13 Jun 2019

1080: 'The answer is really clear'

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 13 June 2019

The anti-1080 brigade has become a virulent force, bombarding websites, and lately turning their attention to Department of Conservation workers with threats of attack.

Protesters at the north access to Egmont National Park for the previous 1080 drop there in 2016.

Protesters at the north access to Egmont National Park for the previous 1080 drop there in 2016. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Those threats have become so bad that $11 million was allocated in the last budget to protect those workers from abuse – including threats to sabotage their helicopters and poison their families.

Some of their objections might sound convincing, because why would you drop poison from the air? And a poison that has been banned in some other countries, at that?

But other countries aren’t New Zealand, with forests of diminishing numbers of native birds, many of which are threatened with extinction from introduced predators.

When Jan Wright was the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, she took it upon herself to investigate the use of 1080 to eradicate those pests.

She surprised even herself when her 2011 report not only sided in favour of continued use – but said we should be using more of it.

Dr Jan Wright

Dr Jan Wright Photo: Supplied

“I did start with a completely open mind; that’s how the report came about,” she says now.

Wright says the eradication method “needed to deal with a mast, reach remote places in New Zealand, needed to be cost effective and so on”.

In a mast year, fruit of forest trees such as beech produce a bumper crop – encouraging pests.

The poison ticked every box and proved to be useful.

She then cross-examined her staff on the downsides of spreading 1080.

The positives soon outweighed reasons not to use it, she says.

“In the end I looked at them and said, ‘well shouldn’t we be using more of it?’ And they looked at me in horror because it had just got such a bad name.”

Wright looked at her flummoxed staff, saying to them “logically and from what you’ve told me, this is really good”.

“I came out straight and said 'look, we’re really lucky to have it. If we don’t use it, we’re looking at a continuing decline of birds and other native species.' To me that was unequivocal – it was where the logic and the evidence had led us.”

She says the perception of the poison had stopped people in power from speaking up for its use.

“Minister Nick Smith, Environment Minister at the time, couldn’t come out [in favour of it] because he needed votes but the fact that I as an independent person had said this – then he had the courage to go ‘right, well the Commissioner said this and I’m going to take her advice’.”

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Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The ministers since, Maggie Barry and Eugenie Sage, have stuck by the use of the poison to protect native birds.

But the mistrust of its use continues.

Head of Marketing at the University of Auckland, Dr Bodo Lang, suggests there may be a few different reasons for the anti-1080 stance.

He says New Zealand is split into three groups of people.

The vast majority will have no opinion on the use of 1080 because it’s not relevant to their lives; these people could also lack understanding – assuming dropping poison is a generally bad idea.

The next group are a small number of people who believe in using 1080; and the last are anti-1080.

Dr Lang says a campaign will make a difference.

“The science seems to be clear about it but there seems to be a disconnect between the science and some people.

“I think we ought to be using that science to steer public conversation and to steer the opinions of people.”

But the question remains, what kind of campaign will change the minds of people who are staunch in their views?

Photo: RNZ