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Simon de Little

The latest peer-reviewed paper released by the Tasmanian Fox Review Panel examines the notoriously problematic 1080-baiting program. To my mind, this is the area that galvanised the most potent criticism of the FEP from the general public and the analysis conducted by Marks et al demonstrates that such widespread condemnation was indeed, well founded.

Even by the FEP’s own standards, outlined in the 2009 NZ Landcare review, the baiting program was an abject failure. No attempt was made to target urban areas (urban and semi-urban areas were hot-spots for foxes according to the FEP), the time limit prescribed didn’t come close to being honoured and increasingly hostile and sceptical landowners continued to refuse the Program access to their private grounds resulting in massive gaps in the planned target areas.

We can see now that this program was a complete waste of money and resources. The material put together by the Panel proves this unequivocally. Put simply (as much of it comes across as jargon to laymen such as myself) the baiting program never had a chance of success.

What’s more, the FEP refused to take on board growing scientific consensus that without an effective method of monitoring the outcomes of the field work, there was no way on God’s green Earth that they could ever claim to have achieved their stated goals.

Another issue raised by the Panel points to historic attempts to use 1080 baiting as an eradication method in land masses of much smaller scale than Tasmania have been limited at best, in their success. What could possibly have possessed the Fox Program to think that it could work on a much large island where the target species can’t even be located?

The lack of data collection by the FEP is astounding. How could they test the effectiveness of baiting large areas of land without observing what, if anything was taking the baits and the effect it had upon said scavengers? Well, they just pointed to other studies and extrapolated their data as though it would magically coincide with our unique landscape and ecosystems. I’m no scientist (as should be quite apparent) but you don’t have to employ a great deal of logical thinking to work out that such an approach is deficient in precision to say the least.

These arguments are not new. We’ve been over them many times employing various levels of hysteria and delved occasionally into unqualified over-statement.  But as with the other material put together by the Review Panel, we are now blessed with virtually unimpeachable (so far, anyone wanna have a go?) scientific data.

The political response to this work has been predictably uninspiring.  A few weeks ago in Parliament the Greens’ Cassy O’Conner took to task fumbler-general Mark Shelton over his referencing Forestry Tasmania’s scientists when defending using wombats as bio-mass or some such ridiculous policy.  When Ms O’Conner was quizzed in the twittersphere about why she paid so little mind to the opinions of independent scientists on the Foxes while the Forestry ones were obviously not to be trusted her all-too-predicable response was that the Program had been acting wholly in a Precautionary manner.

Square one revisited.

Not only had the Greens member displayed complete disregard for the qualifying tenants of the Precautionary Principle; her comment completely ignored the plethora of evidence produced by learned scientists such as Dr Marks that the time for such an approach had passed many years previous. You can’t just keep saying it ad infinitum.

But progress has been made. Baiting has stopped. Sightings (largely prompted by media reports) are becoming less frequent. Scat surveys continue but with a wider view to monitor species other than the one they could never find.

What remains is for politicians, public servants and the polity in general to rise above past bickering and learn from our mistakes; lest we risk leaving scat where we eat the next time (and there will be a next time) that the fox alarm goes off. Fortunately we have the tremendous work of the Tasmanian Fox Review Panel to guide us on that path.

• Clive A. Marks, Ivo Edwards, David Obendorf, Filipe Pereira and Graham P. Hall: Did ‘precautionary’ 1080 baiting have a realistic potential to eradicate Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) in Tasmania without in situ monitoring data?

Summary

Anecdotal reports in 2001 suggested that the European Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) had been deliberately released in Tasmania and thereafter an eradication programme using buried fluoroacetic acid (1080) baits was believed to be a necessary precautionary action until mid-2013.

Prerequisites for the successful eradication of foxes relate to the scale of the undertaking and the ability to collect in situ data such as the distribution and abundance of the target population and measures of the efficacy of the control technique.

Previously, 1080 baiting has demonstrated only limited potential as a fox eradication technique on islands when used on a scale between 685 and 2141 times smaller than Tasmania. In the absence of empirical monitoring data confirming the distribution or abundance of extant foxes, buried baiting was targeted to specific landscapes believed to be preferred by foxes.

No empirical data was collected concerning the in situ effectiveness of baiting in Tasmania, yet an a priori assumption of lethal efficacy was extrapolated from four heterogeneous mainland studies to suggest that foxes would have only a 0.23 probability of surviving each bait treatment.

We show that these studies were unrepresentative of Tasmanian baiting methods used and influenced by imprecise fox population surveys and misreported data. Overall, in the absence of key population monitoring and efficacy data, the ‘precautionary’ baiting strategy adopted did not have a realistic potential to eradicate fox incursions in Tasmania, nor is it an appropriate risk management strategy for other large offshore Australian islands.

Contingency plans to counter fox incursions on offshore islands must address the currently inadequate technical capacity to reliably detect and monitor low-density fox populations, which is an essential component of successful fox eradication.

Download to read:

HERE

Or read on the scientists’ website, http://www.tasmanianfox.com :

http://www.tasmanianfox.com/Tasmanian_Fox/Publications.html

Tasmanian Times’ writers have been been debating foxes for a decade, copping significant derision in the process. TT also was the vehicle for Dr David Obendorf’s $5000 Fox Reward which ran for several years ( $5000 Fox Reward ends ... after 50 months ). Most of the stories are archived under David Obendorf here or Clive Marks here

• Jack Jolly, in Comments: It occurs to me that something very positive has come out of this already. Without playing down the obviously incredible effort and personal cost that has worn by individuals active in this issue (I can only echo Dr Bleaney’s words), it seems that the process of public debate and engagement using the Tasmanian Times has been a powerful model of citizen engagement with turbocharged balls. The Tasmanian MSM failed as the independent devil’s advocate needed to keep DPIPWE honest. That is troubling for Tassie democracy. Yet the slack was well and truly picked up by TT and engaged citizens who refused to be idle cynics and passive spectators of a failed process and compliant media.  ... I suspect that this is just the beginning. Incompetent government oversight and spin is no longer an alternative to substance. In the case of the fox farrago I think it really pissed a lot of people off. But I’d also like to pay tribute to Dr Obendorf and Mr Rist for a tenacious effort. It may not have been pretty at times, but is participation in the democratic process supposed to be?

• David Obendorf, in Comments: [This story featured prominently in all ABC radio News bulletins that morning and yet the ABC did not link it to any online story through their webpages. As I had missed the earlier more detailed news bulletin on this item [see above] I emailed the ABC journalist who had contacted me to tell me that the ABC would be reporting on the publication of our science review paper. I suggested to her that the matter was of significant public interest to all Tasmanians and perhaps warranted at least some referral to a text version online at ABC Local News and perhaps the link to the review paper itself. I have received no reply. This transciption above was provided to me from an audio file obtained through the Parliamentary Library in Hobart.