1080 Poison and Responsible Conservation

Introduction by Flow Ir In, MA, MSc, OMC LM

1080 certainly works, in one sense. It kills a lot of animals. Birds, too, as well as insects, bacteria, fungi etc. An increasingly embattled DOC (Department of Conservation) uses every tool in the marketing book to try and keep the public onside, but there is growing awareness of the huge issues around 1080 use, and the real costs of it.

1080 is a tool whose use is demanded by conservation policy. Ultimately it is that policy that must be re-considered in light of its long history of failure and the desperate place native NZ is now at because of it. Simply banning 1080 will only shift the problem to the next toxin that DOC decides to blanket the country with. Already there are a huge variety of pesticides and herbicides that pollute our forests, waterways and beaches.

The real answer is a new conservation policy, based on sustainable principals that are congruent with the processes of nature and time, as opposed to fighting them.

To get a wide understanding of the issue, we need to ask and answer many questions. It is important not to simply pick an enemy and focus on how to best attack it, since the war may be lost whilst chasing the wrong target.

These are the questions I’m going to ask, and answer:

What is current policy?

What does that mean, in respect to known processes of evolution, adaptation and population dynamics?

What is a food chain? What is an apex predator? What animals fill those roles in NZ?

What happens when you remove a single animal in an ecosystem, even if that animals was only recently introduced? (ref: cats/ rabbits)

What about hypocrisy? beetles, diseases introduced to control other agents when that is the root cause of our current possum situation.

Then, looking more specifically at 1080:

How effective is it, in terms of initial target knockdown and in terms of long-term population dynamics?

What are the non-target actions?

Is there a point at which we can ever say “we have dropped enough poison”?

What are the long-term outcomes of the current conservation policy?

Once those questions have been addressed, we are going to put forward a new conservation framework for discussion, one that we hope can be refined into something that will serve NZ well, restore faith in our conservation bodies, and heal the rift between state and folk. As well as prevent the unknowing loss of even more of our natural taonga.

What is current policy?

(taken from https://www.doc.govt.nz/…/p…/conservation-general-policy.pdf)

Policy is built on a number of Acts of Parliament. Namely:

Conservation Act 1987
Wildlife Act 1953
Marine Reserves Act 1971

Reserves Act 1977
Wild Animal Control Act 1977
Marine Mammals Protection Act 1978

The introduction states: “Why conserve?
He kura taiao e hokia. ‘A treasured home will always be revisited’ We conserve and care for places and species because we value them.”

It is our position that killing native species in large amounts in order to ‘protect’ them is in direct contradiction to this statement.

The key section that drives the poisoning is the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy (NZBS) (here: https://www.doc.govt.nz/…/new-zealand-biodiversity-strateg…/)

In this, DOC defines ‘biodiversity’ to be limited to ‘native biodiversity’. It states that it wishes to “Halt the decline in New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity”. Specifically, to “Maintain and restore viable populations of all indigenous species and subspecies across their natural range and maintain their genetic diversity.”

These last two words are very important, and fundamentally underly our opposition to the use of non-specific poisons in wildlife management.

DOC also wishes to “maintain the genetic resources of introduced species that are important for economic, biological and cultural reasons by conserving their genetic diversity.”
So there is someone, at least, in DOC who understands the importance of a diverse genetic pool for each species.

They then claim “The uniqueness of much of New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity means that responsibility for its continued existence is entirely ours; it cannot be conserved in nature elsewhere in the world.”. This is an unfounded claim, since experience shows that translocated species often thrive in new niches. There would not be vast industrialised death departments globally, killing non-native species, if this was the case. As DOC says:

DOC acknowledges that “Biodiversity is New Zealand’s biological wealth.”.

We agree.

We then get some scary numbers, 32% of land and freshwater birds , 18% of sea birds, 40% of frogs, twelve invertebrates, one fish, one bat, one reptile, and maybe one plant extinct since Maori arrived.

These losses are not due to predation, but in the main due to over-hunting and habitat destruction. Directly due to human activity. Doc say “Maori adapted to their new environment and developed conservation practices that governed their use of natural resources. This included the use of tikanga (protocols), tapu (sacred prohibitions) and rahui (temporary restrictions) to control the areas, seasons or species harvested. At the heart of Maori environmental management is the sustainable use of biological resources.”

This seems sensible to us. It is worth noting that massive use of poison is not included in the developed Maori tikanga.

The rest of the document outlines the challenges, but does not address the current poisoning practice, or the scientifically ridiculous “predator free” idea.

What appears to be the essence of the strategy is thus:

“This Strategy is about managing threats to New Zealand’s total biodiversity — both introduced and indigenous. A significant portion of our export wealth — critical to our ability to protect our indigenous biodiversity — is generated by the sale of our introduced biodiversity. And our biosecurity threats are often common to both. Introduced biodiversity is neither all “good” nor all “bad”; threats or benefits of individual introduced species most often depend on the situation in which they arise. The interactions between the introduced and indigenous elements of our biodiversity are complex and dynamic and need to be understood and addressed if we are to achieve our biodiversity goals.”

So, no clear ‘conservation policy’, but rather a vague and loose framework.

What is the reality?

DOC has a ‘poison schedule’, which includes a range of devastating herbicides, insecticides and metabolic toxins that are applied both on the ground and from helicopters and planes, with a massive by-kill.

What does that mean, in respect to known processes of evolution, adaptation and population dynamics?

DOC understands the issue, at least at some level. Genetic Diversity is key. For a species to survive it must have a range of genes available in its gene pool, in order for individuals to have a chance of surviving when disease or environmental change strikes. To have too small a gene pool, due to population loss, is called a “population bottleneck”. A species that has reached such a bottleneck is at extreme risk of extinction. Until recently, for example, cheetahs were very close to extinction. Most species that reach such a bottleneck do not survive (post.queensu.ca/~biol310/Lande.pdf)

If you are interested in learning more about population genetics, here is a good primer: https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/her…

The problem with poisons is that they don’t target one thing. They have a huge ‘collateral’ cost. And that cost is the diversity of genetics of our native species, that suffer 10-60% losses in each drop.

What is a food chain?

What is an apex predator?

What animals fill those roles in NZ?

Primer here: https://www.khanacademy.org/…/intro…/v/ecosystems-and-biomes

“A food chain is a linear sequence of organisms through which nutrients and energy pass as one organism eats another. In a food chain, each organism occupies a different trophic level, defined by how many energy transfers separate it from the basic input of the chain.”

An Apex predator is one that lives on the ‘top’ of the chain, although that’s a very human understanding, since they also fall prey to disease, parasites and infection.

In NZ, our ‘apex’ predators are birds. Falcons, owls, hawks, and parrots are the main raptors, with various other birds also getting in on the game, depending on the prey. We used to have the largest eagle in the world, which evolved in conjunction with the moa.

What happens when you remove a single animal in an ecosystem, even if that animals was only recently introduced? (ref: cats/ rabbits)

https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/science/17isla.html contains a cautionary tale, that demonstrates just how quickly dynamic population balance establishes, and the enormity of the changes that removing a single part of that new dynamic can have. Some parts of DOC seem to wish to turn back time, to before Maori arrived here. That’s impossible and the quest will have unforeseen negative results.

What about hypocrisy? beetles, diseases introduced to control other agents when that is the root cause of our current possum situation.

As George Santayana said: “”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.””. The rest of us are forced to watch. The history of rapid species change in NZ is due to human relocation of other species. Every species that is now considered a ‘problem’ was once a ‘solution’. We would like to break free of the cycle of death and destruction by not bringing more trouble here deliberately.

Then, looking more specifically at 1080:

How effective is it, in terms of initial target knockdown and in terms of long term population dynamics?

This is an incredibly important question. Does it work?

Well, yes. it does kill things. It kills rats if you are looking at those, it kills possums, if you are looking at those. It also kills deer, pigs, skinks, weta, insectivore birds, parrots, bacteria etc. Most importantly for long term population dynamics, it kills the apex predators through secondary poisoning.

Long term, though, DOC shows clearly that you get MORE rats (double) 6 months after a 1080 drop than if you hadn’t used it at all. Which is a real shame for the ‘treasured, cherished, native species’, known and unknown, that were caught in the crossfire. (reference Vertebrate Pest Research, December 2008)

What are the non-target actions?

There is a large “unknown”. DOC knows that tiger worms, the tank of the worm world, can survive small doses of 1080. We have no studies on native worms, such as the Gippsland worm (up to 1m long) and the bioluminescent worms of the South Island. We do know that most bacteria with un-mutated krebbs’ cycles will die as they ‘biodegrade’ 1080. With bacteria, there are always a range of mutations, and mutations of the krebbs’s cycle will usually disadvantage the bacteria. In the case of 1080, though, those mutants will be the only ones that survive. This means we’ll see a shift in the balance of soil biota. In arid Australian soils taken from near the native 1080 plants, bacteria that can survive are in the majority. That shift will occur in NZ too.

Fungi can also be vulnerable this is something we have very little data on at all.

Given that trees communicate with each other through networks of soil fungi (http://www.bbc.com/…/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-in…), tree health depends on the biota (https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/…/10.…/10-0773.1), and tree seed germination co-evolves with earthworms (https://www.sciencedirect.com/…/a…/abs/pii/S0031405604702796)

What then, is the use of an ecocide like 1080 poison doing to our trees?

Non-lethal effects also cannot be ignored. We know that repeated sub-lethal exposure lead to death, and we know that there are teteragenic effects on rats.

We also cannot ignore the bird deaths. Doc pretends and dissimulates before admitting that their favourite ‘tool in the box’ does indeed kill most of the native birds in whatever region it is dropped into, and that ‘breeding successes’ afterwards are mostly due to migration. This is catastrophic for genetic diversity. There are a few papers (at last check) that show any kind of net gain in bird numbers (breeding gains vs deaths) and they have such small sample sizes that they have no statistical power.

Why then, do they want to drop more? Is it a case of an addict?

We are also flirting with the very real threat of human injury or death. No one has done a study to compare medical event records with drops, so there’s no data on correlations with human health. This is quite a serious omission. We rely instead on anecdote. Miscarriages, ‘botulism’, healthy men dropping dead and hearts being mislaid (A woman died in mysterious circumstances, with a possibility that 1080 poison was involved. Her heart was lost on the way to the lab for testing). DOC pretends that this deadly poison is as safe as ‘fish and chips’. Reprehensible.

Is there a point at which we can ever say “we have dropped enough poison”?

Simply put, never. DOC, by using poisons that lead to secondary poisoning of our raptors, ensures that the apex predator role in NZ’s ecosystems is filled not by a breeding, living, organism, but rather by their helicopters and poison buckets. As soon as they stop using their poisons, the prey and mid-level (introduced) predators breed unchecked. The more poison they use, the more raptors they kill, and the more unbalanced the ecosystems become. There is literally no exit strategy, no point at which DOC can say “that’s enough”. For this reason alone, their poison strategy should be discarded.

What are the long-term outcomes of the current conservation policy?

Speculating is our only option. We are unaware of the supercomputing systems in NZ being used to model this. Barren forests, with sudden and catastrophic disease driven collapse of genetically thinned native populations is our prediction. Native trees failing to thrive, fast breeding invasives taking over, as the soil shifts to support the more durable worms and the changed bacterial loads. We think that within 20 years, rats will be the largest biomass of any species that remains. Unless we stop and make some serious changes.

A Conservation Policy for discussion.

1) NZ species belong to NZ.
– kiwis can breed whatever they want to breed, subject only to usual rules on animal welfare.

2) NZ species are a global treasure
– Other governments can engage with NZ to set up breeding programs for whatever NZ species they want, subject only to restrictions on source of said species (no wild capture)

3) Ecosystems are dynamic, living, adaptive expressions of change. Evolution is the fundamental driving agent of all life on earth, and all environmental management processes must work with those processes, not against them.
– explicitly: the environment consists of niches, spaces into which various life forms can grow. Killing things merely empties a niche, but it does not remove that niche. Life will overflow into that niche to fill it again, inevitably. Therefore, to promote the abundance of life forms that we treasure, we need to both create new niches for them, or find ways to alter the ones they are in so that they thrive better.

Complex predator-prey dynamics are the norm. Human activity had eliminated the main top level predators in NZ. Eagles, hawks, falcons and owls. Poison continues to prevent these species re-establishing by making those niches highly toxic.

Given support, these animals will refill the predator niche once more. We can expect them to evolve into larger forms, too to address the availability of nutritious mammals like possums.

But that’s the essential problem here (and in much of the world). We either do not have or have killed the top-level predators. (re) Introducing them or supporting breeding while they re-evolve is an evolutionarily synergetic move.

By supporting the breeding and evolution of the native species that we deem important, they’ll survive, but more importantly, the ecosystems that co-evolved with them will also survive. A bird may seem like an individual thing, flitting about, but it is instead the outcome of a vast interconnected web of life, from the tiniest of soil microbes to the giant trees. Our native ecosystems evolved together, and support each other, and we need to make sure that we support the whole network.

We’ve been told that it takes too long for species to evolve in size to hunt larger rodents. We think that Gough island is a clear example that evolution can be extremely rapid. Mice, from whaling ships, rapidly evolved over 40 years to be nearly three times the size of an ordinary mouse (https://payseur.genetics.wisc.edu/IslandEvolution.htm). An owl or hawk only needs to double in size to comfortably hunt adult possums. If we stop killing them through poison use, we will have possum specialised raptors within 100 years. Combined with breeding and trapping, we can sustain our native populations long enough for this to occur.

Use of poisons does incredible harm to parts of the ecosystem we have not even thought to look at. E.Coli outbreaks in our water supplies are testament to this. They would normally be kept in check by the other bacteria, all competing for the niche. Instead, the other bacteria are dead due to systemic poisoning.

Those ecosystem networks can also extend into and intermingle with our urban developments. Native forest does not exist away from us, it can also be part of our urban environment.

It also can be global. There is no reason, beyond a sense of ownership, why NZ has to be the best home for Kiwi, or Kaka, or Weta (to name just a few examples). Just as many endangered species find NZ to be a great home (and so we murder them endlessly), so may our native species find other countries to be their perfect homes.

We understand that this is an entirely different approach to conservation.