By - Wayne Linklater 30/01/2017

Designing ecosystems, reconciliation ecology for conservation

The theme for the influential Ecological Society of America’s annual conference last year was “Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene”. A novel ecosystem is a human-made habitat and community of plants and animals. Novel ecosystems can be planned, accidental, or caused by poor environmental management that cannot be undone. And Anthropocene describes the current geological age when we, people, are the most significant influence on the planet.

They are both de rigueur right now.

Late last year the first issue of Anthropocene: innovation in the human age, arrived in my mailbox. Once titled Conservation Science, it now “explore[s] how we create a sustainable human age we actually want to live in”.

Anthropocene features novel ecosystems and “inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places dominated and impacted by people”. This is Reconciliation Ecology as first described in Michael Rosenzweig’s book: Win-Win Ecology – How the Earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise (2003).

Consider also the recent avalanche of compelling books re-thinking our relationship with biodiversity and ecosystems:

  • Image resultRambunctious Garden – Saving nature in a post-wild world (2011 – Emma Marris),
  • Living Through the End of Nature – The future of American Environmentalism (2010 – Paul Wapner),
  • Wildlife in the Anthropocene – Conservation after Nature (2015 – Jamie Lorimer),

and, most provocatively for New Zealanders,

  • The New Wild – Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation (2015 – Fred Pearce).

These publications describe the horizon in the applied ecological sciences, like conservation, that we are approaching.

But New Zealand (NZ) is on another planet

Possum and rat both preying on a thrush nest. Credit: DOC.

While the rest of the world is talking about reconciliation ecology and novel ecosystems, in li’ ol’ New Zealand (NZ) we are talking war on exotic species at an unprecedented scale and in a theatrical and highly politicised fashion to restore our ecosystems to how they were once upon a time.

Eradicating to be Predator-free by 2050 is attempting to return our ecosystems to how they were before people and exotic species. It is a step in the opposite direction to the future that the rest of the world is contemplating.

Putting restoration and eradication in their place

Restoring habitats and species and managing exotic species currently dominates ecological science, policy and practice in NZ. They are a part of my own research program too.

Here I will not suggest that they have no place. But, I will argue that their usefulness is a question of values, context and scale. And I will argue that they are much less useful to future biodiversity conservation than we are lead to believe.

Planting for habitat and reintroducing animals will only continue to grow in importance in a human-dominated world. Novel ecosystems will require them more, not less. Sanctuaries that protect our most sensitive native species will always have a role in biodiversity conservation. And the need to efficiently and humanly kill some exotic species (e.g., inside sanctuaries and to control Tb) will continue (although many exotics in other contexts will be valuable and retained, if not propagated).

But, the proposal to restore NZ to a pre-human state by eradicating exotic predators? The aspiration is unnecessary, logically flawed, cannot be implemented at the scale required, and is failure-certain for our changed and still changing ecosystems. In NZ we are, by international norms in applied ecology, out on a small, fragile and extremist conceptual limb.

Making better use of ecological science

The Predator-free aspiration fails to put our modern and complex understanding of ecology and ecosystems to its greatest effect. It distracts us from investing where our intelligence and efforts can have greater environmental benefits.

The  Karori Wildlife Sanctuary predator-proof fence. Wikimedia / Tony Wills.

We can already protect the most vulnerable biodiversity in sanctuaries without country-wide predator eradication. A few better endeavours spring immediately to mind: national fresh and coastal water-quality standards that actually protect biodiversity; defendable estimates for the ecological carrying capacity of people and their enterprises, including tourists, on the New Zealand’s landscape; or designing ecological management to protect native biodiversity at greater scale because it facilitates their co-existence with exotic species.

Such ecological science would be more demanding of course, being more complex and empirical, and needing new hypotheses and data. It would also be a biological AND social science.

We would begin by acknowledging to the wider community the great uncertainties we have about the ecosystems of the future. We would also be honest that science, while gathering evidence to test ideas, is fundamentally driven by the values of those who practice and use it. Nativism – exotic species eradication and restoration ecology – in NZ is strongly values-driven. Science has just been along for the ride.

Science makes faster progress when we, first, acknowledge and define the unknown and, second, are open to a diversity of objectives and explanations. And, yes, that should include apparently heretical ideas like that exotic species can be our allies as well as our problem. Which they are is a question of values, environmental context and scale (i.e., ecology in its broadest sense).

Turning failure into success

We are still failing to protect our native biodiversity and habitat in this country. The current focus on restoration and exotic species eradication is not arresting that country-wide decline.

Our primary failure has been to not recognise people as the root-cause of the native biodiversity crisis. We destroyed habitats, polluted, over-harvested and introduced exotic species. And we continue to do all of these.

A closer look. Human environmental impacts including intensive agriculture, quarrying and stubble burn-off can be seen in this panorama of the Southern Alps and Waimakariri River. Click to enlarge. Credit: Wei Li Jiang / Flickr.

It is time to stop expediently scapegoating exotic species as if a national program to eradicate them will solve our biodiversity crisis. A few iconic, visible native species will benefit but, elsewhere, our native biodiversity will continue to decline. Until, that is, we do something about us.

Consider also that our environments have changed and continue to change in ways that we cannot undo (e.g., climate change). Our ecosystems will never be the same again. Their biodiversity, therefore, can also never be the same.

We need an applied ecological science of change and of the future, not stasis and the past. Understanding and building novel ecosystems of natives AND exotics for the future is our only chance of success. Better a novel ecosystem designed for biodiversity-purpose than restoration band-aids on a continued decline to conservation failure.

Win-win ecology

“Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking, we can get on with creating the future”

– James Bertrand (quoted on the back cover of Anthropocene).

Imagine an ecological science informing conservation practice that works with nature, not against it. It would foster win-win solutions, not fight nature’s processes (like dispersal, species interactions and evolution). Instead, NZ’s professional and popular culture in ecology and conservation appears largely unaware, reluctant, or afraid to consider it.

I think progress in conservation and its science in NZ is hamstrung by traditional and populist thinking about ecology. We have made ecology into an ugly, distorted caricature of itself, in this case nativism. And, we are using nativism to motivate the unnecessary, logically-flawed, mission-impossible, and failure-certain aspiration of restoring the past.

To this end we have convinced ourselves that we are ecologically objective and environmentally righteous (ironically at the same time). But actually, we are just allowing simplistic, old-fashioned, and quasi-religious values to dominate our national focus.

Walking backwards into the future

Reconciliation ecology and novel ecosystems are taking their place amongst science, policy and practice around the world. In NZ, however, we have chosen to approach the future, Anthropocene horizon walking backwards with our eyes focused on the past.

The Sciblogs Horizon Scan

This post is part of the Sciblogs Horizon Scan summer series, featuring posts from New Zealand researchers exploring what the future holds across a range of fields.

0 Responses to “Conservation’s horizon in New Zea la-la land”

  • As a paleobotanist I’m very interested in the views you put forward regarding how we might manage of environment. I have been concerned regarding the approach to recreate an environment from the past, as we don’t quite know what that looked like. Moreover, are we looking a point in time?, and if so which point in time?, pre human, post Polynesian settlement and pre European? There doesn’t appear to be any concensus and I summise that is because it’s too difficult to achieve without removing all humans.
    I think a better approach is to protect the small areas that appear to be relatively un touched. Regarding the larger areas which have been modified a different approach is needed. Here I suggest we should identify which exotic species are benefiting the environment. For example, there are exotics that appear to be stabilising coastal dunes. But, local authorities are actively promoting programs to remove these species and to replace these with natives species. Which on the face of it appears sensible, but, while this is happening to dunes are in danger of erosion, and there is no evidence the the natives will be able to rests lush.
    There are however, some exotic species that are agessively encroaching on established naive species such as old mans beard (Clematis vital ). In this case attempts should be taken to control its spread.
    I think that no one method will fit all situations and we should approach each situation by first appraising the vegetation that already exists. If for example, if one is faced with a site that is dominated by exotic weeds and is thinking of improving it by planting trees, I think that we should try to plant it with native species known to have been growing in the area before European settlement.
    Cheers John

    • Yes John, what you say is very reasonable, and pretty closely describes what is being done now, and what is proposed. Nowhere in policy is it proposed to try and recreate the past, clearly that is not only not possible, but in many cases not desirable. But you are replying to a strawman argument put forward by Wayne Linklater that that is what is proposed by the PredatorFreeNZ2050 vision, when it is not. Linklater’s suggestion is disingenuous at best, and unhelpful toward any coherent debate around the serious issues we have with invasive mammals.

  • He began to lose me with the patronising; ‘….. in li’ ol’ New Zealand (NZ) we are….’, and very shortly after that set up the Strawman (type of logical fallacy); ‘Eradicating to be Predator-free by 2050 is attempting to return our ecosystems to how they were before people and exotic species’, which if you read its statement it clearly and plainly is not. I think the three books he first names sound interesting, but they don’t then lend any credibility to ‘……most provocatively for New Zealanders, The New Wild – Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation (2015 – Fred Pearce)’. I’ve just been up north, in two forests that are showing clear symptoms of stress from invasive species impact, and are on the path to system collapse without benign and comprehensive intervention. I can’t review the book without reading it, but this may be a rare case where the title alone is enough to dismiss the premise. This is not what almost every ecologist in NZ is saying from their results.

    • You may have misunderstood Wayne. It is clearly stated in the article that “…planting for habitat and reintroducing animals will only continue to grow in importance in a human-dominated world. Novel ecosystems will require them more, not less….” He’s not against protecting native species. But the more important point is that we should “invest where our intelligence and efforts can have greater environmental benefits.” I personally think that the thought of “eradicating exotic species” is as dangerous as the thought of stopping all the immigrants. Most of us can understand what Trump is doing about immigrants is crazy, but in terms of ecosystem, we still have a long way to go.

    • Have I mounted a straw man argument? No. But, Brian, you are correct that the idea is a straw man. It is just that I didn’t create it – the Predator-free NZ 2050 proposal did and I am just pulling at its obvious weaknesses.

      I acknowledge that the finer details of the Predator-free NZ 2050 manifesto proposes, contrary to its title, only the eradication of three select species (rats, possums and stoats) from a caste of hundreds, only being able to do it for areas of 20,000 hectares, and suppress, not eradicate, them from another 1 million hectares (or 3.7% of New Zealand’s landscape).

      In this sense the outcomes are business as usual for us, i.e., growing the capability to control unwanted species where necessary over the next 30 years. And, you will note in my article that I endorse the need to continue to grow that capacity.

      But the outcomes of Predator-free NZ 2050 are also small compared to the size of New Zealand and its conservation estate, and the magnitude of the biodiversity crisis, and compared to what might be gained by investing our intelligence and efforts in other fixes for it (some of which I suggest in the article). Although difficult and requiring some substantive investment in R&D (good for the research and tech. economy), it is hardly the moonshot for biodiversity most required or most likely to generate the greatest biodiversity gain.

      Importantly, the proposal’s outcomes are also very small compared to the aspiration communicated widely to New Zealanders by its title, Predator-free NZ 2050.

      Most New Zealanders are taking the title of the proposal at face value. Even its representation by the Science Media Centre described it thus:
      “Nearly six months ago the Government announced it would aim to rid New Zealand of rats, stoats and possums by 2050. How will we get there?”.
      Unfortunately, the proposal would have more accurately been titled “3-predators-free reserves 2050” at best.

      The conceptual gap, therefore, between the Predator-free NZ 2050 title and what it actually might do is the straw man created. It betrays the titles aspiration as fallacious and ridiculous – an enormous investment for a grandiose idea but not very much real gain. In terms of biodiversity conservation and environmental management for New Zealand and New Zealanders, it is underwhelming – a few iconic, visible species benefit but continued biodiversity decline everywhere else.

      By calling my argument a straw man all it does is allow you to ignore the cogent evidence and arguments from a growing literature and number of people who have a different opinion to you. And, in dismissing Fred Pearce’s book solely from its title, this is exactly what you have done.

      We need more constructive debate about biodiversity and conservation policy in New Zealand and to do that each of us needs to be willing to inform themselves of alternative perspectives. In my profession as a conservation biologist I am familiar with restoration ecology and pest eradication. I am also familiar with other perspectives and their evidential base. Those indicate that it would be better to invest in other ways and for other biodiversity gains. My article described some of those and the literature that talks about them.

      Thank you for reading.
      Best wishes,

    • Sorry Brian, but conversation in this space has been frustrated by kneejerk nitpickers like yourself for too long in this country. You claim that Dr Linklater commits a logical fallacy, supporting your hunch by focusing on one sentence in his article and deciding that this dismisses everything he could have to say on the topic. This is the logical fallacy of cherry picking (and honestly we could go endlessly back and forth with this vapid pick-your-fallacy stuff).

      Try genuinely reading the spirit of what he is saying and you might come to appreciate that there are new perspectives coming through in ecology in New Zealand (and right around the world) now and these perspectives are needed.

      The goal of returning ecosystems, as best we can, to a former state, whether pre-human, pre-European, or otherwise is commonplace in New Zealand. That is beyond dispute. But not everyone agrees that that is sensible anymore, or we at least differ on how far to take it. I know that is hard for some to accept but it’s something that is going to need to be talked about sooner or later. The reality of widespread and ongoing ecological change is going to continue to force the hand of this conversation.

      For many of us, the future for ecology in New Zealand, as Dr Linklater rightly points out, is every bit about the future as the past now. Predator Free New Zealand, for its part, is clearly an extreme initiative. What is proposed is extremely expensive, technically challenging, and risky. I think it’s important to test this sort of extremism to ensure we don’t just blindly head off down a path that could in all possibility end up leading us nowhere.

      There has been a distinct lack of robust public discussion on this initiative to date. Given what is at stake, and the profound effect it could have on all of our lives, it’s not good enough.

  • The Department of Conservation is USELESS and no one can work with them.
    Their vision of pest free NZ is the stupidest halfwit idea I have ever heard when you know of their ineffectual methods. They maybe able to be past free on DoC land if their budget quadrupled BUT they will NEVER be pest free on the countless small stands of private bush, bush verges along the roads and in everyone’s back yards. Absolutely retarded thinking from the people that anually airally drop enough supper toxic poizon over NZ to kill the population 5 times.

  • Thanks for your rare, open and honest examination, Wayne. Finally some sense being spoken to the nonsensical, and in my opinion, purely money driven notion, of a “predator free” New Zealand. I’m about to release a video clip of the Mt Bruce disaster, where a mere 942 hectares of un-fenced “sanctuary” has cost close to 3 million dollars over the last 15 years, and still the kiwi die in big numbers. The last three successive years the whole block has been aerially spread with 1080 poison bait – across the entire land and water area. Yes, as is usual with aerial drops, directly into all waterways. And still the kiwi demise continues. Far better to leave the wilderness areas to themselves, as the video clip will also point out. If these “saviours” of wildlife can’t manage 942 hectares, how are they going to manage 27 million?

  • “Predator-free NZ” is a classic example of the current sorry state of science in NZ, whereby scientific integrity is compromised by economics. Who or what does “Predator-free NZ” benefit and how? The answer to that is very simple: it economically benefits the involved scientific community. That is all. It is a gravy train for those scientists who are involved, that’s all.

  • Interesting spread of opinion here and here’s my take.
    A predator free NZ is a great idea
    It is probably a feint by this government to ‘appear’ environmental
    The current government has made no moves to actually fund this effectively so…..the point may be moot.

    A predator free NZ will never bring about a “pre-human” state. That’s not the point at all. How could it?? Will all the extinct species suddenly pop back into existence?! In that regard I agree with the opinions that it is a straw-man argument.

    The argument to just live with the damage that predators do as somehow progressive is very lazy; libertarian; corrupt and anti-ecological. Lazy is self-explanatory. Libertarian because Libertarians will argue against 99% of government spending on our (but mostly their own) behalf and this is just another case in point to them. Corrupt because those industries that stand to gain from predators have a vested interest in keeping and indeed expanding the status quo. Anti-ecological because those who don’t give a damn about the environment will use such ideas to justify more anthropogenic damage (usually in the name of profit). Oh and I forgot one, conspiratorial. Because conspiracy theorists the world over are convinced that 99% of the worlds scientists are only in it for the money!! and 1080 is the root of all evil!!

    This article, apart from attacking a noble cause, appears to me to be fairly pointless. We already embrace most of the introduced species in this country. There is no great support for eliminating the sparrows, blackbirds, thrushs, cats, dogs, and many types of garden plants that have made their home here since humans came. We want to live with them, they’ve taken up the spaces left by extinct species.

    Saying we should follow the rest of the world is a cop-out and just plain blinkered.
    New Zealand is not like the rest of the world. The only major land mass without mammals for millions of years created our flora and fauna. If I were living on a continent I would agree the total eradication of predators would be ridiculous.
    New Zealand is not part of those continents (not withstanding the newly discovered sunken continent of Zealandia, yay!) and we need to do what is right for us. In this case we CAN go in the opposite direction to the rest of the world and what’s more, we can JUSTIFY it on those grounds.

    Now the technical aspects of a predator free New Zealand is another matter altogether. I’ve thought about it and yes it probably would be a goal out of our reach. On the other hand, it could work too if the whole country got in behind the mission because it’s such a huge goal it just won’t happen otherwise. All I know is this idea should not be killed off before we’ve had a chance to really get our heads around it. That means ignoring the “do nothing brigade” and at least doing some trials. Those trials may reveal it to be a case of not now but in the future with better, more efficient, cheaper technology. That future may not be that far away.