Government plan for a predator-free New Zealand – Expert Reaction

The Government plans to form a joint-venture company it will use to spearhead pest eradication efforts it hopes will exterminate all rats, stoats and possums in New Zealand by 2050.

Hermelin, Mustela erminea, stoatAs part of the predator-free plan, four goals have been set for 2025:

  • An additional 1 million hectares of land where pests have been suppressed or removed through Predator Free New Zealand partnerships
  • Development of a scientific breakthrough capable of removing at least one small mammalian predator from New Zealand entirely
  • Demonstrate areas of more than 20,000 hectares can be predator free without the use of fences
  • Complete removal of all introduced predators from offshore island nature reserves

The Science Media Centre gathered reaction to the plans from conservation experts. 

Dr Wayne Linklater, co-director Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology, Victoria University, comments:

“After decades of slow and small incremental progress in new technologies for pest control, the pace of advance is accelerating on several fronts – advanced trap designs, new lures, baits and poisons, biosensors and the remote control and delivery of all these and more on a grander scale.

“There is evidence too, at smaller scales, that the political and logistical approach – marrying government, business and philanthropy – might be timely and powerful enough to achieve it e.g., the NEXT Foundation-funded Zero Invasive Predators Ltd (ZIP Ltd.) initiative.

“The one enormous and largely unconsidered cloud on this exciting horizon is that we have not considered how to successfully eradicate predators from peopled environments e.g., cities and agricultural landscapes. That requires convincing almost everyone to ‘buy-in’ to the goal.

“Clearly there are large numbers and groups of people who care less than others about killing predators or just care about other things that might conflict with those goals. Solving the problems that are the human-dimension of this project/aspiration will be a greater challenge than the biology or technology problems ever were and our community of researchers are unprepared for it.”

Dr Marie Brown, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Defence Society, comments:

“The announcement of this funding represents a laudable step forward in our capacity to take on the dreaded mammalian entourage. Conservation groups like EDS have been campaigning for a long time to see a meaningful increase in funding to target these species. This goal is pretty aspirational of course – but vision and audacity is a good thing in conservation. It engages people and makes the impossible possible. Much of what we achieved in conservation in the latter half of the twentieth century would have been inconceivable in the first.

“Many community groups and councils are already digging in nationally alongside DoC and others to battle this key pressure on our biodiversity: anything that coordinates and boosts the outcomes of these initiatives is to be celebrated. Seeing it through will rely on a mix of well-funded core biodiversity research, curtailing loss of habitat extent and quality, maintaining adequate expertise in the Department of Conservation and other agencies, and robust monitoring to demonstrate progress towards the goal. Sustaining our precious endemic flora and fauna depends on vision like this – business as usual is not delivering.

“Achieving the goal also relies on partners matching government contributions on a two for one basis. This has good and bad points. A key issue with partnership-oriented conservation is securing funding over time, and ensuring that ecological gains are able to be maintained in the event of partner exit. Furthermore, partners may influence focus areas, deviating from robust scientifically-determined priorities that make the most difference to troubled biodiversity, at the least cost. On the other hand, this presents an opportunity to engage a wide range of stakeholders in this ‘big idea’ and really make conservation everyone’s business (and let’s not forget our freshwater and marine ecosystems along the way).

“The announcement also recognises that the impact of these species has an ecological and an economic cost to New Zealand, and the importance of broad political recognition of that fact can’t be understated. I look forward to indications of cross-party support, so we can bank on the goal enduring politically. If we can corral contributions in the most efficient way possible and lock in the efforts to achieve the long term goal, then we will be having very different conversations about nature protection in 2050.”

Doug Armstrong, Professor of Conservation Biology, Massey University, comments: 

“This is definitely a welcome investment, assuming is hasn’t been stripped away from something equally worthwhile, which is always a tricky issue with ‘new’ investments announced by politicians.

“The investment is continuing a lot of good work that’s been going on for decades, with the most notable recent development being the development of Zero Invasion Predators Ltd by the NEXT Foundation a few years ago.

“The goals seem good, including the general goal of eradicating rats, stoats and possums by 2050, but it is impossible to say whether this general goal is realistic at this stage.  It is clearly feasible to eradicate these species from Stewart Island if there was sufficient public support to do this.

“One comment is that major gains could be made at this point just by applying existing technologies, but there just needs to be funding to put this into action, and perhaps most importantly, get the support of all the people affected. For example, getting general community agreement is probably the major impediment at this stage to doing an eradication on Stewart Island. This may actually become more of an issue as new technologies develop. For example, there are very promising genetic technologies that may appear quite scary and be difficult to implement due to lack of public support.

“Another key issue is to ensure the funding is really allocated to eradicating all of these species, and not just possums. Possum eradication has the greatest incentive in terms of its damage to the agricultural industry, but eradication of possums without sustained rat control or eradication could be huge conservation problem.”

Dr James Russell, conservation biologist, University of Auckland, comments:

“The Predator-Free New Zealand (PFNZ) concept already had the groundswell of support from all the community groups but the government’s investment today and leadership in this area is the final jigsaw piece being put in place to ensure we can move forward as a nation in this direction. The overwhelming evidence from our offshore islands shows that scaling this model of conservation to our largest North and South Islands is the best return on investment we can make not only in conservation, but also for the social and public health benefits.

“Matching this funding with other existing agencies (e.g. DOC, OSPRI, Regional Councils, ZIP, National Science Challenge, philanthropists) represents a powerful investment, particularly to allow scientists the freedom to research multiple potential game-changing technologies which might be required, and demonstrate ‘proof of concept’ of going to scale in larger areas of New Zealand as interim steps in achieving the 2050 goal.

“We’ve been part-way there for some time. Already nearly half our offshore islands are free of introduced mammalian predators, but these are only the smaller islands (10% of total area). It has taken us 50 years to arrive here, so 2050 seems a reasonable goal and matches our current scaling laws for eradication size. But just as the aerial distribution of rodenticide bait was the game-changing technology in the 1990s, we will need at least one if not more game-changers across the physical, natural and social sciences to achieve PFNZ by 2050.

“Great examples exist across the country, including the recent logistically and technically and ecologically challenging Million Dollar Mouse eradication of mice from Antipodes Island which was recently completed in record time, showing how we are becoming more efficient at completing these eradications. However, while few New Zealanders will ever visit Antipodes Island, meanwhile across the mainland New Zealanders everywhere can now visit mainland sanctuaries on the backdoor step of every major urban centre, and even contribute to their own sanctuaries in local reserves or their own backyard.

“Without a clear idea of what the final knowledge advances are which will help us achieve PFNZ, its hard to make a reliable costing, but certainly it will require a prolonged investment staged across multiple governments, but with the right economic model, the annual costs could be only a fraction of a percent of GDP.”

Dr Tammy Steeves, senior lecturer, conservation and evolutionary genetics, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Predator Free 2050 is as inspirational as it is aspirational. There are stacks of threatened species that would benefit from a mainland without introduced mammalian predators including braided river specialists like the critically endangered kakī (black stilt) that cannot be translocated to predator-free offshore islands or fenced mainland sanctuaries.”

Director of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, Dr Andrea Byrom, also released comment on the announcement:

“The significant new investment in pest eradication, announced at Zealandia in Wellington today by Prime Minister John Key, could be a game-changer. And a game-changer is just what our biodiversity desperately needs.

“Over the last few years, we have seen the public and private sector, individuals and communities, councils, scientists, businesspeople, schoolkids, and thousands of committed New Zealanders, coming together in a manner that is usually only seen when there is a universal threat such as war. In fact, this situation is very analogous. There is a universal threat to our native plants and animals – and therefore to our economy and national identity – from overwhelming numbers of possums, rats, stoats, and other invaders.

“Scientists, professionals, philanthropists, volunteers, and land owners have been doing a valiant job over the last few years, but barely holding the line. Our precious biodiversity is in decline. If we’re going to get on top of this problem, we’ve got to massively upscale the effort and find novel and clever ways to reduce the high labour cost. A lot of volunteers are starting to burn out. It’s really hard to sustain the effort.

“New technologies such as wireless trap sensors that tell you when a trap needs clearing, and traps that can kill several animals without needing to be re-set, can make a huge difference. But scientists around New Zealand are not just relying on the ‘here and now’ technology. The Biological Heritage Science Challenge, hosted by Landcare Research, and with expertise from 17 Challenge Partners, including all 8 universities and 7 Crown Research Institutes, has some exciting opportunities for investment in pest control research.

“Scientists aligned with the Challenge are investigating other, over-the-horizon technologies: genetic interventions, species-specific toxins, and super-effective trap lures, in the race to beat our national problem. The $28 million of new money announced today includes funding for research, and provides a much-needed boost that can sit alongside our existing investment.

“The Challenge is also driving the concept of transformative, large-scale eradication of pests throughout New Zealand, an ambition shared by many visionary leaders in business, science and national and local government. Together with Landcare Research we are strongly supporting the Cape to City project in Napier, the first experiment in upscaling pest eradication across thousands of hectares of production and urban landscapes.

“Pest eradication, and shoring up our defences against biological threats to our land-based economy, such as the PSA that decimated kiwifruit, are the main goals of our Biological Heritage Science Challenge, established by MBIE and hosted by Landcare Research. We are bringing together and focussing all the research that’s going on in these areas, identifying gaps, and looking to the future.”