By Jamie Steer 21/02/2018 28


In a recent article in The Spinoff, the Department of Conservation’s Threatened Species Ambassador Nicola Toki makes three arguments.

First, that native species and introduced predators in New Zealand cannot co-exist. Second, that conservation should be undertaken not only in sanctuaries, but also on private land. And third, that it is the indigenous subset of our biodiversity that fundamentally defines us as a nation.

These arguments are made in direct response to last month’s Stuff article on introduced wildlife that features perspectives from a range of environmental academics and industry folk. I think two of Mrs Toki’s arguments widely miss the mark and the third deserves much closer scrutiny. Let me explain why.

Argument one: Co-existence isn’t possible

Mrs Toki writes that ‘some recent commentary has suggested that native species and introduced predators might peacefully co-exist and that therefore we should focus on the ecosystems of the future, rather than the ecosystems of the past. If that is what New Zealand decided to do’ she warns ‘we would be making a very stark choice’.

The Ambassador later re-emphasises this point, fuming that ‘[t]he idea that we have a reasonable choice, that our threatened species can somehow ‘co-exist’ with the onslaught of introduced predators is irresponsible and untrue’. This stance has latterly been parroted by an admirer in a New Zealand Herald opinion piece.

On the face of it this argument is hard hitting but, upon closer inspection, it is clear that Mrs Toki attacks a straw man. No commentators in the article to which she refers suggest that native species can, under all circumstances, co-exist with introduced predators. The closest any of the commentators get to such a suggestion is in the paraphrasing of my comments:

‘Rather than concentrating on eradication, Steer says we should research ways introduced predators and New Zealand’s treasured birds, lizards and bugs can co-exist. Some species, like kakapo, will be too vulnerable, and too threatened to risk co-existence. But other natives might survive if managed intensively when they’re most vulnerable – nesting or roosting – in the same way Operation Nest Egg rears kiwi in predator-free safety and releases them into the wild once they can fend for themselves’.

As you can see, this makes it perfectly clear that co-existence is no one stop shop. And in fact this should have been a fairly uncontentious point to make anyway given that we already use a number of methods to foster co-existence between vulnerable natives species and introduced predators in New Zealand, besides Operation Nest Egg.

Other familiar examples include providing rock gardens for native lizards (for them to safely hide in) or protecting bird nests with metal tree bands (so that predators can’t climb up to them). I simply stressed that we should do more of it and explore more ways of doing it better.

The issue of scale also needs to be considered. While some species likely cannot exist in the same places, this does not mean that we cannot have places for both. In fact, that is what a large part of our existing conservation efforts revolve around (i.e., protected, managed areas). The fact that kakapo can’t compete with stoats is no automatic argument for getting rid of all stoats – only for places where kakapo do not encounter them.

Argument two: Conservation beyond protected areas

Mrs Toki writes that ‘we can do much more for our wildlife than to relegate species to living behind fences or in designated areas somewhere away from us out in the bush’. She prescribes that ‘the recipe for enhancing the survival of much of New Zealand’s wildlife is relatively simple – remove the pests and protect habitat’.

Again, the Ambassador constructs a bogeyman. No one interviewed in the Stuff article suggests that conservation of native species should be restricted to sanctuaries. This is made particularly plain in paraphrased comments from fellow Sciblogger Wayne Linklater:

‘[H]e advocates [for] an extended national network of predator-free sanctuaries such as Wellington’s Zealandia – connected either by habitat corridors or translocation of individual animals, and surrounded by “halos” where pest control allows threatened species to safely spill over beyond the sanctuary fence’.

These areas ‘beyond the sanctuary fence’ include vast areas where our people live, with many mainland sanctuaries located within close proximity to urban centres. As for the ‘relatively simple’ solution that Mrs Toki suggests (i.e., remove the pests and protect habitat), if it were so simple why would we still be struggling so much?

It’s because removing introduced predators alone is hard enough, but removing the hundreds of pest plants and animals in New Zealand is near on impossible. Realistically, we can remove (or more likely control) a sub-set of them from a sub-set of the country, as we currently do. But we’ll have to learn to live with them in many other areas whether we like it or not.

In other words, we’ll have to compromise. Native species won’t be able to live everywhere they did in the past. Not if we want to live here too. And not if we want to share the country with the thousands other species we’ve introduced – the vast majority of which are not weed or pest species.

And just protecting habitat is not going to be enough to sustain all of our native biodiversity either. Not with such vast tracts of our lowland forests and wetlands gone. We’ll have to extend these former areas if we want to even maintain our native biodiversity. And, frankly, that won’t be possible everywhere.

Again, we’ll have to compromise. We don’t get to have everything as it was before we arrived – and we wouldn’t want that really anyway, else where would we live ourselves? This is the sort of nexus where populist conservation idealism runs up hard against reality.

Argument three: Native species define us

The Ambassador writes that ‘New Zealanders are quite simply defined by our natural environment, in particular our native flora and fauna’, noting that their protection is ‘a responsibility that we hold dear to our hearts’.

Once again, it is a little unclear which shadow Mrs Toki is boxing with on this one. But this is tried and true nationalist conservation rhetoric in New Zealand. It’s also symptomatic of the biodiversity debate in general with ‘our wildlife’ constantly reduced to indigenous biodiversity only. In so doing, it obscures the reality of what our wildlife is today – a rich mixture of native and introduced.

We can’t keep erasing the fact that the species that we introduced, whether managed or not, are ‘ours’ too – even the ones we later decided were a mistake. They’re our responsibility as well. And a future where people learn to accept the presence of our introduced species is not so horrifying. After all, introductions generally increase diversity in New Zealand on a local, regional and national level (because more species are introduced than go extinct because of them).

Introduced lupins blooming in the Mackenzie Country.

If we want people to truly connect with nature we should encourage them to look no further than the species, native and introduced, they see day-to-day outside their windows, whether blackbirds, silvereyes, possums, fantails or hedgehogs. It’s not this harsh choice of one or the other. Not everywhere at least.

We don’t have to define ourselves solely by our native wildlife either – many already don’t. Consider the important contributions from the likes of wild pigs, kiore, trout, deer, mallards, lupins and many others besides. And let’s not forget the valued native species that now grow wild beyond their natural range as well.

New Zealand’s wildlife, and its contribution to our sense of local place and identity, is defined by more than just the species we arrived to find (and the places and arrangements we found them in). We’ve got to do better in this space.

Conversations about conservation are necessary

Ultimately, discussion and debate around our options for conservation in New Zealand is a positive. These deliberations were always going to ramp up in response to the National Government’s Predator Free 2050 initiative. And indeed open dialogue was initially welcomed by the Government. What we are increasingly seeing now, though, is that the airing of different views is not really encouraged, only different views that amount to support.

This is nowhere more manifest than in the Threatened Species Ambassador’s aggressive stance on this matter. But other examples are in the eye-raising attitude of the Director of the National Science Challenges’ Andrea Byrom who claimed that recent criticism of Predator Free 2050 amounted to ‘manufacturing dissent’ (specifically rejecting the framing that it is an extreme ‘eradicate everywhere’ policy…which is of course precisely what it is).

Prominent Predator Free advocate James Russell has been similarly truculent – joining Byrom in taking every opportunity to devise positive populist allusions for everything he likes and negative ones for everything he doesn’t. On the topic of co-existence between native and introduced predators, for example, he was paraphrased remarking that the issue is:

‘[L]ike getting a pet dog. Yes, you have a responsibility to the dog, but if it starts eating your neighbour’s chickens, you also have a responsibility to deal with that’.

Good point. But the real question is: how would you deal with this issue? Would you poison the dog? Would you lay a trap out to break its neck? Would you try to genetically engineer infertility in dogs? Or would you try to figure out how to ensure that the dog and the chicken can both live in the country? I know which option I’d prefer.

Maybe the simple reality is that the dog isn’t going to be able to live everywhere in New Zealand but, then again, maybe neither is the chicken. Welcome to democracy?

One thing I do know is that we’re going to have to figure out how to talk more openly about this stuff. These sorts of debates can be suppressed and obfuscated for a time – especially if government resources are directed toward doing so. But they won’t just go away.

That’s because, try as some may to present it as such, this isn’t a contest between good guys and bad guys. It’s about sincere and perfectly legitimate differences over how to interpret and respond to environmental change. Rather than trying to eliminate differences through top-down denunciations, let’s instead work toward a place where many perspectives and approaches toward the management of our biodiversity can co-exist.

Featured image: Newborn ferret kit (because sweetness and vulnerability is not limited to native animals). See Creative Commons


28 Responses to “Reply to the Threatened Species Ambassador”

  • Extremely well written and very long sighted. Sadly wildlife in NZ have no protections at all, not even in the animal welfare act. Unless protected you can torture, maim, and be as sadistic as you like to any wild animal without any recriminations. That is what defines New Zealand and we should all be ashamed.

  • When it comes down to it people don’t care enough about our native flora and fauna, they don’t understand why it is so vulnerable and they love fluffy furry things too much. We are also by the way totally animal biased which is why Predator Free annoys me, it’s like the flora, which is also so degaded by introduced deer, tahr etc.., doesn’t count. We are better off concentrating on off-shore islands for the intensive stuff, Stewart Island should be a future target for herbivore (deer) and predator free. You only have to look at Auckland and Campbell Islands to what can be achieved. On the mainland you’re dreaming!

  • Well done Sciblog for presenting the contrary view. NZ is gripped with a strange fervour for killing things on the simplest of pretexts. (“This” killed” that” , we happen to like” that”, so let’s kill “this”)
    In Nature, nothing is good or bad, nothing is native or introduced. It all just IS.
    When you step beyond the prejudice, as Jamie Steer is doing, you begin to observe the reality and the deeper truths.
    All scientists should aspire to this.
    But no, we a huge industry of so-called ecologists and biologists fervently getting to know animals so they figure how best to wipe them out.
    This cruel, calculating and callous action is not a survival strategy of any species expecting a long existence on this Earth. Whatever we do:
    “Nature always bats last”
    Jamie Steer brings a glimmer hope.

  • Excellent points Jamie. My main concern is that there needs to be changes in culture on the whole issue of conservation. Predator free is unrealistic and won’t be achieved . No doubt there are spin doctors writing excuses as to why it won’t be achieved as we wait for 2050 and in the meantime hundreds of millions of dollars are being expended killing things DOC and others label as pests. We need much wider participation and voices on conservation boards and organisations advising the government who have an opinion other than lets kill things we demonise or don’t like. The Minister of Conservation should take note that there are benefits from consultation and participation by people with skills and differing views from other than those expressed by Forest and Bird, ZIP, Next etc. Poisons have been used for over 60 years and despite the propaganda on miracles occurring on saving birds the numbers are plummeting. This cannot go on indefinitely. Kea the bird of the year is in decline and poisoning by DOC and TBFree is wiping them out. Dropping 333 million 1080 baits a year in our environment is decimating insects and invertebrates the food source for many of our native birds such as Kiwi and insectivores as well as killing the native birds. My message to the Minister of Conservation is listen to people like Jamie Steer and Wayne Linklater and use their skills to help best manage our environment. Do not disparage their views or label them as anti poison nutcases and cranks as has been done in the past to anyone who has an opinion that is not to kill anything DOC and others say a pest. It’s time for a culture change. Let’s do this.

  • HOW we deal with our conservation issues — i.e., humanely, with compassion, or with brutal insensitvity to animal suffering, defines us a a society far more than the mere fact that some native species continue to exist…

  • Proponents of predator free, when sufficiently challenged, invariably admit that there goal is “aspirational” – which is great, because it is the only hope they have of appearing “rational”.

    Religious fervour always makes me nervous. The content and tone of this debate certainly triggers that feeling. Look no further than environmental advocates embracing the aerial distribution of toxins and rubbing their hands happily at the thought of genetic modification.

    It really is a case of the end being used to justify almost any means. Like every other occasion in history where a similar approach has been taken, this will ultimately end in tears. And there in is the real problem.

    Lou Sanson speaks of DoC’s social license to execute it’s program of mass destruction. Social license implies informed debate, informed debate cannot take place over “aspirational” goals. There is no defined end point. Discussion is pointless.

  • Jamie, you and Wayne Linklater recommend “solutions” to pest problems which are insanely expensive and impractical. At present we apply Operation Nest Egg to some kiwi, whio and black stilt; it is hugely labour-intensive and not as good as natural raising – extending the program is not feasible. Banding trees against possums – impossible to do that even in the Northland forests. Extending sanctuaries – fenced sanctuaries are extremely expensive. Why not just kill the introduced predators? We have good and relatively inexpensive tools for that.

    You say that we can’t kill the introduced predators because “removing introduced predators alone is hard enough, but removing the hundreds of pest plants and animals in New Zealand is near on impossible.” With respect, this is a straw man; we are talking about rats, mustelids and possums, not tradescantia and banana passionfruit. They are a problem, but rats, mustelids and possums are the priority.

    And another Jamie straw man: “”we’ll have to compromise. Native species won’t be able to live everywhere they did in the past. Not if we want to live here too. And not if we want to share the country with the thousands other species we’ve introduced.” Who on earth proposes to give the whole land area back to the native species? The aim is to allow them to thrive in the roughly 30% that is not inhabited or farmed.

    I’m sorry that you feel victimised by “aggressive” arguments from Nicola Toki, Andrea Byrom and James Russell. I have to say I would call their statements strong and definite, rather than aggressive.

    • Awesome Sue, thanks for your comments. Really good points. Here are my responses:

      Jamie, you and Wayne Linklater recommend “solutions” to pest problems which are insanely expensive and impractical. At present we apply Operation Nest Egg to some kiwi, whio and black stilt; it is hugely labour-intensive and not as good as natural raising – extending the program is not feasible. Banding trees against possums – impossible to do that even in the Northland forests. Extending sanctuaries – fenced sanctuaries are extremely expensive. Why not just kill the introduced predators? We have good and relatively inexpensive tools for that.

      Response: You’re right. Taking a more selective and targeted approach may not always be the cheapest thing to do. But it’s often more humane. I’m not suggesting one or the other. I’m saying we need to put more research and effort into figuring out how to save things better, more compassionately. I think we have put too much effort to date into figuring out to how to ‘kill stuff nicely’. It’s about a change in focus.

      You say that we can’t kill the introduced predators because “removing introduced predators alone is hard enough, but removing the hundreds of pest plants and animals in New Zealand is near on impossible.” With respect, this is a straw man; we are talking about rats, mustelids and possums, not tradescantia and banana passionfruit. They are a problem, but rats, mustelids and possums are the priority.

      Response: Mrs Toki’s wording was very clear: pests – which is a much broader category. Many pest plant species are also a priority in NZ, hence DOCs ‘War on Weeds’. The focus is nationwide. The degree of manipulation is all that differs: control or eradication.

      And another Jamie straw man: “”we’ll have to compromise. Native species won’t be able to live everywhere they did in the past. Not if we want to live here too. And not if we want to share the country with the thousands other species we’ve introduced.” Who on earth proposes to give the whole land area back to the native species? The aim is to allow them to thrive in the roughly 30% that is not inhabited or farmed.

      Response: No, the emphasis in the industry these days is very much to move beyond that 30% (i.e., the DOC estate). And I fully support that. But I think the focus here should be on reconciliation rather than restoration.

      I’m sorry that you feel victimised by “aggressive” arguments from Nicola Toki, Andrea Byrom and James Russell. I have to say I would call their statements strong and definite, rather than aggressive.

      Response: Ha ha, I like your spunk.

  • It was interesting to briefly read Nicola Toki’s response on Linked In. It has since been taken down but the comments showed the scope that there is to properly debate this topic. I was able to post the following comments before the article was taken down:

    Do we consider any benefits newcomer species may provide? No animal’s influence on its surroundings can be classified as so entirely “bad” that attempting to poison or genetically engineer it out of existence is warranted. The current scientific framework is narrowly focused on just one aspect of predator/prey relationships – the killing part. Even then they fail to understand the interdependencies of predators and prey.

    Neither is consideration given to actually working out why some animals and plants are thriving while others appear in decline.

    And what about the precautionary principle? We have some really big elephants standing in the boardroom at DoC’s head office and perception management is just not cutting it (along with the ‘pest’ control in perpetuity).

    Perhaps a little kindness would go a bit further in our understanding of what really is at stake here. It’s more than patriotic love of native birds. It’s more hollistic than that. Our biodiversity is the sum of many parts. And we are one of those parts. We humans and all that has come along with us.

    We know the possum has been proven to be a major seed disperser in some South Island habitats, yet nothing has been done on possum seed dispersal in the North Island where it is very likely to be having a huge impact. Rats, according to a couple of researchers, are Important pollinators in much of the North Island (pohutukawa, rewarewa, etc). It’s my view that this is particularly relevant to our small bush blocks which lack the flora species richness to sustain permanent populations of most native birds. It doesn’t work to remove the rat and possum in the hope that birds will have less food competitors and will thrive. We may well end up with ecosystems poorer in both flora and fauna species, downward spiraling with less and less capability of functioning as they once did. There is evidence that the introduced species may be the ones to at least keep some level of functionality going.

  • Jamie Steer has been pushing his ultra-Darwinian vision of some cage-fight to the death between native and exotic species for some time now. He has been given, in my view, far too many column centimetres for someone who still hasn’t explained how his “plan” is in any way different to the status quo which sending more of our indigenous biodiversity to the wall every year – the same nihilistic occupation-by-conquest model of hands-off “conservation that has seen New Zealand lose nearly half its biodiversity in terms of actual biomass. It’s high time Steer, Linklater et al stopped grandstanding and started publishing this blueprint of theirs with actual details, actual research, costings, timelines, roadmaps and outcome scenarios. Otherwise, people might just start to think they’re simply attention-seeking contrarians.

    • Hold up Dave, let’s get this straight. You’re saying that I’m ‘ultra-Darwinian’, overexposed, unoriginal, nihilistic, lazy, grandstanding, contrarian, attention seeking and unproven?

      OK, but tell us how you really feel…

      Seriously, most of this is just ad hominem stuff. And ironically you provide no evidence to back up any of it either. What’s worse, your comment has little direct connection with this actual article, making it more in the nature of a troll.

      I want to discuss this stuff with you Dave, I really do. But you need to figure out how to communicate effectively with people. I think the first step for you might just be to calm down a little and stop taking it all so personally.

  • I think what Nicola Toki is doing (no doubt at the instruction of her employing institution) is to do a hard sell on the “Predator Free NZ” project, since it stands to chew up a significant amount of public funding, more than enough to require serious justification to the public. She is playing up the risks to NZ native fauna and flora, claiming over and over that we face an imminent holocaustic “biodiversity crisis”, and flatly denying that native species can exist at equilibrium with introduced predators. She claims that the “biodiversity crisis” here in NZ is among the worst in the world, citing as “evidence” the fact that we have over 4000 species on the threat classification list (which she describes as over 4000 species possibly in danger of extinction). But this is all a massive exaggeration of the reality. Introduced predators have been present in NZ for two centuries, and most native species are in equilibrium with these predators. Their population levels are lower than they would be in the absence of predators, but the population levels are more or less stable in most cases. Kea, for example, are not in any danger of extinction due to predation, even though their population levels are lower than they would be in the absence of predators. Many of the 4000 species on the threat lists have been put there way too easily, by specialists effectively given financial incentives to do so (i.e. funding available from DoC for research on these species). There are some beetle species recently given the highest possible threat level (Nationally Critical) which are not even threatened at all! I suspect that this is all geared towards trying to justify the massive ongoing public funding for Predator Free NZ

  • Toki’s quals are in marketing and no doubt she is well paid to make use of them. But who is Dave Hansford? No-where are his credentials or qualifications published. Likewise with other pro-poisoners on social media who think it’s somehow acceptable to launch into personal attacks rather than a professional dialogue – probably as a result of their own insecurities. And wasn’t it interesting that Dave didn’t embark on a single face-to-face publicity event for his book that was (at his own admission) “not a scientific text, more a book for a general audience.” Probably because he knows full well the questions and hostility he would be greeted with, from people who have lost their pets, cattle or livelihoods to the poisoning operations that DoC promote without rationale. His book was full of social media trolling, anecdotes and personal opinion steeped in heartbreaking prejudice. I wonder why he thinks he can criticize others when he was the one falsely promoted in the media and by DoC as being a ‘scientist’? One of these anecdotes in his book was about the Featherston community, and the spike in miscarriages and babies with disabilities that occurred there in 1995 and was highlighted by healthcare professionals after 1080 poison aerial drops into water supplies. The subsequent epidemiological report by Dr Natalia Foronda to the then Minister of Health, Bill English was covered-up by Government (today, Natalia is head toxicologist at MoH). This long-standing corruption will end, and the focus must be on public health – not exaggerated propaganda and misleading information (even to kids) about how “perfectly harmless” Compound 1080 is. And how much in danger our wildlife is – the main danger is from the poisons that are now ubiquitous throughout NZ. Poisons are causing increasing harm to us and risks our tourism and export industries upon which paradoxically the NZ Gov relies on so heavily. Read more about the poisoning incidents over the past 60+ years here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/18c9NXa4NsZp5bzEm4WM8aP_Us41DjXXMuxkHHcqap3U/edit?usp=sharing

  • I’m not really paying much attention to the 1080 debate, but Toki’s “hard sell” may well be intended to counter the anti-1080 camp, in addition to, or even instead of, trying to justify the spending of vast amounts of public money on an ongoing project which is far less important than medical research, affordable healthcare, affordable housing, and all the other serious problems that many NZers face. After all, the money is presumably already allocated, at least in part, and the public never really has any say in how their taxes are spent, so why should this case be any different? Anyway, one other thing to consider is the possibly unpredictable ecological effects of returning many native species back to pre-exotic-predation population levels, in a country whose environment has changed in many other ways since exotic predators arrived. Removing the predators will certainly not return the country into a pristine state. It will simply greatly increase the population levels of native species intthe much changed current environment! Goodness only knows what could result!

  • Jamie,

    I would like you to have a look at the first photograph displayed in the following link: https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ourchangingworld/20131205
    As stated in the caption, the photograph shows five individuals of a species of bird known as Callaeas wilsoni feeding on a lawn. Such a scene is currently impossible to see anywhere on mainland New Zealand. Today, C. wilsoni can only be easily seen on two of New Zealand’s pest-free island sanctuaries; Tiritiri Matangi and Little Barrier. The species exists in some large forests on the North Island mainland, but is infamous for being extremely difficult to find even where large populations are known to exist.
    Personally, I would like if seeing groups of C. wilsoni feeding on lawns no different from those in the average backyard was common throughout the North Island. And seeing as how C. wilsoni became rare primarily because of ship rat, possum, and stoat predation, this very well could have been a reality if those pests had never been released in New Zealand. And in fact, this still could become a reality, if those pests were eradicated from the entirety of the North Island.
    But you have made it clear, Jamie, that you do not consider the predators of such birds as C. wilsoni to be pests, and that you want them to be accepted as a part of what is left of New Zealand’s biodiversity. The history of C. wilsoni’s decline, however, makes it obvious that this species cannot cope with continued predation from pests; on the mainland it doesn’t even exist outside of forests where pest control is executed any more.
    So what do you think the future of such a species as C. wilsoni should be, Jamie? Should it be allowed to go extinct on the New Zealand mainland; left to become increasingly more difficult to find until there aren’t even any left to find? I would hope that you don’t think so, but seeing as how eradicating the non-native mammals that predate on it is not a concept that you agree with, I suppose my hopes might as well be dashed.

    -SG

  • Simon,
    There is much in your comment that I find misguided. First and foremost, where is the evidence that C. wilsoni will go extinct due to predation if we don’t eradicate the predators? Secondly, where is the evidence that C. wilsoni can survive outside of fairly pristine native forest? Perhaps it is habitat modification, rather than predation, which is the main limiting factor? Thirdly, huge numbers of C. wilsoni in the country as it is today could cause unpredictable problems. Native species can become pests (e.g. Costelytra zealandica, Oemona hirta, etc.)
    Stephen

    • “First and foremost, where is the evidence that C. wilsoni will go extinct due to predation if we don’t eradicate the predators?”

      Well, as I said, the species no longer exists outside of places where pest predators are either heavily controlled or absent. Is that not evidence?

      “Secondly, where is the evidence that C. wilsoni can survive outside of fairly pristine native forest?”

      The forest on Tiritiri Matangi island is almost all fairly new (<50 years old), so personally I don't think it counts as "fairly pristine native forest". C. wilsoni are not fussy eaters; captured ones readily eat all manner of fruits and vegetables, and they have a preference for bananas, so food requirements obviously don't restrict their distribution. Jeff Hudson's "Call of the Kokako" at one point mentions the discovery of a pair of C. wilsoni moving through a paddock. It also mentions that there is evidence that C. wilsoni can move through pine forests without too much trouble. And let's not forget the time when one C. wilsoni managed to find its way to a suburban backyard in Auckland: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/blogs/in-our-nature/8634258/Wheres-Duncan

      "Thirdly, huge numbers of C. wilsoni in the country as it is today could cause unpredictable problems. "

      In case you didn't realise, a formerly rare endemic species amassing numbers large enough for it to become a pest would be something to be celebrated. Of course some would need to be killed if their pest status became extreme, but the killing of native vertebrate species is nothing new; native parrots and crows regularly get killed in Australia for being pests. I don't think it's fair to compare the reproductive ability of a slow-breeding endemic bird to that of prolific native insects. It's sad that you don't like the idea of New Zealand's only remaining endemic large passerine species becoming abundant in the North Island.

      "And also, does what you would like to see on your lawn justify hundreds of millions of dollars in ongoing public funding, money that surely could be better spent on more important things?"

      So the mentality of "who cares about a few birds" that was ubiquitous in New Zealand's early days of European colonisation really is resurging. That's sad.

  • PS: And also, does what you would like to see on your lawn justify hundreds of millions of dollars in ongoing public funding, money that surely could be better spent on more important things?

  • “Well, as I said, the species no longer exists outside of places where pest predators are either heavily controlled or absent. Is that not evidence?”

    No, that is not what you said. What you did say was “C. wilsoni can only be easily seen on two of New Zealand’s pest-free island sanctuaries; Tiritiri Matangi and Little Barrier. The species exists in some large forests on the North Island mainland, but is infamous for being extremely difficult to find even where large populations are known to exist.”

    The large forests alluded to are presumably not “places where pest predators are either heavily controlled or absent.” Of course they are easy to see on small islands, where densities can increase due to being confined to a bounded small area, and of course they are harder to see in larger forests (where they are more spread out and less dense), but there are probably many more of them in the large forests. The fact that they do persist in these large forests, even after two centuries of predation, suggests that their populations are more or less stable, and so the species is not in danger of extinction due to predation.

    • Stephen,

      You should have re-read my initial post, as I also wrote, “on the mainland it doesn’t even exist outside of forests where pest control is executed any more”.

      “The large forests alluded to are presumably not “places where pest predators are either heavily controlled or absent.””

      Well, you presumed wrong. Yes, this means that C. wilsoni is difficult to find even in the forests where they are known to live; something that I thought I made obvious before. But just because they do exist in some mainland forests, this does not mean that they have reached their maximum population density in these forests. They would without the presence of pests, though, and then they’d be easier to see.

      “… and of course they are harder to see in larger forests (where they are more spread out and less dense), but there are probably many more of them in the large forests”

      Them being difficult to see is exacerbated by the fact that they are very wary, due to the presence of pest predators. And no, there are not “probably many more of them in large forests”; they are not small birds and they have a distinctive, far-carrying song. Any possible sightings of them outside of where they are known to exist would receive immediate attention from the DoC or a similar group. You making these assumptions tells me that your knowledge of this species is limited.

      “The fact that they do persist in these large forests, even after two centuries of predation, suggests that their populations are more or less stable, and so the species is not in danger of extinction due to predation.”

      Except it is, because once again, the species is extinct on the mainland outside of forests where serious predator control is constant. And in case you didn’t realise, “persisting” is not the same as “thriving”. Just because some C. wilsoni survived for long enough for serious efforts to protect them to begin, this does not mean that they would still exist if these efforts to protect them had never started. Something else that I think is worth mentioning is the fact that C. wilsoni went extinct on Great Barrier Island in the ’90s; this was the last surviving natural island population anywhere in the country, and of the three main predators of the species (ship rats, possums, and stoats), only ship rats existed (and still exist) there.

      -SG

  • “But just because they do exist in some mainland forests, this does not mean that they have reached their maximum population density in these forests”

    Obviously, but that is my point: the presence of predators obviously keeps population levels of prey species lower than they would otherwise be in the absence of predators. On that, we can surely all agree! The question is whether the prey population levels are on track to reduce to zero, or whether they will level out at some stable equilibrium with predation (maybe 10% or something). Nicola Toki flatly denies the idea of such equilibrium, thereby claiming that if we do nothing, all our native species vulnerable to predation will ultimately disappear entirely. I, on the other hand, say that we can tolerate low population levels of native species, provided that they are more or less stable, and that spending perhaps billions of taxpayer dollars over the next decades on predator eradication simply isn’t worth it, and may, if “successful” cause a population explosion in some native species which could have unforeseen negative consequences, since the populations will not be bouncing back into the pristine environment of old N.Z., but rather into the highly modified environment of present N.Z.

    • Stephen,

      “The question is whether the prey population levels are on track to reduce to zero, or whether they will level out at some stable equilibrium with predation (maybe 10% or something)”

      Except that question has been answered by the fact that, once again, C. wilsoni doesn’t exist outside of pest-free offshore islands and mainland sanctuaries where pests are either constantly controlled or absent. There will be no equilibrium. If equilibrium did occur, some C. wilsoni would still be left in forests where no predator control occurs. And there aren’t any.

      “Nicola Toki flatly denies the idea of such equilibrium, thereby claiming that if we do nothing, all our native species vulnerable to predation will ultimately disappear entirely.”

      And she’s right. Some endemic species will just disappear more quickly than others.
      The rest of your message just further suggests to me that you don’t want New Zealand’s many threatened species to make a comeback, and that you’d be okay with them all going extinct. You insist that an “equilibrium” will somehow be reached without more species going extinct, even though there is more than enough evidence that this is impossible. Conservationists don’t want New Zealand’s threatened species to just continue existing; they want the species to actually thrive and occupy all of the habitat available to them in the country.
      I am disturbed by the fact that there are still people like you in New Zealand; people who would be okay with testing whether or not New Zealand’s remaining threatened species can survive in pest-infested forests in the long-term, despite the fact that we already know what the results of such a test would be. I wonder what you would say after all of NZ’s threatened endemic species have gone extinct due to being left to suffer in pest-infested forests…?
      I think it’s safe to assume that you come from a farming background and are totally out of touch with what the current aims of conservationists are, correct? There was an online article about your kind that was written late last year.

      -SG

  • “If equilibrium did occur, some C. wilsoni would still be left in forests where no predator control occurs. And there aren’t any”

    No, you don’t understand ecology (and no, I don’t come from a “farming background”, lol!) It may be entirely coincidental that the forests in which C. wilsoni survives have some degree of predator control. At any rate, the current level of predator control in those forests may be sufficient to ensure the survival of C. wilsoni in those forests. Again, do we really want to spend billions boosting the populations of species like this? Species that are secure enough already.

    • Stephen,

      “No, you don’t understand ecology”

      And yet you don’t bother to explain this.

      “It may be entirely coincidental that the forests in which C. wilsoni survives have some degree of predator control.”

      What would your explanation be for the subsequent local extinction of C. wilsoni if pest control were to stop in a forest where it lived, then? And how about Big South Cape Island; did the three endemic bird species that had become unique to the island go extinct there by themselves in 1964?

      “At any rate, the current level of predator control in those forests may be sufficient to ensure the survival of C. wilsoni in those forests.”

      Even if that is the case, the C. wilsoni are not thriving, and the aim of conservationists is for our threatened endemic species to thrive; not just survive, something which I have already said.

      “Again, do we really want to spend billions boosting the populations of species like this?”

      Yes. Because once threatened endemic species go extinct, they can’t ever come back. And C. wilsoni is not “secure enough already”, because its continued existence relies on pest predator control and eradication. Even the island sanctuaries where it exists aren’t completely safe; there are serious efforts to prevent rats and stoats from invading/re-invading them from the mainland. A big rat was caught on Tiritiri Matangi island in January.

      -SG

  • Hi Jamie

    A well argued response. I am also uncomfortable with the way that so many people only become environmental zealots when they want to kill things. No mention of our own destructive lifestyle, the destruction of most of NZ’s lowland forests for monoculture animal agriculture, and the continual impact of meat, dairy, commercial fishing and oil exploration on our environment.

    I was interested that you discussed various alternatives to be used alongside pest control, including intensive management such as operation nest egg.

    I would be interested in your position on using contraceptives. These have so far been showing some success in controlling rats in New York, and could be used to control other pests. This would be a more humane alternative than 1080, and would be more humane than trapping, which is not 100% perfect in giving a clean kill. Research also seems to indicate that it is actually more effective than poisoning. Because the sterile females are still alive, they are competing with non-sterile females, and their place is not simply taken by immigrant rats from other areas.

  • Hi Jamie
    Congratulations on your blog just found it
    Me again. The eco-heretic. I was once I think just about sacked from Forest and Bird suggesting that we could breed or GE a kiwi to kick the butt out of a stoat
    The NZ Killing Culture concerns me from a eco psychotherapy perspective and the one sided messages coming from authorities that prevent any wider discussion. As mentioned it takes overseas people to point out our closed minds on biosecurity and biodiversity. We seem to be locked into nostalgia that may harm not only other spp but also ourselves in future.
    In Chris Thomas’s book “Inheritors of the Earth”, he uses Maungawhau NZ [ a national heritage site] as an example of exotics being just as much part of the landscape as natives. I have worked on this park for 30 years – killing mostly to bring back natives and being successful but only at the surface. Exotics still dominate and much is unknown e.g. fungi and invertebrates. One main example is kikuyu – a perfect example where human use, exotics and native live in the new “Anthropocene Park” [to take Chris Thomas term]. Native plant spp cant take the human wear and tear use of 1.5 m users Also the natural succession to forest is not wanted by archaeologists. The integrated management plan however still clings to the unrealistic ideology that all exotics are to be replaced with natives. No one seems to have leant from the failed Microlaena sp experiments costing $$$ of public funds!
    A new approach is need to our protected area system [ Nat parks to local parks etc]
    Yes endangered native spp need to be protected in special manged reserves but we need to also allow the new novel landscape – the Anthropocene landscape to evolve.
    Want to know who is questioning the present system?
    Are hybrids forming between native and exotic spp and producing therefore forming a new spp. If this is happening is this part of NZ new biodiversity?
    Much to question rather than march blindly with the majority.
    Cheers
    Kit Howden