The Bird Debate

1080 Protest sign at Mahinapua, West Coast To coincide with the Beech Mast Season of 2014-2015 the Department of Conservation will extend their predator control program in 2014 with the  $21 million “Battle for our Birds”. This will see increased aerial 1080 drops in South Island native forests to counter the expected increase in predator numbers following the anticipated beech mast season. The Government’s announcement of this programme comes when the numbers of rats and mice are expected to boom with the increase in beech seed during the mast season along with an associated increase in stoat numbers. While the stoats prey on native birds, rodents compete with them for food leaving many birds severely challenged. The additional 1080 programme adds further fuel to growing concerns from portions of the public worried about the widespread use of the poison. The safety of humans, waterways and non-target species are in the forefront of many people’s minds.

Sodium Monofluroacetate (1080) is a synthetic version of the naturally occurring plant chemical fluroacetate found in plants grown in high fluoride soils. It’s biodegradable and water-soluble compound which means it has a short active residence time in the environment and small doses can be metabolised relatively quickly. Indeed, people have been consuming the organic form of 1080 in tea for many years with no ill effects. However at high doses it will kill any animal that consumes by interfering with the major metabolic pathways preventing cells from obtaining energy and leading to organ failure and death.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment recently concluded that aerial deployment of 1080 bait is the only viable cost-effective method to control pests in the remote and rugged estates under their care. Scientific studies have shown increased survival and breeding success in native bird populations following the decline in predator number achieved by 1080 use. However, opponent’s claim 1080 will also kill non target species.  Though there have been reported deaths of native birds, the Department of Conservation maintain the numbers are low and over-shadowed by the survival and breeding success of their cohorts relieved from the predation and competition pressures of the 1080 targeted species.

Hunting and fishing are popular pastimes in New Zealand providing both food and recreation for many people. Naturally they are concerned about the effects of 1080 on their prey. Recreational hunters are also concerned that deer and other game species could be poisoned from 1080 use. One of the key issues that anti 1080 protagonists have raised is the slow excruciating death of poisoned game animals, compared to the quick clean deaths hunters aim to achieve. Fishers too are concerned about the effects on freshwater fish populations, particularly trout and eels who are known to eat mice, a species targeted by the program. Little research has been done on the effects of 1080 on New Zealand fish populations. One study of eels fed 1080 contaminated flesh showed that they had 12 times the permissible limit of 1080, but the eels themselves showed no significant adverse effect. However, Fish and Game New Zealand and the NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers are both warning people of the potential risks of eating 1080 contaminated fish.

With many dairy farmers supporting the 1080 use for the control of possums and other vectors in the fight against bovine tuberculosis there is a real tension between the economic, recreational and conservation aims in the use of 1080 for predator control. In regards to the recreational hunting and conservation arguments that surround’s 1080, both groups share some common ground. Both have a deep concern for the protection of endemic habitats and what those areas offer their divergent interests. It’s that shared concern that agencies and groups should be utilising more effectively in order to work more collaboratively. It seems that the 1080 debate will continue, with claim and counter-claim for quite some time to come.

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