By Jamie Steer 12/12/2018 8


Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be posting a new article each day.

Each article will be supported by a short video clip providing much the same content, so you can either read this blog or just watch the clip. This first one’s a little longer but most of the clips will be about 5 minutes long (the perfect tea break I heard you say).

These articles are going to lead readers through a presentation I was invited to give to the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries in October 2016, and a similar, expanded lecture I gave to a restoration ecology class at Victoria University in April last year (where the video comes from).

This presentation offers some reflections on my PhD research in Environmental Science. But don’t let that put you off! That research essentially looked at how we understand introduced wildlife in New Zealand, explored the history of perceptions toward introduced species in this country, and considered and thought a little bit about how our attitudes towards these species might come to change in future.

A big part of the research was fundamentally asking whether we might take a more accepting or a more conciliatory view toward many introduced species, and even those we currently consider to be pests.

Can we talk about conservation?

Something that international visitors often remark upon when they come to this country is New Zealanders’ intense love for native species, especially birds. But what they also remark on is our intense hatred and loathing for many introduced wild species, especially anything that eats birds. Something that comes through very clearly in the conservation literature in New Zealand, in comparison to elsewhere, is that we tend to be right out at the extreme end of restoration. We tend to take it very, very seriously.

That attitude is supported by a very polarised construction of nature that tends to very firmly delineate ‘native’ and ‘introduced’ – so much so that these are often interpreted basically as categories of right and wrong. This can make it difficult, and dare I say it even controversial, to express views that are positive, that are compassionate, or more often than not, that are even respectful of many of our introduced species.

Having studied and worked in biodiversity management for most of my working life, what I can say is that it’s very difficult to have conversations about conservation in New Zealand – at least those that sit outside of the norm. It’s actually something I think we have a real issue with in this country.

How it currently works

I’ve worked in a few different roles in the environmental services sector, one of which was working as an ecologist for an environmental design consultancy. I did a lot of environmental impact assessment work in that role, figuring out what the effects of developments like wind farms, roads and housing developments might have on local ecosystems. And one thing that really struck me while doing that work, and that still strikes me to this day, is the basis for valuing wildlife the way we do in New Zealand.

With impact assessment work sometimes you work in pristine environments, but more often than not you work in environments that are a little rough around the edges. Often you’re working in urban or peri-urban settings, and the ecosystems are a real mix, generally of native and introduced, a lot of common native species, and your fair share of weeds and pests too. And the scheme of valuation we work under in NZ is basically this:

  • At the top of the pyramid are your threatened or at risk native species or ecosystems. These are things you theoretically cannot put the bulldozer through, things you’re going to either need to avoid or offer up mitigation for.
  • Next, and quite some way down the pyramid, are your common native species. These are the things you probably will be able to put the bulldozer through so long as you can show that they are definitely common, that there are plenty of them around. Basically, the more successful they are, the less we think they’re worth protecting.
  • Next, and some very considerable way further down there are your introduced species. These ones are generally considered to have no real biodiversity value in New Zealand so long as they’re not game species – so no problem putting the bulldozer through there.
  • And finally you have your weed and pest species, which you’re essentially incentivised to destroy.

It’s a scheme of valuation that ensures that under most circumstances it’s going to be pretty easy to put the bulldozer through.

Occasionally you’ll find some threatened or at risk species but by their very nature, being rare and uncommon, you don’t tend to run into them too often. In many respects it’s a very perverse system, leading to exactly the kinds of outcomes you’d expect

And what also increasingly bugged me, and still bugs me, is that many of the ecosystems that we’ll happily bulldoze – our novel, mixed, hybrid ecosystems – are those that make up most of our ecosystems in New Zealand. What’s worse, these are some of the most diverse, vibrant and dynamic systems we have in the country.

Despite the contributions of disciplines like urban- and landscape ecology, we’re still really conditioned as ecologists to always be looking for the native and the pristine when, for me, it’s the mongrel, bastard, mixed-up ecosystems that are often some of the most interesting. And I thought, and still think, that we don’t have a strong basis for being so dismissive of these ‘novel ecosystems’, and many of the species within them, and the values that they support.

But what to do?

Anyway, some of these thoughts later became the seeds of my PhD thesis. And I went into that research thinking that I had some pretty groundbreaking, pretty earth-shattering ideas to build on. I thought that I was maybe going to be the next Darwin or something…

So clearly it was with more than a little bit of horror when I came to realize in the first 2-3 months (after doing a bunch of reading) that I wasn’t nearly as original as I thought. And that many others were having similar, semi-heretical thoughts in this space – many of them many years before me.

Not just in ecology either, but also elsewhere in the natural sciences, social sciences and in the humanities. I was actually a bit daunted to find that there’d been an explosion in nature-related discussion and research over the last couple of decades. And many of these people were just as sceptical as I was about the validity of many of the ways we currently think about and value nature.

What really struck me, learning this stuff, was the enormous difference between what is understood in the literature and what people think in the public and in the industry. So the question I asked myself was ‘Why didn’t I already know all this stuff?’ And I thought a bit about why there was that disjunct in information and understanding, and I came to the conclusion that it was largely down to the means of disseminating the information.

I was reading all this stuff, of course, in journal articles, and the problem with that is that in the main no one reads journal articles. Just to give you some numbers here, the total number of peer-reviewed journal articles being produced every year now is about 1.8 million across about 26,000 journals. The fact of the matter is that your average journal article is likely to be read in its entirety by no more than about 10 people.

Let’s go through those 10 people and try and identify them. Let’s see: there’s yourself, there’s your supervisor, there’s your two editors, there’s your mum and your dad, there’s your girlfriend, maybe your boyfriend as well…that leaves perhaps a couple of extra novel readers.

The hard truth is that fully half of journal articles are read only by their authors and editors; a third are never cited by anyone. And the really crucial thing is that most practitioners working in the field don’t read journal articles either. They don’t have time.

So it probably won’t surprise you that since finishing my PhD I’ve been doing a bit of popular writing instead of academic writing. That’s because I think the biggest and most important task now is actually one of trying to get people up to speed with what has happened in the literature over the last few decades.

From what I can see, most practitioners working in the conservation industry are theoretically about 20-30 years behind the literature and this has some serious consequences for how we manage our ecosystems.

Read the next instalment here.

Featured image: Rural New Zealand scene with exotic willow forest in foreground © Adam Forbes. Used with permission.


8 Responses to “From Restoration to Reconciliation: Why sustaining NZ’s biodiversity means moving forward, not backward”

  • Yes, Jamie, we favour endemic species because they are only found here. Meanwhile, an overgrown garden full of blackbirds, goldfinches, hedgehogs, garden snails, and woodlice can be found just as easily in the UK, where all of those species are native. Is this so hard to understand?
    I hate to break it to you, but New Zealand is not unique in having a powerful dislike of introduced species. Australia has suffered many endemic mammal extinctions thanks to foxes and cats, to the point that letting cats free-roam in many parts of Australia is considered to be socially unacceptable. Rabbits are illegal to own as pets in Queensland. Common mynas are intensely persecuted, despite limited evidence that they have a significant negative impact on endemic birds. Spotted doves are persecuted too, and they seem even less harmful. House sparrows, Eurasian tree sparrows, and common starlings are shot on sight the moment they show up in Western Australia. There are other examples.
    One more thing; New Zealand’s grey ducks are/were the same subspecies as the Australian ‘Pacific black duck’. There is no ‘unique’ hybrid mallard in New Zealand.

    -SG

    • Thanks for your comments Simon. Here are my responses:

      Yes, Jamie, we favour endemic species because they are only found here. Meanwhile, an overgrown garden full of blackbirds, goldfinches, hedgehogs, garden snails, and woodlice can be found just as easily in the UK, where all of those species are native. Is this so hard to understand?

      Response: I think you are conflating ‘native’ and ‘endemic’ here. NZ’s endemic species are found only in NZ while the UK’s native species are found elsewhere as well. I didn’t mention endemic species in my post.

      That aside, I think an attribution of value based purely on a species or an individual’s uniqueness to a place is inadequate. And I don’t think that fully explains our current values in NZ either. There are many native species that we value highly but which are also found elsewhere (hence the important distinction between native and endemic). There are also many highly valued introduced species. I think each species’ value generally comes down to how useful it is to our current sense of identity, and on its contribution to the economy. For wildlife, this tends to favour natives in the current milieu.

      One of the things I find hardest to understand is why we think it is OK to always fall back on the uniqueness argument. Sure, it pumps up the perceived value of some, but often only by deliberately ignoring and sometimes crushing others. I don’t have a problem with our preferences, I have a problem with the radicalism in which we manifest them. I think it’s counterproductive.

      I hate to break it to you, but New Zealand is not unique in having a powerful dislike of introduced species. Australia has suffered many endemic mammal extinctions thanks to foxes and cats, to the point that letting cats free-roam in many parts of Australia is considered to be socially unacceptable. Rabbits are illegal to own as pets in Queensland. Common mynas are intensely persecuted, despite limited evidence that they have a significant negative impact on endemic birds. Spotted doves are persecuted too, and they seem even less harmful. House sparrows, Eurasian tree sparrows, and common starlings are shot on sight the moment they show up in Western Australia. There are other examples.

      Response: Ha, I am aware of the ‘powerful dislike’ of introduced wildlife elsewhere too. I devoted most of the third chapter of my PhD on this topic to it. You’re right that there are many examples to choose from.

      You accept that we often dislike introductions. But you excuse it, if I interpret correctly, by noting that others may hate them even more (and for less justifiable reasons). To be honest, I don’t see this as a very persuasive argument. Maybe you intended something else?

      One more thing; New Zealand’s grey ducks are/were the same subspecies as the Australian ‘Pacific black duck’. There is no ‘unique’ hybrid mallard in New Zealand.

      Response: I assume you are referring to my previous post on this? In any case, I disagree. We’ve long distinguished between the Australian sub-species (rogersi) and the NZ one (superciliosa).

      I do feel that you may have missed the intent of the post in any case. I was using hybridisation between NZ mallards and greys mainly as a metaphor for species and ecosystem change. When two ‘pure’ biological features meet and mingle is the result a ‘corruption’ or a ‘fusion’?

  • ‘There are also many highly valued introduced species.’

    Yes; mostly valued by people who don’t understand the damage that said species to do NZ’s natural ecosystems. You know this.

    ‘One of the things I find hardest to understand is why we think it is OK to always fall back on the uniqueness argument. Sure, it pumps up the perceived value of some, but often only by deliberately ignoring and sometimes crushing others. I don’t have a problem with our preferences, I have a problem with the radicalism in which we manifest them. I think it’s counterproductive.’

    It’s an okay argument to fall back on because a lot of people don’t like the fact that NZ’s endemic species will never be seen alive again, ever, if they are allowed to be eaten to extinction by predators. Sure, there are some endemic species that are held in captivity both here and overseas, but all of NZ’s endemic species only continuing their existence in captivity can hardly be considered preferable to them continuing to exist in the wild. Again, this is not hard to understand. And how are preferences for endemic species ‘counterproductive’, exactly? Because this gets in the way of the public being more open to the idea of NZ’s remaining endemic species going extinct?

    ‘You accept that we often dislike introductions. But you excuse it, if I interpret correctly, by noting that others may hate them even more (and for less justifiable reasons). To be honest, I don’t see this as a very persuasive argument. Maybe you intended something else?’

    Your mention of tourists commenting on how New Zealand residents despise non-native species can be interpreted as an implication that this quality is unique to New Zealand residents. Your intention seemed to be that you wanted New Zealanders to seem like ‘freaks’ in this way, even though you knew that people disliking non-native species in their countries is a worldwide phenomenon. The idea that New Zealand is hell-bent on killing non-native species, while no other country is, is common among anti-conservationists in New Zealand, but is untrue, and needs to be discouraged and extinguished.

    ‘In any case, I disagree. We’ve long distinguished between the Australian sub-species (rogersi) and the NZ one (superciliosa).’

    ‘Three subspecies sometimes recognised (pelewensis from Pacific Islands, rogersi from Australia, superciliosa from New Zealand) but distinction between latter two not supported genetically or phenotypically.’ http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/grey-duck

    This is similar to how there probably aren’t two subspecies of kaka. It was once thought that NZ’s black shags are an endemic subspecies, but they are now considered to be of the same subspecies as Australia’s. There was even a time where NZ’s swamp harriers were considered to be an endemic species, but we now know that this is totally incorrect. Taxonomic revisions happen all the time; this is just another one.

    ‘When two ‘pure’ biological features meet and mingle is the result a ‘corruption’ or a ‘fusion’?’

    I think it’s fair to consider the extinction of a distinct species ‘corruption’, yes.

    • Thanks Simon. Here are some more responses:

      ‘There are also many highly valued introduced species.’

      Yes; mostly valued by people who don’t understand the damage that said species to do NZ’s natural ecosystems. You know this.

      Response: No, that statement is uncontentious. Even putting aside species that are noticeably contributing to change in our ecosystems, there are many valued introductions that have no significant impact on native ecosystems. This is true for many of our introduced birds for example.

      ‘One of the things I find hardest to understand is why we think it is OK to always fall back on the uniqueness argument. Sure, it pumps up the perceived value of some, but often only by deliberately ignoring and sometimes crushing others. I don’t have a problem with our preferences, I have a problem with the radicalism in which we manifest them. I think it’s counterproductive.’

      It’s an okay argument to fall back on because a lot of people don’t like the fact that NZ’s endemic species will never be seen alive again, ever, if they are allowed to be eaten to extinction by predators. Sure, there are some endemic species that are held in captivity both here and overseas, but all of NZ’s endemic species only continuing their existence in captivity can hardly be considered preferable to them continuing to exist in the wild. Again, this is not hard to understand. And how are preferences for endemic species ‘counterproductive’, exactly? Because this gets in the way of the public being more open to the idea of NZ’s remaining endemic species going extinct?

      Response: You’ve misread my argument here. Again, I haven’t suggested that preferences in themselves are counterproductive, it’s what you do about them that can be problematic. Saving species is a laudable goal, but only if the means of achieving that goal are defensible. I think sometimes they are and sometimes we start to fall into an ends justify the means approach. Most of the time I think we just don’t think too hard about the limits (e.g., of suffering). Do we even have limits?

      ‘You accept that we often dislike introductions. But you excuse it, if I interpret correctly, by noting that others may hate them even more (and for less justifiable reasons). To be honest, I don’t see this as a very persuasive argument. Maybe you intended something else?’

      Your mention of tourists commenting on how New Zealand residents despise non-native species can be interpreted as an implication that this quality is unique to New Zealand residents. Your intention seemed to be that you wanted New Zealanders to seem like ‘freaks’ in this way, even though you knew that people disliking non-native species in their countries is a worldwide phenomenon. The idea that New Zealand is hell-bent on killing non-native species, while no other country is, is common among anti-conservationists in New Zealand, but is untrue, and needs to be discouraged and extinguished.

      Response: I think your last sentence sums up the general feeling of NZ’s conservation orthodoxy. There are things of value and there are others that aren’t. And the latter need to be gotten rid of. Very cut and dry.

      ‘In any case, I disagree. We’ve long distinguished between the Australian sub-species (rogersi) and the NZ one (superciliosa).’

      ‘Three subspecies sometimes recognised (pelewensis from Pacific Islands, rogersi from Australia, superciliosa from New Zealand) but distinction between latter two not supported genetically or phenotypically.’ http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/grey-duck
      This is similar to how there probably aren’t two subspecies of kaka. It was once thought that NZ’s black shags are an endemic subspecies, but they are now considered to be of the same subspecies as Australia’s. There was even a time where NZ’s swamp harriers were considered to be an endemic species, but we now know that this is totally incorrect. Taxonomic revisions happen all the time; this is just another one.

      Response: True, taxonomic revisions happen – a lot. Maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath about the uniqueness of the NZ fairy tern either then? I note that the same website refers to three further websites that do maintain the distinction between grey duck subspecies. I guess it’s a fluid space…Again, my point with the other post was not really to discuss the intricacies of grey duck taxonomy. Maybe that’s another article.

      ‘When two ‘pure’ biological features meet and mingle is the result a ‘corruption’ or a ‘fusion’?’

      I think it’s fair to consider the extinction of a distinct species ‘corruption’, yes.

      Response: What about a sub-species? Or a variety? Or a gene? Do you have a line? This is not a frivolous question by the way. Loss is a concomitant of change. And given the vast changes we’ve wrought on our ecosystems, further changes are inevitable now, and necessary. It seems to me that if we dogmatically characterise human-mediated changes from former states as ‘bad’ (and this is the norm in conservation) we not only grasp at a past that is unobtainable, but also poison any chance of becoming in the future.

  • ‘Even putting aside species that are noticeably contributing to change in our ecosystems, there are many valued introductions that have no significant impact on native ecosystems. This is true for many of our introduced birds for example.’

    Ideas about whether or not non-native birds are pests have been highly variable for a long time now, and obviously vary from species to species, but it is probable that there will come a time where more people will realise that native ecosystems would be better off without them; similar to how the number of people who consider hedgehogs to be pests is higher now than ever before. Only a few non-native birds are heavily persecuted now, because of how obvious their negative effects on native species and/or agriculture are. Examples are Australian magpies, rooks, and recently, common mynas. But few people are currently aware of the undesirable impacts of other non-native birds; song thrushes eat endemic snails, blackbirds eat endemic skinks, large flocks of finches eat seeds from endemic trees that could have served as food for endemic parrots, and the list goes on. Once these little-known negative impacts of the less-persecuted non-native birds become more widely recognised, an increase in the number of people who want to get rid of them will follow.

    ‘You’ve misread my argument here. Again, I haven’t suggested that preferences in themselves are counterproductive, it’s what you do about them that can be problematic. Saving species is a laudable goal, but only if the means of achieving that goal are defensible. I think sometimes they are and sometimes we start to fall into an ends justify the means approach. Most of the time I think we just don’t think too hard about the limits (e.g., of suffering). Do we even have limits?’

    Fact is, not acting on preferences is going to result in the species that we prefer, going extinct. The idea of what ‘defensible’ actions are for saving endemic species is obviously subjective. I think it is defensible to poison non-native mammals in forests before they can bite the heads off the chicks of endemic parrots and songbirds; you might not. Yes, we do have limits. Being cruel to pests is still illegal; a man was jailed for torturing possums to death in 2014.

    ‘What about a sub-species? Or a variety? Or a gene? Do you have a line? This is not a frivolous question by the way. Loss is a concomitant of change. And given the vast changes we’ve wrought on our ecosystems, further changes are inevitable now, and necessary. It seems to me that if we dogmatically characterise human-mediated changes from former states as ‘bad’ (and this is the norm in conservation) we not only grasp at a past that is unobtainable, but also poison any chance of becoming in the future.’

    You can paint the loss of biodiversity in a positive light all you want; this does not keep it from being loss of biodiversity. As a conservationist, it is normal for me to think that this is undesirable, and I don’t see how any true conservationist could think that a future where every common species on the mainland is an introduced pest is desirable.

    -SG

    • Here’s more from me on this thread Simon:

      Ideas about whether or not non-native birds are pests have been highly variable for a long time now, and obviously vary from species to species, but it is probable that there will come a time where more people will realise that native ecosystems would be better off without them; similar to how the number of people who consider hedgehogs to be pests is higher now than ever before. Only a few non-native birds are heavily persecuted now, because of how obvious their negative effects on native species and/or agriculture are. Examples are Australian magpies, rooks, and recently, common mynas. But few people are currently aware of the undesirable impacts of other non-native birds; song thrushes eat endemic snails, blackbirds eat endemic skinks, large flocks of finches eat seeds from endemic trees that could have served as food for endemic parrots, and the list goes on. Once these little-known negative impacts of the less-persecuted non-native birds become more widely recognised, an increase in the number of people who want to get rid of them will follow.

      Response: I agree. I wrote a post and an article about the extent to which the questions we ask as wildlife scientists determine the facts we ultimately have to work with.

      I’d say that most reasonably abundant introduced species could be classed as invasive given a bit of research. That’s because almost all of them share their ecosystems with natives which they then either compete with or predate. If this has any population-level effect on a native species (or sometimes even if it is just suspected) the label of ‘invasive’ will be readily accepted. That’s why the lists of invasive species here and elsewhere grow longer each year. Everywhere we look change is happening.

      And because we categorise any change to favoured species or ecosystems as ‘bad’ change has become almost categorically ‘wrong’. As previously noted, there is a question here once again around where we are going to draw the line, otherwise we default to pure nativism (i.e., origins alone determine (dis)value). If that’s where we’re going I’d like people to be honest about it now. Generally when I level that charge it’s denied.

      Fact is, not acting on preferences is going to result in the species that we prefer, going extinct. The idea of what ‘defensible’ actions are for saving endemic species is obviously subjective. I think it is defensible to poison non-native mammals in forests before they can bite the heads off the chicks of endemic parrots and songbirds; you might not. Yes, we do have limits. Being cruel to pests is still illegal; a man was jailed for torturing possums to death in 2014.

      Response: This is fair but again doesn’t delve deeper into what the limits are. For example how many mammals are you going to kill to stop predation of a favoured species? For how long? And how much pain is it OK to inflict on the mammal in doing so? And it’s not the biting the head off a chick that is the problem is it? It’s who bites the head off (e.g., native predators routinely eat vulnerable native prey, and generally with our blessing) and what population-level effect that might have.

      Also, is being ‘cruel’ to pests illegal? I’m not sure it is. Sure we have standards of (in)humanity, but my reading is that these sometimes just legitimise and rationalise cruelty. We often choose the less humane methods for controlling invasive species and the justification for it routinely boils down to cost.

      You can paint the loss of biodiversity in a positive light all you want; this does not keep it from being loss of biodiversity. As a conservationist, it is normal for me to think that this is undesirable, and I don’t see how any true conservationist could think that a future where every common species on the mainland is an introduced pest is desirable.

      Response: For me this is false accounting, introductions have generally increased species richness in NZ. There are more gains than losses. Is that a good thing though? I’m not sure it is. I think ‘diversity’ is often just used as a form of rhetoric for emphasising favoured components of diversity over others.

      This apocalyptic vision of a future in which every common species on the mainland is an introduced pest is just not believable to me. Native species still dominate most of New Zealand’s ecosystems in spite of an absence of (or very little) introduced weed or pest management in them. The native species that dominate these systems are not weak, incapable entities waiting to be rescued by enlightened people. And in fact most of the introductions that have done well in NZ have only done so because of massive assistance from us in their establishment phase. Had that not happened they would have joined the majority of introduced species that declined to extinction not long after release.

      The point here is that the replacement of natives with exotics is not an inevitability. What is inevitable is that some of each – native and exotic – are going to do well, and some aren’t. The future, as it is today, will be a mix of both.

  • Thanks Jamie for bringing an alternative way of looking at nature and ecology into the puclic sphere for discussion. As you mention, academic journal publications do not necessarily get the reach needed to bring about any genuine public critique. The dogma associated with New Zealand’s attitude toward introduced species is horrifyingly violent, and this is something I have written about at length in media and I have campaigned against school possum hunts. (e.g. see this article with Marc Bekoff – https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/scapegoating-possums-iffy-science-demonizing-psychology_us_59653e60e4b0deab7c646c72 My Ph D explored ideologies of nature and I did a critical discourse analysis of education for sustainabilty . Like you, I discovered that there are many more heretics out there in relation to thought on nature and ecology, but that these voices are most often marginalised. Thank you for taking the time to express your ideas on this forum and making them accessible to people.