Even for Wellington, it was bloody awful weather. A small, sodden group of anti-1080 protesters huddled against a biting southerly, the rain melting the slogans on their placards. Over the wind, they strained to hear New Zealand First list MP Richard Prosser, who told them he had a few “new truths” to share about 1080.
Why? Because, he tells the protest, it’s time to quash “these myths and lies and propaganda that we’ve been fed ... while this horrendously unjustifiable poison has been dumped on us from overhead”.
For starters, claims Prosser, native bird deaths from 1080 “are much higher than what they say they are”. I was keen to know more about this scandal, because at the time — September 2015 — I was researching a book about that. I asked Prosser for details. “Some of that is ongoing,” came the secretive reply, “and is quite sensitive in terms of informants wanting to maintain confidentiality. I will update as I am able, but obviously that depends on people being willing to come out in the open.” No updates ever came.
In fact, Prosser has been bafflingly reluctant to reveal any of his “truths”. He declined an interview request for this piece. Over months, I put questions to him about New Zealand First’s pest control policy — announced by Winston Peters in March this year — but the Agriculture and Primary Industries spokesman flatly refused to answer them. When I put them in writing to New Zealand First’s media team, they were ignored for months, before I eventually received a rehash of various press releases.
Why so evasive? Prosser is disinclined, apparently, to blink under the bright light of fact-check: a quick look over his policy shows that, while it’s heavy on dog-whistle commands to the broadest possible spectrum of aggrieved hunters, chemophobes and science deniers, it pushes a few myths of its own. Prosser — and Peters — continue to insist that “aerial (1080) costs well over $100 million every year”. This isn’t just wrong; it’s wrong by an order of magnitude. In fact, outside of a mast year (when synchronous mass-seeding in the bush drives predator numbers through the roof) DOC, Ospri and regional councils spend less than $15m a year on aerial 1080.
Prosser has been publicly corrected on this more than once, yet continues to make the claim, adding that “Some of that money should have gone into research, and it simply hasn’t.” Wrong again.
More than $14m has been spent on research into pest control technology over recent years. We know that MBIE’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge puts up $5m a year for contestable and tagged pest control research, such as the Pest Control in the 21st Century programme. That Auckland University researchers have been given $1.5m to sequence the possum genome; that successive Governments put $6m into stoat-specific research; that DOC invested heavily in the Goodnature self-resetting trap, that Predator Free 2050 has pledged a one-for-two funding support package of $28m over four years for more pest control, and that public/private ventures like Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) are currently spending many millions more on pest control R&D.
Peters promised in March that he would “Immediately allocate adequate resourcing, and initiate proper and urgent research, into alternatives to 1080”.
But if all this isn’t “proper” research, what is? We don’t know, because he would not elaborate, but self-resetting traps are now working well, and proving themselves in ever-bigger field trials. The Spitfire — an autonomous device that daubs pests with a lethal dose of toxin when they enter it — has been shown to work. ZIP has gathered reams of data on how to clear tracts of pests and keep them that way, about how pests behave, what devices work and which don’t. And that new toxins — PAPP, specific to stoats and cats, norbormide for rats, zinc phosphide for possums, and a possible successor to brodifacoum, “C+C” (coumatetrlyl and cholecalciferol), are all showing promise, and in some cases, moving towards registration.
Prosser has been very busy on Facebook, assuring the anti-1080 crowd that, should New Zealand First gain power, 1080 will be gone by lunchtime, or at least in “a few weeks”. He has put DOC, OSPRI and regional councils “on notice”, that the option of 1080 will be denied them. Is that a promise he can keep? The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is clear that, before he could get 1080 declared a banned substance, Prosser would have to prove grounds for a scientific reassessment of the pesticide. But this has already been done. In 2007, the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) considered whether New Zealand should keep using 1080, based on new evidence and experience. Chair Neil Walter called it the “ … largest and most challenging exercise ever undertaken by ERMA New Zealand.” There were two weeks of hearings around the country, and more than 1400 submissions were filed. ERMA – now the EPA – concluded that “The benefits of the availability and use of 1080 on the environment outweigh the adverse effects … Equivalent benefits are not seen from the alternative cyanide and trapping scenario.”
It might pander to the ire of a few hunters, excite the fervour of the conspiratorial, but it would hold our native wildlife hostage to political fortune. It throws the common heritage of the remaining 4.4 million New Zealanders — and the birthright of many millions more — under a bus, for maybe a couple of thousand votes.
Prosser, then, would have to convince authorities that he had some genuinely new and monumental evidence to overturn that finding, and he plainly doesn’t.
He might instead try to force a majority party to halt aerial 1080 operations, assuming New Zealand First ended up wielding sufficient leverage in the house. Once again, he’s declined to elaborate, but that would be a risky gambit. 1080 has enjoyed six decades of rock-solid, cross-party support, partly because the public know it’s one of the few things standing between their biodiversity and a forest full of rats, and ministers know that they know. The nation is further motivated by the idea that we could one day be rid of possums, stoats and rats for good – the proposition put by Predator-Free 2050. It would be all but politically suicidal to cow to Prosser’s demands.
But let’s assume for a moment that he succeeds. How does New Zealand First mean to halt the catastrophic loss of biodiversity if not with 1080? The B-plan, says Peters, is to “Immediately provide adequate resourcing for, and initiate, trapping and other ground-based measures for pest control, in all areas where this is known to be feasible.”
So what does he mean by “feasible”, by “all”? Again, he’s refused to say, but Prosser has claimed publicly that “No part of New Zealand is inaccessible. If they can fly people in [to the bush] to do tests and counts, they can fly them in to set traps.” He’s even suggested that drones could do it for us. “We believe ground control can be as effective as aerial drops,” he told a gathering in December 2016. Really? Let’s do a few sums: take Kahurangi National Park, large tracts of which received aerial 1080 in Battle for Our Birds operations in 2014, and again earlier this year, when nearly 300,000 ha — roughly half the park —were treated at a conservative cost, says DOC, of between $22 and $27 a hectare. Let’s go with the higher figure and call it $8.1 million.
Now let’s do that with traps instead. DOC’s best trapping practice for rats calls for between two and three traps in each hectare. Let’s split the difference and say 2.5.
So, over 300,000 ha, we’ll need 750,000 traps for rats (we’d need way fewer for stoats — only 60,000 — but presently, no lure exists that will attract both pests at the same time, so we’d need to either add more traps, or swap out the lures every now and then). Now we need another 300,000 separate traps for possums. I paid $210 each for my Goodnature traps, but the company has said it would discount them for such a large order. In the past, it’s charged DOC $124 a trap, so let’s use that, which leaves us a bill for a shade over $130m.
Now we need to buy the lures, then pay staff or contractors to carry the whole lot into the bush. In a North Island trial, in relatively easy country, installation costs came to $15.20/ha, so for our example, that would add at least another $4.5m. Then the traps need to be serviced at least every six months. DOC has said that it would need to cut kilometres of tracks and build extra huts. Then there’s helicopter time, health and safety compliance, consumables... you’re looking at a minimum of $150m — pretty much DOC’s entire annual natural heritage budget — to tackle just two pest species in one half of a single National Park.
And let’s not overlook, as Prosser apparently has, that the bill would come on top of the $85m that already gets spent on ground control in New Zealand every year. ‘If it costs more,’ he told a Takaka public meeting in 2015, ‘so be it. We have to find a way around that.’ No such “way” exists: the chances of Treasury approving “immediate” and “adequate” funding for Prosser’s business case are less than zero. Also, he has yet to explain how he means to deal with mice, ferrets, cats, hedgehogs, pigs and goats (he doesn’t consider deer to be a pest), many of which 1080 tackles in a single hit.
People who know about trapping will tell you this is a ridiculous comparison anyway, because nobody except Prosser is seriously suggesting that, in such country, over such swathes, traps and 1080 are interchangeable. And they’re dead right. Experts know that 1080 and traps are two different tools that produce two different outcomes, and that each has advantages according to circumstances and budgets. They know, too, that a study by ZIP at Bottle Rock in the Marlborough Sounds found that only 30 percent of ship rats will even enter a DOC 200 trap, and nor will a greater percentage of stoats. They understand — where vote-mongering politicians evidently do not — that it’s not about traps or 1080; it’s about traps and 1080. About using both to best effect.
Peters, however, continues to insist that poisoning has failed: “1080 has been spread all across this country for nearly 60 years, yet we still have the problems it is meant to have solved. Clearly it isn’t working ... No other Party seems to be able to understand that. New Zealand First does.”
Actually, other parties do understand it. What’s more, they’ve grasped the difference between eradication and control — the most basic distinction in any pest control policy. In fact, less than eight per cent of the conservation estate gets 1080 in any given (non-mast) year, on rotation. So Peters would’ve done well to contemplate what would happen to his front lawn if he only mowed a different fraction of it once each year.
Did New Zealand First ever mean to think this policy through? I repeatedly asked Prosser for the operational details and costings of his trapping proposal, but he refused to furnish them. Is that because they don’t exist? This “policy” smacks of a late-night whiteboard draft scripted to appeal to the broadest possible swathe of the disaffected, the fearful, and the conspiratorial. But it’s critically vulnerable to fact-check.
The real cost of New Zealand First’s hunters-first vision of pest control is higher than the hundreds of millions — it is the kiwi, the mohua, the rock wren, the orange-fronted kakariki. It’s the giant powelliphanta snail. The short-tailed bat, the wood rose.
Prosser continues to insist that trapping — and somehow, sales of possum fur — will prevent the estimated loss of some 26 million native bird eggs and chicks to predators every year, but his is a policy prescription for aggravated extinction. It might pander to the ire of a few hunters, excite the fervour of the conspiratorial, but it would hold our native wildlife hostage to political fortune. It throws the common heritage of the remaining 4.4 million New Zealanders — and the birthright of many millions more — under a bus, for maybe a couple of thousand votes.
The fate of 1080, Prosser told conservationists on his Facebook page in October last year, “will be decided via the political process. And your camp is going to lose ... mine is going to win. And not very long after that 1080 will be gone, and you lot will all need to find other hobbies.
“... it won’t be you or your ilk making the decisions around it — it will be me and mine. Get used to that fact.”
This is one of the most overt manifestations yet in New Zealand of the new, Trumpian, brand of political populism; in which facts and figures are mown down by fallacy and fear. Where science denial sets policy. In which the bullseye is the beliefs of a susceptible few, rather than the interests of the many.
* Dave Hansford is the author of Protecting Paradise — 1080 and the fight to save New Zealand’s wildlife.