Department of Conservation ranger populations are in decline, says Forest & Bird’s Kimberley Collins – and it’s having knock-on effects throughout our delicate ecosystem.
It’s Conservation Week! Over the next five days, New Zealanders will unite in celebration of our nation’s unique and diverse wildlife and wild places. To mark our occasional successes in saving nature from ourselves, why not get amongst it a bit? Nip out for a hike, visit a beach, or go to your local bird sanctuary or native forest.
We have made some good progress in the conservation space. We no longer shoot endangered birds to line the walls of museums and we’ve stopped culling kea. Tieke are back on the mainland, and are even visiting the suburbs of the Aro Valley in Wellington. Kākāpō are slowly edging back from the brink of extinction. And the prospect of making New Zealand predator-free has been raised to the national stage by the government, putting conservation squarely in the spotlight.
But despite what the Department of Conservation would have you believe, it’s not all birdsong, frolicking seal pups, and rare birds being released into the wild.
I’d like to celebrate Conservation Week in my own way. By using it as an opportunity to highlight the plight of one of New Zealand’s most endangered species – the Department of Conservation (DoC) ranger.
DoC rangers are a well-known and much loved species. They play a vital role in a number of our ecosystems. They patrol vast territories, looking after our national parks and marine reserves by controlling pests and weeds to look after our vulnerable native flora and fauna.
Often seen traversing rugged terrain to monitor rare wildlife populations or performing a unique display known as “checking trap lines”, they are one of the most hardworking species in all of New Zealand.
Sadly, their populations are in decline. Over the past seven years, their numbers have decreased by an estimated 20 per cent.
This decrease has already had wide-reaching effects on the Department of Conservation, which manages a third of all land in New Zealand. Just last year, its annual report showed it had failed five of 10 performance measures on pest and weed control.
Native species decline is a big problem for New Zealand. As well as posing a risk to the long-term survival of our unique flora and fauna, our biodiversity crisis also seriously threatens our “clean, green 100% pure” reputation.
We’re still winners in many respects, though. New Zealanders can proudly say we have the highest percentage of threatened species in the world, and the highest rate of biodiversity loss. 80% of our birds, 88% of our lizards, and 72% of our freshwater fish are threatened with extinction. A staggering 985 of our species are threatened with extinction. Another 2772 are at risk.
With just 637 DoC rangers left in the wild, each individual is now responsible for around one and a half of our threatened species, plus four of those considered “at risk”. And as ranger numbers also decline, this responsibility increases.
So what has left our DoC ranger populations in such a sorry state?
The biggest and most persistent threat to our rangers is chronic funding cuts to their department, followed by a severe “restructuring” of their ecosystem that resulted in a loss of expertise from their populations.
In 2009, the Department of Conservation’s budget was slashed by $46 million. In 2013, it lost further $8.7 million. This year, an independent expert found it lost $41.8 million in funding. Though whether or not that counts has been obscured by its confusing funding model.
A good way of visualising this is to think how much you spend keeping your garden in order. DoC has $20 to spend for every hectare of land they manage. That’s around $2 per year for the traditional quarter acre section. Could you take care of your garden on that kind of budget?
To compensate for loss of funding, the DoC ecosystem has adopted a “partnerships” model that aims to fill gaps by utilising volunteer groups and bringing on corporate sponsors such as Meridian, Toyota and Air New Zealand. It’s nice to have corporations profess their support for the work DoC does, but it’s not enough to save the endangered rangers.
Similarly, the Government’s recently announced goal to make New Zealand predator-free by 2050 is a wonderful idea. But the Government expects DoC to compete with charities for private sector money to pay for it. Perhaps the reason the Conservation Week theme is to “join the team” is because they literally can’t afford enough rangers to do it themselves.
Without more DoC rangers, and more funding for the organisation they’re part of, New Zealand’s wildlife and wild places will suffer. Every year, there will be fewer people on the frontlines to protect what’s most valuable about New Zealand. If we let this continue, the DoC rangers are at risk of extinction – and without them, there won’t be much conservation left to celebrate.