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The cull before the crash

A tahr cull was carried out in Canterbury on the same morning as a fatal helicopter crash in Wanaka, the Department of Conservation confirms. David Williams reports.

Understandably, the Department of Conservation suspended its tahr cull operation after the Wanaka helicopter crash two weeks ago that killed three people, including two of its own.

What hasn’t been reported previously is that the Landsborough area of South Westland – the area set to be targeted by the ill-fated flight – wasn’t the only tahr culling operation that morning. Details of the other operation, confirmed by the department (DOC) to Newsroom, were initially posted by a 1080 poison opponent – a situation that highlights the huge crossover between the anti-1080 movement and hunters.

Wanaka pilot Nick Wallis and DOC senior rangers Paul Hondelink and Scott Theobald died after their helicopter crashed soon after take-off at Wanaka airport just before 11am on October 18. The crash has left DOC staff stunned and shocked, DOC director-general Lou Sanson has said. It’s also a further devastating loss for Wanaka’s well-known Wallis family, three months after Nick’s brother Matthew died in a helicopter crash.

DOC operations director for tahr control, Andy Roberts, who’s also the department’s eastern South Island boss, tells Newsroom that three helicopters were scheduled to begin control work on October 18. When the first of two machines heading to the Landsborough crashed, the other was stood down.

The third began work in the upper Rakaia catchment at 7am.

Raking the Rakaia

During five-and-a-half hours, 165 animals were killed out of 340 seen in the upper Rakaia and associated feeder valleys, Roberts says. Of those killed, 107 were nannies and 57 were juveniles. One younger bull was killed inadvertently while shooters were “targeting a herd of nannies in scrub”.

The helicopter took three 90-minute flights. “After stopping to refuel at 12.30pm, the crew on board were informed of the crash and ceased all tahr control operations before returning to their home base.”

The Canterbury cull hasn’t been mentioned in DOC press statements since the helicopter crash. It’s likely the department thought it was irrelevant and raising it while people were grieving would be insensitive.

Newsroom approached the department last week. It chose to delay releasing details until yesterday, out of respect for the families of the men killed. Funerals for Wallis and Hondelink funerals were held in Wanaka last weekend, while Theobald’s funeral is being held today at the Glentanner Holiday Park in Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Plan sparks petition, legal threats

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage announced the tahr control operation in September, saying she’d asked DOC to step up its efforts on public conservation land in the central Southern Alps to protect native plants. The tahr population had reached what she called “damaging levels”, with an estimated 35,000 animals on conservation land. Under its tahr management plan, signed off in 1993, DOC is supposed to keep numbers below 10,000.

The DOC cull was meant to kill 10,000 tahr, plus another 7500 to be killed by organisations that make up the Tahr Liaison Group.

The controversial plan blew up, sparking a National Party petition and legal threats from hunting groups over claims it was ill-conceived and could ruin some trophy hunting businesses. Sage – accused by her opponents of a lack of consultation – hit back, saying tahr numbers exploded because of the National Government’s underfunding of the department.

After meeting with hunting representatives earlier this month, DOC agreed to cull 6000 animals by mid-November, followed by a further assessment of what further work is needed.

NZ Deerstalkers’ Association president Trevor Chappell tells Newsroom his group supports a cull and, in fact, wanted to be part of it. A condition that arose from consultation, he says, was that no bulls were to be taken. “If that is so, then they’ve followed the consultation process.”

Details of the Canterbury cull were first posted on October 20 the Facebook page of anti-1080 campaigner Carol Sawyer, of Wanaka. Sawyer was told tahr numbers were relatively low on DOC-administered land, while mobs of up to 200 have been seen roaming private land in the Tekapo/Ohau/Omarama area.

However, Canterbury hunting guide John Royle says DOC has suddenly got a lot more tahr on its land after acquiring large swathes of land through tenure review.

Questioning the calibre

DOC confirms shooters in the Canterbury cull used .223 calibre rifles loaded with lead-free bullets, with a high copper component, to protect kea. In the past, kea are thought to have picked up lead poisoning from picking at tahr carcasses. Using lead-free bullets is an “early trial”, Roberts says, adding: “Results will be evaluated.”

(Hunters who oppose DOC’s widespread use of aerial 1080 poison drops to kill bird predators point out the irony of using non-lead bullets, when there have been confirmed kea kills from 1080.)

There are also concerns about humane killing. Hunters on Sawyer’s page questioned the efficacy of using .223 rifles to kill tahr from the air, especially with non-lead ammo. One source told Sawyer the ammunition used in the cull was “dreadful” and it took up to seven shots to kill some tahr.

Chappell, of the Deerstalkers’ Association, says non-lead projectiles are sometimes inadequate, adding: “You could end up with having wounded animals instead of dead animals.”

However, Roberts says DOC’s hunting guidelines include a “deliberate tactic of overkill”, with two or more rounds used per animal. “No animals are left behind injured. DOC uses a ‘fly back’ procedure to check all animals are dead before moving to the next group, location or catchment.”

“It affects everyone in the hunting industry, whether you’re a DOC worker or whether you’re a guide or a recreational hunter – I think we all knew someone.” – John Royle

Hunting guide Royle says tahr need to be controlled but the animals need to be managed wisely by DOC. “I think they need to do a lot more survey work and work out what the actual numbers are.” He also calls for greater access for hunters to public conservation land, in an effort to control tahr. “If you’re denying hunters access to certain areas, the numbers will build up”.

It can be a lucrative business. The average figure for a tahr hunt is about $14,500, Royle says. But some overseas hunters pay a lot more – say, $US8000 ($12,200) for a trophy animal, plus $US8000 for helicopter time.

Royle, an ex-DOC worker, knew Hondelink and Wallis, who died in the Wanaka crash. “It affects everyone in the hunting industry, whether you’re a DOC worker or whether you’re a guide or a recreational hunter – I think we all knew someone.”

Chappell, of the Deerstalkers’ Association, says members of his group’s local branches personally knew the men who died. “It was a tragedy.”

DOC boss Roberts says there’s no set time for the culling work to re-commence, but it’s unlikely to happen this year.

“While the accident occurred while the crew were heading to the site, rather than actively undertaking tahr control, we will still be reviewing procedures. Once this review is complete we will continue control work to reduce the tahr population in line with DOC’s tahr control operational plan. This may be subject to changes as a result of the review.”

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