7 TROUBLE IN PARADISE
YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIKE THE GOVERNMENT’S 1080 PEST ERADICATION PROGRAMME TO KNOW IT’S STILL THE BEST DEFENCE FOR NEW ZEALAND’S DWINDLING BIODIVERSITY. IN HIS NEW BOOK, PROTECTING PARADISE, DAVE HANSFORD EXPLAINS WHY.
1080 is still New Zealand’s best defence for our dwindling biodiversity. In a new book, Dave Hansford explains why.
You could call Dave Hansford an ecowarrior. But he’s armed only with science and facts: the kind of evidence you get from repetitive, rigorous experiments, monitoring and analysis.
The facts will not protect him, however, from the denial and abuse that will be unleashed when Protecting Paradise hits the shelves in October. The subject of Hansford’s book is 1080 – sodium monofluoroacetate – the simple organic salt that remains our best weapon in the daily battle to save our native species from the relentless attack of pestilential “teeth and claws”.
For most New Zealanders, 1080 falls into the “necessary and notso- evil” camp. Like Hansford, we’d prefer it wasn’t necessary to spread a poison over our land, but we accept that its use is justified. We like to think whiz-bang new science and trapping technologies will one day dispatch 1080 to the pages of pest eradication history. In the meantime, though, we’re reassured by shelves of peer-reviewed reports that have confirmed both the safety and
effectiveness of the poison. Among those, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright carried out rigorous investigations in 2011 and again in 2013, and delivered emphatic endorsements for 1080’s continuing use.
Protecting Paradise roams wider and deeper than Wright’s reports – debunking the myths that proliferate about 1080, explaining why fears about it are so persistent, and examining the motives of those prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to ban it. And it’s no dull treatise; there are chapters packed with tales of dastardly deeds and heroic derring- do.
When I first talked to Hansford about the book, I jokingly asked if he’d be going into hiding. At the time I hadn’t read chapter 14, “There Will Be Blood”. It describes how wildlife defenders and pest control operators have been assaulted and threatened by anti-1080 extremists, especially in hotspots like Coromandel, Waikato and the West Coast. One of the worst attacks left kiwi protector Arthur Hinds, then 65, with a fractured cheekbone after he was punched from behind by avid hunter Peter Findlay at a ratepayers meeting in Tairua five years ago. And when activists like Graeme Sturgeon declare publicly, “1080 is war to us, and there will be no holds barred; the war will be won”, Hansford is right to be watching his back.
Worse than the aggression and threats, believes Hansford, is the pseudo-science many anti-1080 activists peddle – in the case of hardline hunters’ groups, often to cloak their true purpose: they simply want more deer to shoot. He says other 1080 opponents claim the poison “does more harm – ecologically speaking – than good”, even though research and monitoring continue to show substantive overall benefit to our beleaguered birds, bush and other native species.
Although the book never seeks to denigrate genuinely held philosophical views about the use of 1080, it exposes both the disturbing level of science- denial and the commercial, recreational and political agendas that have been promulgated, dressed up as scientific and ethical concerns. The poison’s role as a political football has no better example than in New Zealand First’s cynical campaign to capture the votes of the country’s hunters – notably those who voted for the Ban 1080 party and who clustered around the former Outdoor Recreation New Zealand party that in 2003 became affiliated to United Future, before deregistering in 2007.
Hansford: “There are around 60,000 hunters in New Zealand and they’re certainly entitled to lobby for their causes. But they have an inordinate amount of influence over this country’s environmental policies, even as they disseminate rank bullshit about the dangers of 1080 use.
“With [United Future’s] Peter Dunne possibly out of Parliament next year, we see [New Zealand First’s] Richard Prosser blatantly courting the hunters’ vote, promising to ban 1080. Too bad that every year more of our native creatures go on the threatened list – over 4000 at last count. Too bad that if the anti-1080 lobby got its way, we’d see vermin run riot. Our collective birthright – our nature – would simply collapse into a menagerie of the apocalypse.
“But here’s Richard Prosser, prepared to trade in misinformation and scaremongering for votes.”
ONE OF THE WORST ATTACKS LEFT KIWI PROTECTOR ARTHUR HINDS, THEN 65, WITH A FRACTURED CHEEKBONE AFTER HE WAS PUNCHED FROM BEHIND BY AN AVID HUNTER AT A MEETING IN TAIRUA FIVE YEARS AGO.
The following is extracted from the chapter “New Truths”: Peter Dunne has been the hunting lobby’s default megaphone in Parliament since 2003, after the Outdoor Recreation New Zealand party’s first and only foray into electoral politics failed to land them a seat. The hunters’ party formally affiliated with Dunne’s United Future party the following year, but the deal was short-lived, and the two split again a year before Outdoor Recreation’s demise and deregistration in 2007. Nevertheless, Dunne has remained a faithful emissary of the hunting lobby in Parliament, pressing for the creation of yet more taxpayer-funded hunting advocacy panels, a Big Game Hunting Council and a Wild Animal Control Advisory Committee, in 2008.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters senses that Dunne, one of Parliament’s veterans, will retire before the next election, and sees a constituency ripe for the picking. Outdoor Recreation attracted nearly 26,000 votes in 2003. Peters reasons that the most piercing dog whistle to hunters is a tirade against 1080.
[NZ First MP Richard] Prosser went on to accuse government animal health agency OSPRI of living a lie: “It would appear,” he told the Otago Daily Times, “the prevalence of bovine tuberculosis in possums is very much less – many orders of magnitude less, in fact – than the public, and even the farming sector, have come to believe. I would contend that this misinformed perception has been allowed to proliferate both through the repetition of misinformation, and the failure of the relevant authorities to alert either the media or the public as to the truth of the matter.”
In fact, Prosser withheld a bit of information himself. He didn’t disclose that the possumtesting figures he received from [Primary Industries Minister] Nathan Guy were all taken from areas where TB had practically already been eradicated.
“We rarely post-mortem possums in areas where we know or are confident TB exists,” thenOSPRI group manager Peter Alsop responded. Instead, he pointed out, testers sample remnant possum populations after control to make sure the disease really has been beaten. “Put simply, we expect to find few possums with TB from our wildlife surveys. This signals the programme has been successful.”
“What’s missing from [Prosser’s] numbers is the context,” says OSPRI’S senior operational policy advisor, Nick Hancox. “It’s very difficult to prove the absence of something; you have to take a lot of samples – big enough to give us confidence that control has, in fact, eradicated TB from the possum population.”
Occasionally, OSPRI will also test in the wake of any aberrant outbreak in an otherwise TBfree region. “That’s to make sure we don’t have some new source of infection,” says Hancox.
But anti-1080 campaigners still find fault. Harihari’s Mary Molloy, spokeswoman for Farmers Against Ten Eighty, FATE, condemns not possums but OSPRI’S own methodology. “The reality is, possums are not infected almost everywhere. Remember what came first, and what maintains any TB in the wild, is inherently farmed cattle and deer with undetected infectious bovine TB.”
In fact, says Hancox, roughly
PETERS REASONS THAT THE MOST PIERCING DOG WHISTLE TO HUNTERS IS A TIRADE AGAINST 1080.
half of remaining infections, predominantly along the West Coast, are due to vectors – possums, pigs, wild deer or ferrets. The rest have been traced to the movement of infected animals. Recently, OSPRI surveyed possums along the Taramakau River north of Hokitika, and found TB in four out of 100 animals. “That’s a lot,” says Hancox. “If you went down Lambton Quay at lunchtime and took a random sample of 100 people and found that four of them had TB, you’d have a medical emergency on your hands.”
Molloy has been a vocal critic of OSPRI’S herd-testing techniques, insisting that perfectly healthy young stock have been killed and found to have no TB, while infectious animals have remained undetected in farm herds. “On top of that grossly inefficient system, the authorities, by specious reasoning, with science lacking, then turn to 1080 poison as the solution.”
“To claim that the herd-testing programme is failing when so few infected herds remain simply doesn’t make sense,” Hancox responds. And it’s disingenuous to claim that OSPRI is somehow obsessed with 1080 when, in fact, only some 15 per cent of vector control is done by aerial 1080. “In any one year, we do possum control over about 3.5 million hectares,” says Hancox. “Of that, about half a million hectares, at most, is done by aerial control. The rest is done by trappers and hunters working on the ground.”
Molloy, Prosser and a legion of other opponents charge OSPRI with self-interest: that it consistently overstates the threat from possums and other wild vectors to justify the use of aerial 1080. A common refrain for years is that OSPRI is feathering its own nest as part of some all- of-government rort. “The public of New Zealand will never trust assertions over the effectiveness of aerial 1080 while the whole regime remains so inhouse,” blustered Peter Dunne in 2008. “It is crazy that those whose commercial interests lie in the persistence of the status quo are the same people left to assess the effectiveness and future viability of government policy regarding 1080.”
Presumably, Dunne has no issue with the Ministry of Health gathering data to support public health initiatives, or Fish & Game assessing trout numbers to inform future release programmes, but when it comes to 1080, it’s always about corruption – OSPRI managers perpetuating a problem to protect their pay packets. There are no “commercial interests”, as Dunne charged. OSPRI is a non-profit entity, a government agency created and funded to manage the TB issue.
“This notion that the whole 1080 thing is just a gravy train is simply bizarre,” says Hancox. “It’s like suggesting that because I buy beer, I’ve got an interest in the brewery. 1080 is a possum control product that costs us money. So how do we make money out of it? It doesn’t make sense. Our shareholders don’t want us to be a bigger business than we need to be, because it represents a cost to them – there’s no profit in it. And we don’t have shares in the 1080 factory. The only people who have shares in that factory are taxpayers like you and me.”
Apart from anything else, OSPRI is, at time of writing, about to have its $80 million annual budget slashed by a quarter – hardly the act of a venal rogue agency. That’s because it’s finished most of the job it was given. With infected herds now restricted to a few regions, it no longer has to operate over such a wide front.
A COMMON REFRAIN FOR YEARS IS THAT OSPRI IS FEATHERING ITS OWN NEST AS PART OF SOME ALL-OF-GOVERNMENT RORT.
Late in 2015, Prosser took his crusade on the road, addressing audiences in hotbeds of anti-1080 sentiment: Thames, Taupo (with hunting lobbyist Clyde Graf and his fellow Waikato Regional councillor Kathy White), Takaka, Hokitika.
One Friday night last November, I sat in the Senior Citizens’ hall in Takaka to hear what Prosser had to say. Right at the get-go, he throws down his aces: “I wanted to kick this off by promoting hunting. That’s always been my motivation.” Then, with an apologetic glance at his midriff, he insists that he was once a hunter too, before the demands of public life monopolised his waking hours.
“The common goal that binds everybody here is to get rid of 1080,” he continued. Then came a potted bio, relating his days as a winemaker and one-time irrigation salesman, and about how he once donned his “journalism hat” to pen a column for Ian Wishart’s Investigate magazine. The irony in that flew over everyone’s heads.
About 1080, he says, “There are lots of perceptions that everyone accepts that just get repeated and repeated.”
Well, amen to that. I lean forward in my seat. “I’m not a scientist,” he discloses, before erasing any lingering doubt by launching into an alt-history of New Zealand evolution – seemingly lifted from the pages of [anti-1080 activist and author Bill] Benfield – that the joyous birdsong and verdant forest of which Joseph Banks waxed so lyrical was in fact, a travesty; a sham, nay shambolic, fresco of fraud without its keystone browsers, the moa.
Here it comes… “Two studies show a 73 per cent overlap in diet between deer and moa. Short of bringing back the moa, we at least have deer.”
Then it’s forest ecology 101: “Your fast-growing undergrowth shades out, crowds out, the other trees. The forest will die. The settlers who let the goats and the deer go did the forest a favour.”
This isn’t going down as well as he’d hoped: these people are hippies, not hunters, and the silence is loud. Prosser hears it, and changes tack: he blames the collapse of Northland forests on two unspecified “native insects. We’ll find that this canopy damage isn’t caused by possums,” he prophesies. Still no response, so he cuts to the chase we’re all waiting on.
“The writing is on the wall. The day will come when this thing  is no longer available.”
Then he served notice to DOC, to OSPRI, to regional councils, to conservationists everywhere: “The day may come when we’re in coalition, and we’ll say: ‘That’s it.’ Don’t say you weren’t warned. We say... that this is a good time to think about emplacing their own moratoriums, while they still can.”
A few murmurs of approval now, but, like me, some are clearly wondering how a minor MP in a minor party might claim the necessary heft to terminate a 60-year pest control programme that enjoys rock-solid cross-party support.
Then there’s some damnation of the Ban 1080 Party – party cofounder Bill Wallace is sitting in the audience – with a bit more faint praise: “They did pretty well last election, for a single-issue party.” He recalls it got 5000 votes, but points out that Wallace and his candidates would need 20 times that endorsement if it were to stand a chance of getting into Parliament. “Realistically, it’s not going to happen.
“Without getting overly political,” says Prosser, who then gets overly political, “give your vote to New Zealand First.” He offers Wallace a deal: Ban 1080 should continue to campaign into the 2017 election, then withdraw, urging its constituency to give their party vote to New Zealand First instead.
Politics, he assures us, “is all about numbers.” I wasn’t so sure, but the other 13 people in the hall seemed to agree.
Bill Wallace doesn’t, though. He was irked when I asked him about it later. At the public meeting, he’d allowed that, “We realise it’s naive to think we’ll get into Parliament.” Nevertheless, he insists there’s no deal on the table. “There is no collaboration.” Ban 1080 will contest the next election, he told me, with
IF NEW ZEALAND FIRST CAN POSITION ITSELF ASTRIDE THE BALANCE OF POWER AGAIN, PROSSER OFFERS, THEN HE CAN MAKE A 1080 BAN HAPPEN.
its own candidates. When I asked if the party would, at the last moment, default and give New Zealand First its support, he said that would be a decision for the party executive, but it was “highly unlikely”.
Prosser wouldn’t comment on the cold shoulder, but it doesn’t matter. Peters means to starve Ban 1080 of oxygen instead. “We would research, develop and deploy a replacement for 1080 and so phase out 1080’s use within New Zealand,” read a New Zealand First press release early this year. “We believe ground control can be as effective as aerial drops. Sound pest control would turn a problem into an economic opportunity.” Peters made the statement to an audience at biotech body Agcarm, but it was aimed squarely at the hunting fraternity.
“Ground control will help to form the world’s only ‘ethical eco-fur industry’ within a global fur industry that’s worth $40 billion,” said Peters.
According to the New Zealand Fur Council, annual national sales from possum fur products (the bulk are made from a merino-possum blend) amounts to $127 million. Hardly spare change, but for Peters to imply that we might grab a share in the billions is mischievous. The Fur Council is seeking consents to double the harvest of possums – currently around two million a year – and, to support its case, asked the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) to model the extra benefits to the economy that doubling might bring. NZIER found that processing four million possums a year would add $54 million to GDP.
Much of that impetus has come from a recommendation in the 2011 report on 1080 by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright: The Minister of Conservation asks the Department of Conservation to prioritise the development of national policy and operational procedures on possum fur harvesting.
“The thinking behind that recommendation,” says Wright, “was why not let them into an area where you weren’t doing drops? It doesn’t really make any difference, but it seemed to me that because there are so many places that they’re not treating with 1080; where’s the harm?”
The Fur Council says the industry employs around 1500 people, and many are rural jobs – the most valuable kind. Four million fewer possums is clearly good for the forest, and any initiative that eases the ravages of pests deserves support. But fur, like any other
commodity, is subject to the vagaries of supply, demand and above all, price, and those forces are starkly decoupled from conservation benefit. Scientific and anecdotal evidence, says a 2014 Fur Council report, shows that “Harvesters can economically reduce the possum presence to 10-15 per cent densities.” That’s a start, but getting possums down even to those numbers doesn’t do much for biodiversity. In fact, 15 per cent is considered sufficiently high to trigger an aerial pest control operation.
To do any appreciable good, for conservation or TB control, possum densities need to be lower than five per cent, or five possums per 100 traps. But to turn a profit – at current fur prices, at least – a trapper needs to find at least 50 possums in those traps each morning. Most trappers pack up and move on once the Residual Trap Catch drops below 30 per cent, still well above the threshold for net biodiversity benefit. Trappers are businesspeople. They’ll always go where the returns are better for their effort – and why shouldn’t they?
Peters and Prosser have, in fact, offered no solution to a possum “problem” that is fast coming under control anyway. 1080 is ideal for reducing possums to very low levels, and it will probably play a big part in eradicating them within another decade or so. The more pressing conservation curse nowadays is rats, mice, stoats, weasels, ferrets, cats, hedgehogs. When I asked Prosser what he meant to do about those, he said in an email that his ground control proposal included “all pest species”. That means he has to find more millions for an entirely separate control network on top of his possum proposal. When I asked him for detailed costings, and where the money might come from, he did not respond (Peters has said it would come from “research and development tax credits”).
Some say we could make up the difference with a bounty. In 2013, Andrew Dixon, owner of the quirky Mussel Inn at Onekaka, in Golden Bay, offered a free pint to anyone who brought in a possum tail as part of Picton’s inaugural Pestival, a fundraiser for the nearby Kaipupu Point Sounds Wildlife Sanctuary. The inn still puts a price on pests’ heads today: a mustelid of any species is worth two handles of beer or cider. So is a dead cat. A rat gets you a chocolate fish. The Picton possum bounty, though, was a limited-timeonly offer: back at Onekaka, the incentive was withdrawn when a target of 5000 tails was hit in 2008.
“The folks that reckon they know say that bounties don’t work,” says Dixon on the inn’s web site. “Well, we reckon they have been offering the wrong sort of bounty.” He could be right. New Zealand’s only foray into possum bounties was an expensive failure. Between 1951 and 1961, a shade over $63 million (in today’s money) was paid out for 8.2 million possum “tokens” at two shillings and six pence apiece. In those days, trappers could either claim the bounty or keep the pelt for export. Around 4.3 million of the best skins went overseas at that time. In 1951, only three per cent of pelts were presented for the bounty. But by 1961, falling export prices saw 90 per cent take the easy money. The scheme was axed that year, after administrators realised more than 75 per cent of tokens had come from farms and easy front country, or simply picked off roads.
In Egmont National Park, bounty hunting claimed an average of just a single possum per hectare per year – less than the birth rate. Millions of dollars had been paid out for precisely zero conservation benefit, but it was worse than that. After the scheme was introduced, possums started showing up in odd places, and spread down the West Coast much faster than natural dispersal should have allowed. The market had responded. People were sprinkling possums around like seeds – effectively farming the animal the authorities were paying them to eradicate.
Bounties – and New Zealand First’s possum trapping proposal – are subsidies in drag; market instruments that people will inevitably find the easiest and most profitable way to exact. With conservation spending so miserly, there’s an obligation to make sure taxpayers’ dollars deliver the maximum biodiversity or animal health benefit. And that clearly isn’t bounties.
Trapping, of course, won’t control deer numbers. “We don’t regard deer as pests,” Prosser told me, “and believe they are well- controlled through hunting.” Which is the whole point of his proposition. Just like a dog whistle, there’s a silent directive in there, urging hunters to vote New Zealand First.
MOST POSSUM TRAPPERS PACK UP AND MOVE ON ONCE THEIR TRAP CATCH DROPS BELOW 30 PER CENT, STILL WELL ABOVE THE THRESHOLD FOR NET BIODIVERSITY BENEFIT.
Edited extract from Protecting Paradise: 1080 and the Fight to Save New Zealand’s Wildlife, by Dave Hansford (Potton & Burton, $34.99).