that paper and your prescription for fenced sanctuaries. In my interpretation, they are not supporting your position to the extent you claim, but are referring to a strategy that might well be compatible with the kind of rolling front or join-the-dots strategies that have been propounded. Similarly, to fixate on eradication is a straw man that exploits what is, I concede, a flawed brand. We all know that, even if you don’t eradicate a pest, getting it down to the last two or three per cent still secures enormous gains for threatened species. And it that may well be the hard limit that PF2050 runs up against, but it will still have been an utterly worthwhile thing to do. You and I do agree on some things: like you, I do not believe that New Zealand society is adequately disposed, equipped or briefed to properly evaluate measures like gene editing. However, I don’t present that as a straw man simply to champion my pet proposition. My feeling is that we urgently need to embark on a parallel programme of psycho/sociological research to inform PF2050. There are other gains we could piggyback as well: we also possibly agree that science education and attainment in New Zealand schools could be much improved: the social enthusiasm for PF2050 could be harnessed to encourage just such a benefit. The media needs to lift its game in the way it reports science — that could be a coincidental benefit too, if we apply just as much resourcing to social research. I regard these things as coincidental opportunities, not reasons to put what’s left of biodiversity behind a fence, which, in my view, is defeatist and sets an abysmally low bar in terms of a future for wildlife, well below what we know we can achieve. We can and will do much better than refugee camps for endangered species.

    • Thanks Dave – it looks like we agree on very much and around the detail of the debate I haven’t anything more to add.

      On the topic of labels I agree with you. “Science deniers” is a bad term to use. My tongue was firmly “planted in my cheek” yesterday when I used the phrase in my opening speech because I was sitting next to James Russell who used the term in a recent publication [“The Rise of invasive Species Denialism” in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, January 2017 Volumne 32, Issue 1, see also: to describe people like me who are critical of Invasion Biology and policies for predator eradication. I wanted to communicate just how inappropriate it is by turning its use around to describe pro-PF2050 supporters. I am sorry if my attempt at humour was not understood as such.

      Lastly, my use of the terms absolutionist, jingoistic and extremist was in reference to the PF2050 policy, not people.


    • Hi Dave – good to see you engaging with this discussion.

      I agree that labelling people ‘science deniers’ for expressing a different perspective (even a ‘crazy and ambitious’ one) is not conducive to open debate. As Wayne noted, it was offered up at the #crazyambitious conference as a friendly dig at James’ recent paper on this topic which was heavily criticised through reply articles in the following issue of the journal. I had a chuckle but I appreciate that it was a bit of an in-joke.

      Not sure what you mean when criticising ‘defenders of the Victorian vision of New Zealand as a vast egalitarian hunting estate’. If aimed at Wayne that seems misdirected. Is this intended more as a caricature of hunters? It seemed out of place in your reply.

      For me, holding up the notion of eradication – which is the lynchpin of Predator Free 2050 – as a ‘straw man’ is quite a remarkable piece of semantics itself. No, we don’t all agree that when referring to eradication the Government really just means control to low levels. If it is, it’s news to me and, if accurate, I’d like the Government to be explicit about that concession. There was no indication of this at the conference.

      I disagree that pursuing the Predator Free 2050 goal (which is fundamentally about eradication of these five species) regardless of any realistic hope of success is sensible. For one thing, failure could have perverse consequences for many of our more measured and sustainable conservation initiatives. And, as I think you agree, the means of achieving the goal (ie, further use of poisons, gene editing) are likely to be highly contentious. We have to be careful how hard we push people.

      I think we all agree that more social research is needed on how palatable this sort of goal is. Different measures to bring about the goal also need to be tested for their social acceptability. But we also have to be open to the possibility that that research may show that nationwide eradication is not going to be considered acceptable. There is no point in heading off ‘educating’ people on how worthwhile the goal is only to later find that people widely disagree. The social research therefore needs to come first.

      I appreciate where you are coming from when you describe people with different perspectives as ‘defeatist’. For you, perhaps there is a single, unshakably valid position on how we should understand and value our biodiversity. I do see where you are coming from with that belief. It makes sense to you perhaps to frame those who disagree with you as ‘giving up’. Personally, though, I’d like to see a wider acceptance in the industry of the fact that there is no one right way to think about this stuff. All our positions on nature are based on value frameworks informed by our own unique backgrounds, interests and research.

      By all means let’s have a bit of back and forth with this stuff, but we don’t have to construct different perspectives as ‘the enemy’ all the time. We all have good intentions here. We just differ a bit (OK, sometimes a lot) on what the end is and how we might choose to get there.

      Once again, good for you for engaging with this debate – it’s exactly what’s needed.

  • We seem to see so many articles talking about flawed and biased science. In more modern times it is such a disappointment that one’s ethics and morals seem so easily swayed and often driven by the mighty dollar.
    As a person with nearly 50 years of regularly enjoying the NZ outdoors I am very concerned that the New Zealand I have always known and enjoyed is fast disappearing and I don’t believe it is due to those named by some as ‘pests’. I believe the huge loss of native habitat has contributed greatly to the loss of of our native bird species.
    What is hard to understand is how our native birds are in decline yet the non native bird species seem to be thriving. This lack of understanding is made even more difficult to fathom when we consider that the non natives are subjected to and living with the very same ‘pests’ which we are told are decimating the native birds.
    So it is not hard to see why so many don’t support yet more poison in our environment.

    • Neville Du Fall says:
      > What is hard to understand is how our native birds are in decline yet the non native
      > bird species seem to be thriving. This lack of understanding is made even more
      > difficult to fathom when we consider that the non natives are subjected to and living
      > with the very same ‘pests’ which we are told are decimating the native birds.

      The explanation is simple: introduced species have evolved in the presence of these predators, and have evolved defences against them. As an example, consider the alarm call of a blackbird. Our native species have not been exposed to the same predators, do not have defences against them, and often don’t even recognise them as a threat!

  • With this debate I think we are dealing with a paradigm shift and I am glad to hear that Invasion Biology is being questioned. Because the paradigm that “Predator- Free NZ’ is based on seems to be more like the “restoration ecology” – a vain attempt to restore NZ ecology to some purist past state. This is delusional. Nature is dynamic and ever changing. With climate change the species mix and new “alien invaders” will inevitably arrive.

    Yes Wayne, PFNZ2050 is definitely a “greenwash” of the highest order of hypocrisy from the current government, which is encouraging deep sea oil exploration, coal mining, intensive industrial agriculture – destroying habitats and water purity and risking pollution disasters. They don’t care about the environment. The very name “predator-free NZ ” is risable and exposes the scientific ignorance of those who conjured and PR-ed it into existence. Moreporks/Ruru are predators, insectivorous birds are predators, the at-risk NZ falcon is a predator. Actually a 1080 drop wiped out a group of Karearea on a friend’s land. They have never been seen again since the aerial 1080 drop . The “unintended consequences” of a corporate-driven conservation agenda. Apologists for the 1080 conservation juggernaut like Mr Hansen, need to put their chin in their hand and have a wee think.
    What on earth is D Hansford talking about when he says:
    “My feeling is that we urgently need to embark on a parallel programme of psycho/sociological research to inform PF2050.” Sounds like a brainwashing campaign. This is the problem when conservation crosses over into evangelism.
    Kia kaha Wayne.

  • Both Dr Linklater & Dr Steer’s work are a breathe of fresh air in otherwise totally alienating, immature & archaic debate.
    One thing I would add is – Jamie – it’s not only the social research that is needed, alongside the potential consequences of pursuing the fantasy that is PF 2050 – but the public health impact too. The continued aerial poisoning of our land & water needs to stop & valid comprehensive epidemiology data needs analysis. 63 years of existing ineffective ‘pest’ control has undoubtedly done significant damage on many environmental levels – ‘ramping it up’ without rigorous health & safety assessments is utterly irresponsible of our Government.

  • Mary is right to worry about the human health and safety aspects of the increasing use of 1080. Initially 1080 was approved as a nuclear stop-gap measure to give us time to find a less polluting way of saving our forests from being stripped bare. Now we recognise we are out of this immediate danger, possum numbers fell from 70 to 30 million over night and the 1080 spread has simply increased and increased. Govt has taken steps to speed up the flow of 1080 baits from factory to forest. Once important measures like talking with all affected parties prior to a drop to ensure they know to keep their dogs muzzled, and keep an eye on the children and the animals in the back paddock, making sure no one drinks from poisoned streams, or eats poisoned meat. There are a string of regulations and standards set in place to ensure 1080 is spread “safely”. Regional councils were able to enforce these regulations and standards, through their interpretation of section 360(10(h) subsection 15 of the RMA. Now that this power has been removed from regional councils there is now no government body authorised to ensure human or animal safety during 1080 drops. For country folk who live downstream from a 1080 drop there is nowhere left to turn when things go wrong during and after a 1080 drop. Government has cast all safety measures to the wind saying the Environment Protection Society will take over from councils but the EPA is not authorised to police the use of any of the toxic products whose release they have approved. Brace yourselves.

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