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Academic calls for review of New Zealand’s pest strategy

Focus on killing pests may be the wrong path to biodiversity rescue, researcher says

New Zealand’s Predator Free programme may be asking the wrong research questions, a paper from a leading academic has said.

The paper, published in the New Zealand Journal of Ecology in December, said the programme suffered from a “fundamental dilemma” arising from a misunderstanding of how to protect biodiversity.

Author Carolyn King, from the University of Waikato’s Environmental Research Institute, wrote that a focus on eliminating introduced pest predators could obscure “the more complex problems of loss of ecosystem structure, year-round food resources and secure, productive nesting habitat”.

Predator Free has a NZ$300 million budget for programmes and research, overseen by a federal agency.

Shift in focus

King’s editorial was based on her presentations to the 2022 conferences of the New Zealand Ecological Society and the Australasian Wildlife Management Society. King has worked in New Zealand conservation research for 50 years.

She wrote that in New Zealand, “conservation biologists share a deep-seated grief over the historic and ongoing loss of our native biodiversity, plus an accelerating worry for its future”.

However, a focus on predator kill rates could be obscuring better solutions. “For recovery of New Zealand’s biodiversity, the right questions are not only about how to kill more pests but, more urgently, also about how to prevent rapid reinvasion of cleared areas and how to develop an outcome-based monitoring system.”

Control “from the bottom up” (such as fertility control) could be more useful than killing pests, she wrote. Some New Zealand pests, such as mustelids, are such effective breeders that “top-down” killing programmes could not match their rate of increase.

“We need to move from asking questions about how to maximise efficient killing of pests to asking different questions about how to minimise the number of pests out there to be killed,” King said.

“A future shift in focus will require re-examining our worldviews so as to better see what are the right questions to ask and what facts our research programmes should gather.”