1080 use – is it justified? Scientists respond

Groups who want 1080 banned in New Zealand are preparing for nationwide protests this Sunday.

1080, or sodium fluoroacetate, is a pesticide used to kill pests such as possums and rats. Using 1080 to control invasive predators helps protect native bird species from extinction and reduces tuberculosis spreading across livestock. Aerial drops scatter carrot and cereal bait mixed with 1080.

According to the Department of Conservation (DoC), aerial drops of 1080 happen on less than two per cent of publicly managed conservation land. The department also has ground control programmes involving trapping, shooting, or bait stations which cover twice as much area as aerial 1080 operations.

DoC says anti-1080 protesters claims that the pesticide contaminates water supplies, kills native birds and gets into food exports are not supported by scientific evidence.

The SMC approached a number of experts in ecology and conservation to get their views on 1080 use and the scientific studies that have been carried out on the issue to date.

Associate Professor Dianne Brunton, Director of the Ecology and Conservation group, Massey University, comments:

“As with most conservation issues there are no silver bullets. I see 1080 as one tool (of many) in a very difficult fight against invasive pests and predators. 1080 is not the only way but it is very effective.

“The alternative of no control would be disastrous for our native species – rodents and stoats simply wipe out native birds and reptiles and invertebrates. It is a matter of weighing up costs (usually immediate) and benefits (usually long term), and at the same time supporting ongoing research into alternative options. Alternative options don’t necessary exclude poisons, effective targeted poison would be a good idea.

“It is a field where ongoing open research is important. Not all sites are suitable for 1080 or other poisons especially if they are close to human habitation or require repeated applications over long time periods.”

Conservation Biology Associate Professor Mick Clout, University of Auckland, comments:

“[1080] does not persist in the environment. 1080 is a natural compound that breaks down quickly and it is found naturally in plants as a plant defense against herbivores. The compound does not accumulate in the food chain or stay around, making it more environmentally friendly. Having said that, it is highly toxic to a wide range of animals, so needs to be used properly. It’d be a real shame if we lost it.”

“We need safeguards. You need to make sure that the 1080 doesn’t spill over where there are farm animals present, and sowing rates need to be at the right level to make sure it does the job.”

“Occasionally some birds might get killed. That does not take away the fact that the populations in the long term recover from what they were prior to 1080. People opposed to this have very good concerns about the shock horror of things. I think the science is pretty robust. There are quite a lot of studies, and any one individual paper could have criticism, but the overall picture is that there are benefits.”

Dr Sean Weaver, senior lecturer of the Environmental Studies Programme, Victoria University, comments:

“Some of the research that has been conducted on 1080 has been poorly designed and as a result have not been able to provide definitive results to several questions concerning the safety of aerial 1080 operations with respect to non-target organisms including humans.

“1080 breaks down relatively slowly at cold (winter) temperatures and can persist for several months. On the other hand it will break down very quickly at warm water temperatures (e.g. 21 degrees celcius) but I do not know of any river in NZ that is this warm in the winter when 1080 drops are commonly made.

“It is clear that there is a lot of science on 1080, but most of this science has concentrated on only some components of its toxicology and not a comprehensive coverage of the toxicology.

“To use a metaphor, the current science on 1080 toxicology is a little like a fish survey that tests whether there are any fish in a lake. The survey uses a net with a large mesh size and is repeated many, many times (i.e. is statistically significant). It repeatedly finds large fish and then declares that there are only large fish in the lake. Yet there is evidence that there are indeed smaller fish in the lake but no comprehensive survey using a small mesh size has been conducted for this “lake” and until it happens we cannot assume that there are no small fish.

“I think 1080 is an important tool in native wildlife management but I am not convinced that the management and regulation of 1080 is the product of a comprehensive assessment of the risks associated with the use of this toxin – including risks to non-target indigenous wildlife.”

Wildlife Ecology Professor Doug Armstrong, Massey University, comments:

“The frequency, intensity and method of 1080 application is clearly important. Anecdotal evidence (and some data) indicates that reduction in possum density allows rat density to increase if rats aren’t also controlled effectively. It may therefore be possible that 1080 applications can actually increase the rate of predation of rats on native species if operations control possums effectively but not rats. It is therefore important that all 1080 operations are not lumped together.

“My impression is that the research is fairly limited given the importance of the issue. My only direct involvement has been re-analysis of robin nest success data for Puerora, and those data do so a substantial increase in nest success in years when rats were reduced to low levels.

“Most people seem to mistake the ongoing declines of native birds due to predation to effects of 1080. They are therefore largely anti-1080, but would probably not be if they understood that 1080 is used to control exotic mammals that have caused declines and extinctions of native birds.”

Ian Westbrooke, statistician, Ecosystems and Species, Department of Conservation (read comments in full and view an associated table here), comments:

“Based on the fact that 1080 is an acute toxin, the primary focus for DOC on terms of native animals has been establishing if there is an immediate impact from 1080 operations, with the main focus on birds. The assessment is that if there are no immediate impacts it is very unlikely that there are longer term impacts.

“To assess acute impacts, often an effective starting point is to compare counts of individuals of a species before and after an operation. If no change is observed as is typically the case, there is no requirement for comparison with non-treatment (control) sites. If a change is observed, it is not necessarily due to the operation (except where it is possible to recover a dead animal and autopsy for cause of death), but the results can provide the basis for estimating the maximum impact of the operation on the species in question. This approach has allowed the identification of a small group of species that have potential risk of impacts from 1080 operations.”

Hugh Robertson, Scientific Officer, Department of Conservation and kiwi expert comments:

“From the perspective of kiwi, 1080 seems to provide an excellent tool to control possums and rats, and so secondarily control stoats (the main predators of kiwi chicks) and thus provide the kiwi with a window of a year or two in which to successfully recruit young birds into the population.

“My research in Northland (published in Wildlife Research in 1999) showed that none of 35 radio-tagged adult Brown Kiwi was killed by 1080 in either pollard or jam baits (as used then by DOC and Northland Regional Council respectively). The weights of adult kiwi in the block treated with 1080 was similar to those of adult kiwi in nearby forest patches. DOC has now monitored over 200 radio-tagged adult kiwi through 1080 operations and none has died from accidental poisoning, and so although we can’t say that kiwi will never be accidentally killed, it would seem that the risk of accidental deaths is very low indeed.

“Recent work at Tongariro Forest has shown excellent survival (c. 60%) of kiwi chicks to 6 months old (when they become safe from stoat and cat predation) in the two breeding seasons following a large aerial 1080 operation. Because life in the wild has so many variables and linkages (weather, fruiting cycles of trees, population cycles of rats and stoats), it is necessarily inexact science, unlike laboratory studies where all variables can be controlled; however, there is no way we will be testing the LD50s of kiwi in lab trials!. Because densities of stoats and rats vary considerably from year to year, we may not always get the same response from each 1080 operation, and so we plan to repeat the Tongariro kiwi chick monitoring for 1-2 more 1080 cycles to better understand the benefit to kiwi of the use of 1080, but at this stage, it is looking very promising as a tool to maintain and recover kiwi populations over large tracts of forest.”

Professor Charles Eason, Wildlife Management, Lincoln University, comments:

“The 1080 debate has become more polarised since the ERMA reassessment in 2007 and expenditure to meet increased compliance and consultation requirements continues to increase. Research on biocontrol of vertebrate pests has been an important and major focus for investment for more than 20 years in both New Zealand and Australia.

“Despite considerable commitment, effort and initiatives there is a gap between conventional poisons and the requirements of modern biocontrol that needs to be filled. More effective, safer alternatives to 1080 for the control of possums, predators, rodents and rabbits are required now to reduce over reliance on 1080 and provide greater flexibility.

“With continued focused research effort the next 1-6 years will see changes as improved, increasingly “ecofriendly,” toxin products become available and additional products with novel active ingredients targeting possums and other major pests are delivered.”