ScienceMay 6, 2017

What if the Predator Free 2050 plan is actually a terrible idea?


New Zealanders celebrated the government’s ambitious goal to completely eradicate possums, rats and stoats by 2050 – but according to some scientists, the plan is ill-conceived and unlikely to succeed. Ahead of a major conference on the future of New Zealand biodiversity, Dr Jamie Steer argues that Predator Free 2050 needs an urgent rethink.

Last year the Government officially endorsed a plan so apparently uplifting and otherwordly it was compared to space travel – New Zealand’s very own Apollo mission.

The plan is to completely eradicate five of our 31 species of introduced wild mammals, thereby eliminating some of the predators of our cherished native birds. The cost of the plan is estimated at over $30 billion. Once complete – some 35 years from now – we will be a Predator Free New Zealand. Well, sort of, but not really.

To do this, the government assures us, we’ll simply need to “ramp up” the efforts we’ve taken to date to eliminate introduced predatory mammals from some 48 thousand hectares of remote, uninhabited islands. They figure we’ll achieve the same over the remaining 26 million hectares of towns, cities, parks and playgrounds with only moderate further difficulty.

Oh, and we’ll also probably have to use a controversial, new and untested form of genetic engineering that drives our fellow not-originally-from-around-here mammal species extinct by making them infertile.

DOC deputy director-general science and policy Bruce Parkes, conservation minister Maggie Barry and former minister for science and innovation Steven Joyce at the Predator Free NZ 2050 announcement, 28 July 2016. Photo: doc.govt.nz

The plan’s unveiling was a marvelous photo opportunity for the gaggle of ministers in attendance at the announcement; newspapers since have been filled with inspirational stories about the Predator Free New Zealand plan. We have all but fallen over ourselves to offer glowing recitations of the Government’s policies and to wax lyrical about “what if”.

But a few others have remained more circumspect about a plan the late physicist Sir Paul Callaghan once called “ambitious”, but also “crazy”. They wonder at the lack of funding, the technical probability of success and, more disturbingly for its proponents, whether the plan plots the right course at all for conservation in this country.

How did we get here?

It was with this backdrop of events and commentary in mind that a good friend of mine asked me recently “How did it all come to this? How did conservation in New Zealand come to be boiled down to killing stuff? And can this strategy of conservation-at-the-barrel-of-a-gun really be the only option?”

It all began, I explained, in the 1970s when a hippie sub-set of the baby boomers dreamt up an idea they called “ecological restoration”. History, they theorised, could be dialled back, and nature’s wonderful balance restored. The formula was simple: find an ecosystem, figure out the influences that could be ascribed to humans, and get rid of them.

As the climate changed, as the world globalised, as thousands of people from around the world continued to migrate from the country, and as countless more species were introduced or self-dispersed, our role, it was said, was to keep our wildlife the same as it was hundreds of years ago.

It didn’t come to much at first, but in the 1980s conservationists doubled down their efforts, targetting a subset of introduced wildlife they called “invasive species”. Conspicuous and unable to defend themselves, these species were to be ruthlessly scapegoated for the environmental mistakes of the past.

Where are we going?

Since then, New Zealanders have frequently been encouraged to kill invasive species wherever they find them. This is unfortunate because, generally speaking, broadscale control of invasive species has been a failed strategy in this country. We’ve barely been treading water in most areas.

Volunteers show off trapped possums. Photo: predatorfreenz.org

Even our most reviled invasive species – rats, stoats and possums – are still found in all but about 0.2% of their inhabitable range throughout New Zealand. In contrast, our conservation successes (and there have been many) have invariably been due to targetted, sustainable investments in small areas.

Despite this fact, we’re still being conditioned to believe that there are no options. We either kill all these invasive species everywhere, or the native species that we love will all progressively die.

It’s one or the other. But is it really that simple? Are our options really that depleted? I say no.

In fact I reckon that an entirely valid alternative to Predator Free 2050, and the like, is to accept that some of our most vulnerable native species are not going to be able to survive everywhere in New Zealand. We might choose instead to accept that those species are going to be protected mainly on islands and in mainland sanctuaries, not that unlike the way they currently are.

That’s not going to be the case for all our native wildlife mind, remembering that many of our native species – like pukeko, karoro and kãhu – are doing just fine on their own. More often than not they’re every bit as wily as their introduced counterparts. So it’s not going to be one or the other. Our future ecosystems are going to be mongrel, hybrid, mixed-up combinations of native and introduced.

Globally, ecology and conservation movements are beginning to recognise this, moving away from fixating on pristine past states and historic species assemblages. Instead the focus is shifting toward urban and landscape ecology, and ‘novel ecosystems’, comprising mixes of species that have never existed in evolutionary history.

Last year the Ecological Society of America, the world largest group of ecologists, themed their entire conference around life in the “Anthropocene” and how we need to get better at accepting and living within a dynamic, human-influenced nature.

Back to the future?

It has come very late in the piece, but some of us are beginning to realise that the ecosystems of the past cannot represent those of the future on anything more than a token level. We have changed our environment, for better and worse, to the extent that there is no going back now.

A resilient future for life in our country now means adapting our lifestyles to the limits of the earth but also, and this is crucial, accepting that other species and ecosystems need to adapt now too. They’re not all just static museum dioramas for our gratification.

We can still have a healthy, diverse, and productive biodiversity. But we can’t have the same biodiversity we had in the past: probably not even close, because that’s not how life works. Evolution is all one way. Not to a better life, but to a life best adapted for what’s in front of it.

This, of course, is all lost on those conservationists who remain committed to the notion that the influences we have on our environments are all wrong. For them, the best we can do is to try to make nature more like it was in the past, before we inconsiderately came along.

Don’t believe it. The fact of the matter is we have a range of environmental futures open to us now beyond replicating the past and it’s time we started genuinely discussing and exploring them. Let’s question the assumption that going in reverse is the only way forward for conservation in this country.

Dr Jamie Steer has worked and studied in the environmental services industry in New Zealand for close to 20 years. He is passionate about promoting debate on the future of biodiversity management in New Zealand.

Dr Steer will be discussing the ideas in this essay as part of a panel discussion on Predator Free 2050 at Crazy and Ambitious, a conference on biodiversity and New Zealand’s biological heritage at Te Papa on May 8-10.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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