Editorial – What use is research?
Feral cat captured in a predator control operation. Image - Rod Dickson
Landcare Research, like all Crown Research Institutes, has agreed a set of national ‘outcomes’ with Government. In pest management, desired outcomes are to improve the protection of New Zealand's terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity and to increase the ability of New Zealand industries to meet market and community requirements.
Our job as scientists is to ensure that our research is useful in achieving these outcomes. We do this through transfer of technology and knowledge in partnership with key stakeholders. In this issue of Kararehe Kino, our scientists highlight some recent examples of research that have helped our stakeholders improve their management of pest animals – and ultimately, helped halt the decline of New Zealand’s native biodiversity and increase agricultural production. It’s no coincidence that many of the articles in this issue are co-authored by pest managers.
Pest managers make decisions based on evidence, but what sorts of evidence do managers actually use? How reliable or accurate does it need to be? What else guides management decisions? If managers want to use evidence from research, does it exist, can they easily obtain it, and how do they judge its reliability? Evidence-based management is about making decisions through the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of four sources of information: practitioner expertise and judgement, evidence from the local context, a critical evaluation of the best available research evidence, and the perspectives of those people who might be affected by the decision (Briner et al. 2009). Working partnerships and the consequent dialogue between researchers and pest managers are therefore a sure way to maximise the application and benefits of research.
Research can contribute to improved stakeholder decision making in diverse ways. The ‘Proof of TB Freedom’ framework developed by Graham Nugent and colleagues working with TBfree New Zealand staff enables evidence-based decision making by TBfree New Zealand on when to declare areas free of bovine TB, and is a key tool in the strategy to eradicate TB from New Zealand. Similarly, better understanding of the relationship between thar numbers and their impacts on alpine tussock grasslands by Jennyffer Cruz and colleagues is assisting DOC pest managers adjust the intensity of thar control to ensure the desired outcome of reduced tussock damage is achieved.
Such decisions can also significantly affect the costs of pest management, and pest managers are always interested in cost savings because funding is the biggest factor limiting their ability to achieve outcomes. Much of our research is therefore aimed at reducing the costs of current control. Carlos Rouco and Grant Norbury describe how that can be achieved by exploiting new information about habitat use by possums to better target control. Research by Bruce Warburton and colleagues details how the use of fixed-wing aircraft rather than helicopters can reduce the costs of aerial poisoning targeted at possums and rodents. Andrew Gormley and DOC collaborators applied sophisticated statistical analysis to existing data to show how the cost of monitoring possums as part of DOC’s National Biodiversity Monitoring and Reporting System could be reduced without loss of information.
Pest managers also need evidence to address issues raised by people who might be affected by their decisions. Farmers in rabbit-prone areas are often concerned that predator control will result in increased rabbit numbers and damage by these pests. Research by Chris Jones and colleagues in collaboration with Hawke’s Bay Regional Council clearly shows that this is generally a misconception, as predators are usually ‘passengers’ rather than ‘drivers’ in the ups and downs in rabbit numbers. Extensive use of toxins is a feature of New Zealand pest animal control and, not surprisingly, concerns are often expressed about potential impacts on the environment and native wildlife. The internationally-accredited Landcare Research toxicology laboratory, managed by Lynn Booth, provides a range of analyses not only to assure pest managers that the control products they use meet manufacturing specifications but also, through analysis of water, soil and animal tissue samples, that environmental contamination by pest control products remains within acceptable limits. Sometimes pest managers need additional evidence. Dan Tomkins and his team describe how their research addressed concerns raised – after approval from the Environmental Protection Agency for their release – about exotic dung beetles as potential spreaders of infectious diseases of livestock and people.
Finally, research can help pest managers make decisions about the future. New Zealand’s success at eradicating animal pests from islands has started people thinking about mainland pest eradications. Al Glen and Rod Dickson discuss not only how Landcare Research’s involvement in the Hawke’s Bay Cape to City project will help the regional council deliver region-wide biodiversity benefits through predator control, but also how the research and trialling in that project may contribute to the longer term aspiration of a Predator-Free New Zealand. In a similar vein, research described by Roger Pech and colleagues on how climate change may alter the frequency of mast seeding of native plants, and thus rodent and predator dynamics, will allow pest management agencies to better plan pre-emptive pest control to reduce impacts on native biodiversity.
The last issue of Kararehe Kino mentioned the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge. This has now been approved and teams are hard at work drafting the research plans. A key feature of the challenge will be the kind of collaborative and interactive partnerships between researchers, stakeholders and end-users highlighted in this issue of Kararehe Kino.
This article was funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Science and Innovation Group, contestable programme C09X1007 (Strategic Technologies for Multi-Species Pest Control).
Briner RB, Denyer D, Rousseau DM 2009: Evidence-Based Management: Concept Cleanup Time?