Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Predator Free 2050

The mission to make New Zealand predator free by 2050, eradicating introduced predatory mammals critically threatening native biodiversity, is building momentum. A survey conducted last year by Wellington City Council reported that 84% of Wellingtonians support ridding the city of such predators and 69% are willing to be actively involved.

The predator free goal to eradicate possums, rats and stoats was announced in 2016. The idea emerged from conservation discussions articulated by Sir Paul Callaghan in his last public speech at Zealandia Sanctuary in 2012, and was explored in a Pest Summit convened by the Department of Conservation (DOC) that year. Much of the strategy now in place came to the fore at that workshop, which identified seven priority strategic and research areas:

  • mass mobilisation, to get the whole country behind the mission
  • extension to very large scale, through strategic and ecologically based pest management
  • continuing improvement to current toxin- and device-based (e.g. trap) approaches
  • improved surveillance, detection and monitoring
  • better lures to increase predator interaction with control and surveillance devices
  • exploring the potential of new genetics-based pest control approaches
  • national coordination.

Since 2012 huge progress in large-scale projects has been made through initiatives such as Project Janszoon in Abel Tasman National Park, Cape to City in Hawke’s Bay, and more recently the Taranaki Mounga Project. The investment in public conservation land administered by DOC is underpinned by the Tomorrow Accord between the NEXT Foundation and the New Zealand Government, which requires agreed biodiversity outcomes to be maintained by government in perpetuity. DOC also increased its predator control work through the Battle for Our Birds initiative, designed to target predator populations following beech mast seeding events to prevent predators from irrupting to very high levels. This initiative has since been broadened to cover all DOC’s landscape-scale small-mammal pest suppression and eradication activities. Outside of public conservation land administered by DOC, commitments to landscape-scale predator management are also being reflected in regional council pest management plans and long-term plans, notably in Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay.

The Predator Free New Zealand Trust (PFNZ), founded in 2012, has made a significant contribution to building community interest and capacity in the predator free by 2050 movement. Many new community-driven initiatives focusing on predator management have sprung up in recent years, such as Predator Free Wellington and Predator Free Dunedin. Supporting these initiatives are new computer-based management tools to help the planning, monitoring and reporting of community-based trapping, such as TrapNZ and CatchIT. Most recently, Squawk Squad, funded by the Kickstarter Campaign, has helped lead the way into social media and education, teaming up with Goodnature Limited and Encounter Solutions to provide crowd-sourced remotely monitored trapping solutions for sanctuaries, and with DOC and other partners in engaging 40 000 children across 800 schools during Conservation Week in 2017.

Research planning, funding and progress have likewise come a long way since 2012. During establishment of the New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge (BHNSC) research project on small mammal management, confidence in the predator free by 2050 goal was built through a stakeholder survey and a joint stakeholder−researcher workshop. Survey respondents highlighted possums, rats and stoats as the top three invasive mammal pests of concern (Figure 1), with priority given to landscape-scale management, eradication, and surveillance/reinvasion. This gives strong confidence that the majority of conservation stakeholders in New Zealand support the predator free by 2050 initiative. In the subsequent BHNSC joint stakeholder/researcher workshop, the research and strategy priorities from the 2012 Pest Summit were independently reflected and fleshed out (Figure 2).

With the remit to invest in potentially game-changing research, the BHNSC initiated work on an improved lure for stoats, biosensors for vertebrate pest surveillance, sequencing the full genome of the brushtail possum, foundational exploration into the feasibility of new genetics-based pest control approaches, the development of a possum-specific toxin, and societal perspectives and the bioethics of mammal pest control. This complemented ongoing work on lures and specific toxin development for other pests, and ongoing development and improvement of a range of traps, conventional toxins, and surveillance approaches across the pest research and management community. Recognising the importance of close-to-market investment to get improved tools into the hands of conservation practitioners, the BHNSC also reviewed priorities in this area. Some of these have already been picked up by DOC’s Tools to Market research fund, with recent support for predator-selective and rat-specific toxins, and long-life rat lures.

Complementing the traditional approaches in research on pest management is Zero Invasive Predators Ltd (ZIP), a not-for-profit research and development organisation formed in 2015. ZIP is employing an agile adaptive management model to develop approaches to eradicate invasive mammals and then defend predator-free areas from reinvasion without relying on predator-proof fences. After initially focusing on peninsulas, ZIP are now using remove-and-protect methodologies in mainland areas. So far they have successfully cleared 2500 hectares, and aim to push this up by an order of magnitude over the next 2 to 3 years.

Completing the picture is Predator Free 2050 Limited (PF2050 Ltd), formed in November 2016 to coordinate partnership approaches to large landscape projects and breakthrough science. It aims to supercharge local and regional efforts to scale up predator suppression and eradication, working closely with community groups and regional and city councils, and to focus research efforts to achieve a breakthrough science solution capable of eradicating at least one small mammal predator by 2025. This momentum is not just national: the international conservation community once again sees New Zealand as leading the way, with our Predator Free 2050 programme serving as a founding initiative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Honolulu Challenge on Invasive Species, also launched in 2016.

The science strategy for PF2050 Ltd was constructed by a team of 10 experts convened by the BHNSC and independently peer reviewed, with the goal of complementing existing efforts to give the whole research portfolio the best chance of achieving the 2025 goal. In line with this strategy, PF2050 Ltd is now investing across four research programmes:

  • ‘Environment and Society’ is building on work underway in the BHSNC to explore social and cultural views on predator eradication, and to confirm and expand our understanding of the environmental and ecological consequences of this programme
  • ‘Best Use of Existing Approaches’ is testing whether advances made with currently employed tools and approaches can make eradication at the landscape scale possible, initially for possums and building on developments in the eradication of bovine TB
  • ‘Exploring New Approaches’ is building on foundational work in the BHNSC to address knowledge gaps with regard to risk, benefit and the technical feasibility of new genetic approaches, enabling an informed consideration of their potential
  • ‘Computer Modelling’ underpins the strategy and is developing shared tools that all communities and agencies contributing to Predator Free 2050 can use to design, monitor and improve the right approach for their goals and environment.

The need to concentrate effort in the Predator Free 2050 programme was driven home by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s Taonga of an Island Nation: Saving New Zealand’s Birds. This report, released in 2017, highlighted the fact that over 80% of native bird populations are in decline, primarily due to the impacts of introduced predators.

The huge progress made since 2012, summarised above, shows that New Zealand is well on the way to meeting this need. There is now real confidence in a national partnership between iwi, communities, business, researchers and government following a common agenda to eradicate the introduced predatory mammals critically threatening native biodiversity.

This perspective on the current state of New Zealand’s building momentum for Predator Free 2050 is not a comprehensive review. The author apologises to agencies and individuals also making important and valuable contributions but not specifically mentioned.

Professor Dan Tompkins (Project Manager Science Strategy, Predator Free 2050 Ltd)

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