20 May 2019

Warning predator free goal faces 'conflicts' and uncertainty

6:06 am on 20 May 2019

The goal of becoming predator free in 30 years could be hampered by conflicts, inadequate planning and uncertainty, a report warns.

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Photo: Supplied

Predator Free 2050 aims for a coordinated, nationwide eradication of New Zealand's most damaging introduced predators - rats, stoats and possums - compared to the current piecemeal controlling of limited areas.

A just released report from the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge looks at the predator free target as a large social movement, but said there were gaps that need to be addressed on social, cultural and ethical issues.

It said achieving the goal would require significant expenditure over a long time by many different governments, so the project required widespread buy-in and almost a 100 percent backing from the public.

One of the author's, University of Auckland associate professor James Russell, said it would take at least a decade to before it became clear what the predator free target might mean, how much money might need to be diverted to the programme, and how much it might require people to change their behaviours, or accept new regulations.

Dr Russell said it required a widespread social acceptance of predator control plans, including which methods were used.

He said the target was open to conflict and uncertainty for a number of reasons. These included people disagreeing about how to maintain biodiversity, and not all thinking introduced species were pests - such as tahr, deer, cats and pigs.

"Some people see them as a pest, whereas other people see them as a resource, and that creates clear conservation conflict, and that's specifically why none of those species are included in the Predator Free New Zealand goals."

Dr Russell said while the target focused on stoats, rats and possums to restore native bird numbers, there were other biodiversity threats including climate change and ongoing habitat loss, particularly in coastal areas. He said as these issues arose and different groups wanted to preserve different species - such as insects or plants - there was the potential for conflict.

The report also raised the prospect of possibly unintended consequences if the target was achieved, for example the removal of rats, stoats and possums could mean the mice population increased.

It could also pose conflict for different interest groups, for example if there were larger numbers of native birds recovering there might be groups interested in harvesting them once again as traditional food, whereas other groups might want them to be conserved.

The report did not focus on the methods of predator control, such as toxin or gene editing, but said traditional pest control methods might need to work in tandem with, or be replaced by, new technologies which eliminated the last survivors of certain species.

But some people might not support this, the report said.

"If you don't support the means to achieve the ends, even if you do support the ends, you're effectively locking off and disabling your ability to meet those ends," Dr Russell said.

The Biological Heritage National Science Challenge holds a two-day conference in Wellington starting today.

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