Image for Foxes: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

I agree with quite a bit of Dr. Clive Marks’  discussion about the fox issue in Tasmania (  The fox that wasn’t there? ), but there are a few points on which I’d beg to differ.

Firstly, many of the issues Clive presents, most of which have been offered before, are considered on a daily basis by those involved with the fox program. There never was and still isn’t blind belief, but much head scratching and debate over evidence because everyone involved realizes what is at stake, be it risks to biodiversity, agriculture and wildlife tourism, money, personal effort and commitment, reputations and what makes Tasmania special.

The occasional colorful reaction by Tony Peacock and others to certain skeptics (of foxes in Tasmania) has mainly been in response to unsupported accusations of conflict of interest or worse. Whether such is worth responding to in kind is debatable, but surely even senior bureaucrats should be able to without being called bullies. Some experienced skeptics know full well that public servants are rarely able/allowed to respond to public criticism and taking advantage of that is in itself a form of bullying.

It’s important to remember the origin of the whole saga. The 1998 Burnie fox incident, where a fox reportedly came off a roll-on, roll-off container ship, followed by various sighting reports and days later a set of excellent footprints on west beach) was treated as a spot incursion that could not be tolerated even though if a female it was unlikely to be pregnant, because one never knows when another might occur. I agree with Clive that later investigations about possible deliberate introductions might have better been focused across Bass Strait. The 1998 Burnie fox was known by the crew to be loose on the ship well before it docked and its escape wasn’t officially reported until the ship had left Burnie. We all (Clive included) assume the fox entered the ship at Webb Dock but there is no evidence for that. Perhaps it escaped from some sort of container and had nothing to do with Webb Dock besides transiting. Perhaps the fox did indeed wander on at Webb Dock and the crew simply did not want schedules disrupted so simply shut up.

The current program was born of a report by English naturalists of fox calls at Longford in early/mid 2001 closely followed by a sighting report at close quarters some 10 km away by arguably Tasmania’s best field naturalist. Coming so close to the 1998 Burnie fox incident, there was a clear urgency and a Parks and Wildlife Incident Control System was activated to deal with what was hoped was at worst a local incursion (perhaps a mistake in itself). As this response formed we became aware that wildlife rangers were investigating reports of deliberate importation of litters of foxes with releases and escapes reportedly already having happened in that area and elsewhere. Much consternation resulted, but the response still focused in the Longford-Hadspen area with some distractions such as a hoax at St Helens. I was included as a part time science advisor to the ICS because of my experience with behaviour, footprints and other field sign of native wildlife (a complicating issue in the program) and assessing sighting reports of thylacine over many years by interview, field investigation and reconstruction. The investigation into the supposed import of foxes was undertaken by police under the command of Ivan Dean in this early period, and unfortunately was finished before any material evidence came to light. The response expanded as evidence accumulated (eg the Longford footprints, Symmons Plains Fox and a variety of sighting reports). In 2002 the effort moved from an ICS to be known as the Fox Free Taskforce and Dr Sally Bryant and the then Nature Conservation Branch wrote an Action Plan presenting a risk assessment and helping guide efforts. Much later the program was rebadged as the Fox Eradication Program with branch status in the Division of Resource Management and Conservation of DPIPWE, where it sits now.

Everyone I have discussed the issue with acknowledges the reports of an introduction of several litters of foxes in about 2001 (Clive’s elephant in the room) are unproven. With respect Clive, I suggest you talk to senior people in and around the fox program and check for yourself; the issue has long moved to the evidence appearing since that time. No doubt the risks of successful incursions are much reduced with changes in law, practices and community awareness but they will always exist. Since Europeans got to Tasmania there has been a dribble of foxes openly imported, the first reportedly in 1864 being released at Oatlands for sport and killed in Lake Dulverton by lurchers (hunting dogs). Other eccentric records followed, reported in matter of fact style in newspapers and gazettes. In 1890 an army officer released two in Hobart when he was about to be raided for their unauthorized import (yes foxes were a high profile thing then too), in 1910 someone handed one in to the Hobart Zoo, reportedly one of two caught wild at Scottsdale and one impoprted as a present was given to the Launceston City Park. Rangers have had people tell us they have had fox cubs in Tasmania in the 1960s and 70s, even helping rear them for release and a person claimed in this and other venues, to have seen several dead foxes killed in situ at a midlands farm. It goes on and on, past the capture of a fox at Riverside in 1972 through the incursion at Burnie in 1998 until the report of one escaping a container at 2001 Agfest. Who knows?

Of course its proper to question the quality of science in the program. A big, sometimes clumsy, new organization like the fox eradication program inevitably will have birthing pains and warts when born. At the original 2001 meeting of fox and wildlife experts to decide what to do, a meeting Clive contributed to, it was obvious that there was no easy answer and both assessing the situation and doing something about what might be found was going to be hard. Nevertheless, all agreed something had to be done. Victorian and New South Wales authorities helped with training and the former allowed us to second Tim Bloomfield (a Victorian with wide experience of foxes and their control) giving us a wealth of contacts and insight into peoples’ relationships with foxes. The issue also resulted in some acceleration of mainland research into fox control including some by Clive. The then Pest Animal Cooperative Research Centre (precursor to the IACRC) and the University of Sydney gave valuable help with survey techniques.  In recent years the eradication effort and associated research, has been guided by scientific advice from many sources focused through a Technical Advisory Panel chaired by Glen Saunders. What remains outstanding is the scale of the issue, lack of precedence and lack of a silver bullet. The fox eradication program has also benefited from some of the copious skepticism and has undergone a series of reviews with slightly different slants; the first by Tim Bloomfield, the second by Jack Kinnear, the third by the IACRC (including Stephen Harris from the UK) the fourth headed by John Parkes from New Zealand (commissioned before the Public Accounts Committee inquiry) and the latest and most publicised, by a State government Public Accounts Committee (the report from which Ivan Dean put his name to), all coming out broadly supportive. 

The “irrefutable proof” that Clive strongly advocates bears thought. Science rarely has such for anything, instead operating on a convention of 95% surety usually being adequate and 99% being preferable, making both statistical and common sense. I doubt that any type of evidence of foxes will satisfy Tasmania’s uber-skeptics in that there is always the tacky default option of insinuating fraud. Even if a den with pups was found there would still be many who would not believe it. I too am a fan of the Occam’s Razor concept of problem solving but challenge Clive’s view of its cut in this case. Is the simplest answer that there are foxes here, compared with a vast, multi-facetted web of conspiracy and/or bizarre mistakes involving a variety of people?

I’ll keep visiting THE key point; in high risk situations surely it might be very foolish to wait for “irrefutable proof” before doing something substantial. There are precedents on every level. America had clear warning that the Japanese were about to attack Pearl Harbor but because it was not irrefutable they didn’t act. More fool them. Given the risks, how can evidence conscionably be brushed aside just because skeptics don’t like it or its not “irrefutable”?

Clive vigorously advocates skepticism. I agree skepticism is very important and some has resulting in improvements to the fox eradication program. Skepticism’s exercise can also reveal a great variety of motivations amongst its practitioners which can unfortunately devalue it from what Clive describes. I really do think most skeptics have thoughtful concerns but clearly some just like to nay-say and would probably say foxes were here if authorities said they were not. Some skeptics might have a vested interest in that they are competitors of some in the program. To political opportunists operating on the “any press is good press” principal, ridiculing the eradication effort gives easy tabloid exposure. Many so-called skeptics are probably better described as fearful dog-lovers, their issue being 1080 per se and a few skeptics might sometimes be better described as cynics, the issue being a handy vehicle for revenge on the bureaucracy. Some would even seem addicted to intellectual warfare. Yes, I’ve learned to be skeptical about some skeptics.

The 1972 Riverside fox incident is most instructive, an issue most people with a strong view about foxes in Tasmania probably know nothing of. Caught accidently in a rabbit trap and killed on the spot by the trapper it was examined by authorities at Mt Pleasant. This is documented but from what I can tell, the only material evidence it ever happened is one flea in the Queen Victoria Museum. So why was nobody skeptical in 1972 and why have current skeptics not been consistent and challenged that history which now could not be proved? I think it’s simply because trust in government has slipped since then and some people are skeptical about anything government represents. As a default position this is intellectually lazy, unfair and perhaps a serious mistake.

We often hear people familiar with foxes in moderate-high densities in the UK or mainland Australia say there are no foxes in Tasmania because they have not seen any. This is of course naïve in a situation where foxes are very rare and their decision that it’s all bunkum sometimes seems made because they got tired of thinking. Others advocate a situation where there have been a few local incursions but only at ports or other particular points of entry as a result of bio-security failures, them claiming the issue is exaggerated and manipulated by authorities either as a result of unnecessary fear or for monetary advancement. Some suggest there were concerted efforts at establishing foxes about a decade ago by importing litters of cubs for all manner of reasons from creating an alternative to 1080 (for wallaby control) to revenge on ‘greenies’ and wildlife authorities for hunting restrictions in Tasmania or just because they could (ie vandalism).

Yet other people point at the big, hairy mastadon that Clive missed in his indoor pachyderm searches. We just may have had foxes here for a long time, held down by abundant devils at levels too low for detection by day-to day activities and old technology, and they may have recently increased and/or are simply more detectable because of new technology. The coincidence of material evidence of foxes and devil decline is close in both time and place (especially early on) and that should be given due consideration. Perhaps the 1972 incident and other periodic spates of credible reports (notably the sighting reports from near Ouse in 1973 and Deloraine in the mid 1990s which resulted in localized, mini taskforces) were tiny tips of a small iceberg. If so, maybe there is indeed a degree of ecological release for foxes from the demise of devils (to DFTD) and, as David Obendorf has suggested, the diminished risk to foxes from secondary poisoning by 1080 through much reduced use of the toxin for wallabies, possums and rabbits, the whole thing topped up by the occasional incursion, deliberate or otherwise.

Essentially we are discussing risk assessment. As Clive says, the consequences of having foxes fully established in Tasmania are spectacular. We are also painfully aware there is no precedent for eradicating a vertebrate pest on this scale, especially a smart one in a landscape full of food, and any attempt requires uncommon luck on top of the best techniques. We have gotten advice from the best available experts on eradication of vertebrate pests (New Zealanders and Australians at the moment, with connections to island efforts around both North and South America). Still, I’m not that comfortable with what’s in the tool box – I think we need more and improved survey and more diverse baits for one thing – I would like to see a return to using less Foxoff and more dried meat, a product the risk assessment (for native wildlife) for which I’m happier.  The amount of land where permission for baiting is not given may yet defeat the effort; one large midlands property where fox-positive scats were found even refused baiting. That’s how steep the hill is.

Clive has done much to develop better use of and alternatives to 1080 but it still seems to be the best bet for substantial control of foxes over large areas. That is unfortunate since it alienates many Tasmanians who hate 1080. There is also much debate about what foxes do in a novel landscape and what constitutes the best habitat for foxes (for baiting) in our situation and the common dilemma about what to do in rural residential and urban areas, places foxes can do very well in.

Although eyewitness reports alone have never been taken as proof of fox distribution, surely authorities are obliged to consider these accounts and present all levels of evidence to the public; indeed skeptics demand it. If sighting reports were the principal evidence relied on, then almost from day one we would have had to conclude that foxes were probably irrevocably established. At the most, recent reports accurate in detail and made by what seem credible witnesses are further investigated. If one wants to nip pest incursions in the bud, as we all agree is next best to prevention, one has to start somewhere and its usually eyewitness reports that trigger first actions. Indian Mynahs would likely be well on their way to establishment in Tasmania if people hadn’t reported seeing them flying from the ferry to Devonport a few years ago, resulting in a pair with nest and eggs being found and destroyed. Clumsy labeling (eg including sighting reports of foxes on maps labeled as Physical Evidence) is a mistake but even then, any half awake citizen can figure the difference.

I agree with Clive that the sighting reports of thylacines provide a sobering reminder of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts as evidence (something courts of law have long known) and I have used my experience with the issue as a caution to fox investigators during training. That same experience leads me to disagree with Clive’s premise that a desire for anonyminity is restricted to fox witnesses cf those for thylacines and UFOs. I can’t speak for the latter but most of the several hundred people I have talked to re thylacine insist on confidentiality citing fear of ridicule. And Clive, at times the thylacine issue has had enormous publicity – let’s not forget the 5 million dollar reward offered very publicly through the Bulletin magazine a decade or so ago, a flamboyance that produced all sorts of reports, let alone the more recent tabloid enthusiasm about claimed photos by a German tourist. Regarding foxes, authorities decided that one useful thing we might get from sighting reports is change over time, just the same as is regularly used in public surveys of all manner of wildlife and even foxes on mainland Australia. For that to be even remotely useful it had to be consistent between years – hence the program still asks people to report what they think may have been fox.

Just to complicate things, it must be remembered that the vast majority of wild animal records on data bases anywhere in the world are from sighting reports alone. No one ever disputes the old reports of thylacines which could be just as unreliable as any modern one and if foxes were indisputably in Tasmania I bet the suspicion over sighting reports would evaporate and any old report would likely be accepted by the public.

Considering the scorn heaped on anyone going public about seeing what they think was a fox why on earth would they? Indeed, it’s a common comment in interviews. I clearly remember talking to a farmer near where the Glen Esk fox carcass was recovered in 2006. We were discussing the problems of anonymous witnesses and I asked him what he’d do if he saw a dead fox. He answered

“That depends where it was.”
“What do you mean?” I said
“If it was where someone else would find it I’d go straight past” he said.
“What if it wasn’t?” I asked.
He said he’d move it to where it would be found and his reason was he didn’t want to put up with the public rubbishing.

I do not know which of David Obendorf’s summaries of evidence Clive describes as “competent”. I have seen a number of his summaries, some useful, some not since they clearly have their own biases such as accepting select eyewitness’ accounts which fit a preconceived theory of only point incursions from failures of biosecurity.

With respect Clive, I suggest not lightly dismissing material evidence of foxes in Tasmania. Simply disputing a piece of evidence because of some ambiguous aspect or gap in the chain of evidence, does not mean it is inauthentic and what I’ve seen of the scats’ contents is consistent with Tasmania. Remember none of the pre-scat DNA pieces of material evidence considered possibly or likely authentic (fox carcasses at Symmons Plains, Burnie, Lilicoe and Glen Esk , a skull, blood, footprints and a few scats with fox hair in them), nor the numerous scats with fox DNA in them have been proven inauthentic. With rare exception, the criticism of the authenticity of these items has been speculative and usually simply produced an alternative view requiring considerable conspiracy and/or bizarre mistakes, the belief in which actually conflicts with the sense of Occam’s Razor. Just because a veterinary pathologist disagrees with others about a Time Of Death (of a carcass) doesn’t mean he is right. It is an odd situation to have someone yelling at you via email that a carcass ”was not warm” when the temperature of which and ambient I had carefully measured with a perfectly good thermometer showed it was substantially warmer than ambient and clearly would have been much warmer cf ambient a short time before (in colder conditions). Also, insisting that the carcass was rotten when it clearly was not (and they had never seen it). Odder indeed for me when that same veterinary pathologist publicly implied I was somehow involved with the carcass’s appearance because it was “serendipitous” I and a colleague were in the area when it was reported. Gets even odder when I gave said inquisitor the name and contacts for my accompanying colleague, repeatedly urging direct contact for confirmation of our movements etc, contact never made.  Exactly the same happened with the fox blood at Old Beach – that same skeptic did not follow up my urging and contact information to talk directly to the Taskforce officer involved.

Certainly some of the evidence, especially with scats, is perplexing. Detection probability – the likelihood of finding a particular item (eg a scat) in a certain place given a certain effort (eg search time and method), is a very useful and tangible concept. Efforts have been made to work out such for fox scats in Tasmania using human and dog searchers and the probability is surprisingly low for both. Yes, I’m surprised that we have not found multiple scats from the same fox but we really cannot assume foxes without neighbors behave as those do those hemmed in and a more mobile fox would leave less evidence per unit area. Perhaps scats don’t last long in Tasmania and indeed, initial (and extensive) test results on exactly this suggest many scats disappear quickly. Clive Marks is certainly both qualified and entitled to judge foxes’ likely behavior in Tasmania as normal but no better so than other fox experts who say they don’t know what foxes with a dearth of neighbors would do.

Clive discusses the likelihood of a den being in Burnie if anywhere, and suggests it either does not exist or searchers are incompetent but why Burnie? That essentially requires the assumption that there have been repeated incursions there when we know of only 1 – the 1998 fox. The 2003 Burnie fox was in its prime and, in anything vaguely resembling a normal population, should have been breeding. It was not and had never bred, so there may not have been a den to find although the odd fox might have been casting about.

There actually has been an apparent fox-positive scat recorded at a bait dig. Collection protocols were not fully followed so it was not listed as definitely ‘fox-positive’ and therefore not publicly reported.

During a reconnaissance trip along a railway to consider access to properties, I once picked up a series of carnivore scats for analysis, one of which came back fox-positive. Nobody knew I was going there, so to suggest the scat was planted on spec by some bugger is drawing a very long bow. However, I do not know for sure that the scat I picked up was the one testing fox-positive since I did not sleep with it in the Launceston store then fly up to the Canberra lab with it in a briefcase chained to my wrist and stay next to it until analysis. Such lack of ultimate surety applies to virtually every aspect of science.

In no way does this reality avoid the necessity to improve techniques (eg re-photographing scats at analysis might allow useful cross checking with the original field photographs).  However, there are practical limits to improvements and suggestions by Ivan Dean to seal off sites where scats were found a la CSI Miami are fanciful. The fox mob have no authority to do such and often don’t know a scat was fox-positive until months after it was collected (let alone deposited).

There may be other options for detection of foxes such as looking for tiny traces of DNA in water courses or other focal points in the environment since pretty well every animal leaves DNA traces. But, let me guess how some skeptics would regard such since they refuse to take seriously any potentially “transportable” evidence (i.e., pretty well everything) and in practice would it be any more better than scat DNA? As such innovative methods consolidate I look forward to the possibilities for all sorts of wild animal research.

I agree that independent, expert review of the DNA analysis and associated activities would be useful and might help clarify issues and have practical benefits. I only know the basics of the DNA analysis so must defer to experts there. However, there are 23 steps I can identify between seeing what might be a fox scat through photographing, collecting, recording by GPS, collecting, labeling, storage, dispatch, re-storage, analysis, internal reporting and the report going public, pretty well every step exposed to the possibility of some form of mistake and/or manipulation. That is the norm with science (indeed all life), not an exception. So, to me it’s predictable that any sensible review of the scat processing procedures and protocols would find the possibility for errors or worse, not all of which can be eliminated by a change in procedure. Sooner or later trust is involved. Assuming that is so, the question is what then we as a community do?

Different items of evidence inherently have different levels of surety and that may well apply to within types (eg DNA analyzed scats). For instance, one person’s handwriting might be clearer and less inclined to misinterpretation of labels during transcription than others. Certainly one cannot just discard inconvenient or ‘odd’ items such as the fox-positive scat reportedly from Bruny Island. I have experimented with discarding pieces of evidence at random (i.e. not prejudiced by location) and one still can have a fox distribution quandary until only one piece of evidence is left. I believe selective belief of evidence to fit preconceptions (eg that a spot incursion(s) occurred) is a basic flaw in some skeptics’ arguments.

Good science requires the rational assessment of evidence and casting a wide net to put new records in context. In the late 1980s the parasite Trichinella (of human health concern) was discovered in a quoll near Cradle Mtn. Never minding that the speciman had been in a freezer for many months, an outbreak was assumed, triggering an emergency response. Scores of devils, quolls and possums were trapped and killed for testing, at one stage even aerial baiting the area to kill any such hosts being considered. Animal health authorities stubbornly stuck to the assumption it was a local outbreak until they tested devils from afar, more to get rid of nagging by wildlife biologists about the lack of widespread testing than anything. Well, the parasite was indeed as good as statewide and subsequent publications didn’t even mention the wrong assumption, meaning nothing was learned. It’s possible much the same “outbreak” mistake is being made with foxes by some people.

It is interesting to remember that in the early years’ efforts of this current fox response it was agreed to carry on for 3 years past the last credible material evidence – the sort of decision all pest eradications face. That modus did not take into account the broad application of a new technique – DNA analysis of scats. Besides a fox skull of unknown age, we are now 4 years since other non-scat evidence. If DNA analysis of scats did not exist and authorities stuck to the original plan we probably would not be doing broad-scale scat surveys and possibly would have packed up and gone home, for better or worse. So, whatever the wash-out of any DNA review, I don’t think those recent years have been wasted.

I have visited many fox dens on the mainland to increase my experience, even digging some out to learn more. Over the decades I have also examined many devil dens and there is little difference in most cases with those of foxes. Where foxes dig dens from scratch they can be obvious but with the number of hidey-holes in Tasmania why bother? Focusing on searching for such classic fox dens might simply create a search image that is inappropriate for Tasmania. That means that searchers really should be carefully examining what are deemed devil dens to verify they are devils’. Where foxes are very rare the dens will be even rarer and could easily be mistaken for those of devils. Finding some fox or devil dens in a high density area is easy but many are missed. Not all fox dens stink of fox either and some devil dens are every bit as messy. This brings us to a key problem – the dearth of information on assessing foxes, or indeed most wildlife, when it is very rare (American authorities are still trying to verify the Ivory-billed Woodpecker report of years ago). To my knowledge, neither Clive nor most fox researchers, have experience of foxes at the density we are contemplating, especially in a landscape without normal fox social structure. For obvious reasons of ease of data collection, the vast majority of research has been done in areas of high fox density. The nearest people have come to studying the Tasmanian situation is the tail end of local, small scale efforts at eradication where just a few foxes are left. Even then, from foxes’ points of view, the landscape is still full of fox sign so it is still different to Tasmania.

Clive rightly mentions the monetary stakes are high but how high are they? Not the 40 million bucks he reports.  My recent direct inquiry (yes, one can actually ask) shows about 20 millions spent so far – a huge amount by anyone’s measure but nothing compared to the ongoing costs of an established fox population.

When asked in 2009 by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee what I thought should be the priority with foxes in Tasmania I answered to the effect that there should be a period focusing on survey and research – finishing statewide scat surveys etc., because without such, a statewide risk assessment is incomplete. There are risks of course, if effort is taken from eradication efforts per se, but as senior DPIPWE management rightly pointed out in the early days of the response and Clive more recently, it is pointless undertaking eradication if it is truly impossible. Instead, one would have to shift to protecting key assets – one reason the mapping of genetic diversity of key at-risk species (eastern quoll, Tasmanian bettong, eastern barred-bandicoot and Tasmanian native-hen) was recently done by the fox program and collaborators.

I agree that if all of the pieces of material evidence are correct then it is unlikely we can get rid of foxes with the toolbox we have; the toolbox being techniques and how they are applied. There is constant discussion in the fox eradication program about this. But, a common reason eradication efforts (for anything) fail is because people give up too early. Giving up early to placate the coffers and/or skeptics might be the biggest mistake the whole issue could produce.

By all means robustly challenge assumptions and techniques and yes, the best result would be to have no credible evidence of foxes but for that to be tangible we have to be looking hard, wide, well and long. Examination of evidence at hand should be rigorous but must be better than just forcefully casting doubt. In all of it, be very, very sure you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.