environment

Ranger silenced after ‘emotive’ Eyrewell beetle email

The silencing of a DoC ranger fighting to save the Eyrewell beetle left the species without a voice. Scientists fear the ensuing habitat destruction spells extinction for the beetle.

A Department of Conservation ranger agitating to pull organisations together in 2013 to save the Eyrewell beetle was silenced by management.

The ranger’s email cry for help to local councils and Forest & Bird is one of the last calls from DoC to save the Eyrewell beetle from DoC - found after two Official Information Act requests made by Newsroom.

The ranger was informed he could face disciplinary action if he spoke out again. He was told “this issue is highly sensitive given the involvement of Ngāi Tahu”.

The beetle is so rare only 10 have ever been found - all in Eyrewell Forest with the last in 2005.

The scientist said he's considered writing an obituary for the species.

Eyrewell forest was returned to Ngāi Tahu in 2000 as part of a treaty settlement. Ngāi Tahu Farming chose to fell the 7000 hectares of Canterbury forest the beetles made their home in and convert the land into an irrigated intensive dairy farm for 14,000 cows.

The conversion process involving chainsaws, mulchers and shredders was described by the scientist who found the last five beetles ever collected as an effective way to destroy any insect “larger than a pinhead”. The scientist said he's considered writing an obituary for the species.

The Eyrewell beetle is on the list of the Department of Conservation's top 150 threatened species and is classed as a conservation priority. The beetle is not protected under the Wildlife Act and DoC has no jurisdiction over private land. For the majority of indigenous insect species, survival on private land is dependent on the land owner's mercy.

By 2013, DoC staff had been trying for eight years to convince Ngāi Tahu Farming to preserve some of the pine forest the beetle lived in.

The efforts appear to have ended with an “emotive and preachy” email a DoC director apologised for and a ranger was silenced over.

Eyrewell forest has now been cleared in all of the places the beetles were most recently found. An extensive trapping effort has not found any beetles since the conversion started.

The search will be abandoned next year.

Only 10 Eyrewell ground beetles have ever been found. Photo: Birgit Rhode / Landcare Research – Manaaki Whenua CC BY 4.0

The “emotive and preachy” email

The ranger sent an email in 2013 to several organisations including local council and Forest & Bird suggesting various bodies assist Ngāi Tahu Farming in setting up a drylands reserve.

“We have the financial, technical, social, and cultural ability to support NTP (Ngāi Tahu Properties) in creating such a “Dryland Reserve” to complement their dairying plans and to protect what undoubtably deserves protection so we expect the District Council to be part of that and be proud of that.”

As well as the beetle, a rare plant was at the site.

“The District Plan states that these plants need to be protected and that their populations should not be reduced in number or quality. What is occurring at Eyrewell contradicts this beyond comprehension …

“Your Council has moral and legal obligations, they must adhere to the Regional Councils Biodiversity Strategy and they must treat all landowners consistently and fairly. Ngāi Tahu Property (NTP) prides themselves on ecologically sustainability, specifically in regard to their conversion of Eyrewell Forest, however if we are to knowingly cause the local, regional and global extinction of our treasured native species, then I think questions should be asked before that happens in a way where it simply cannot happen.”

Ongoing issues

The region the DoC ranger worked in has been at the centre of allegations of managerial and staff issues including a high-profile case where former DoC ecologist Nick Head was suspended for sending photographs of a pipeline to conservation groups.

Last year Newsroom’s David Williams highlighted this incident and the cultural issues at DoC. At the time, Head told Newsroom some bosses seemed unwilling to fight to protect threatened places in case it upset relationships.

The managerial response to the ranger’s email regarding Eyrewell Forest was swift.

Within two days an apology email was sent by DoC’s director – conservation services eastern South Island region Andy Roberts to the original recipients of the ranger’s email.

Roberts apologised for the ranger’s “forceful advocacy” and said the views were “not entirely those of the Department of Conservation”.

He labelled the communication style "emotive and preachy" saying the “opinions and style of communicating are not those of the Department of Conservation”.

He said the ranger was not the lead staff member of the "Conservation Partnerships" team and should not have emailed to large groups of recipients.

The ranger later received a letter from a manager banning him from being involved with any conversations about Eyrewell:

“You are to withdraw from any involvement in the Eyrewell Forest restoration issue and leave it to [DoC staff member] to handle. This issue is highly sensitive given the involvement of Ngāi Tahu and I think it best a fresh face represent the Department.”

He was also told not to communicate with any third parties over sensitive issues without getting clearance from management.

“Should you not comply with this instruction it may lead to an investigation which could be followed by disciplinary action.”

The ranger is no longer employed by DoC for reasons unrelated to the email.

What was Eyrewell Forest is now irrigated farmland bordering a river. Red dots show approximate locations where Eyrewell beetles were found in 2005. Yellow dots are probable locations of previously found beetles. Image: Google Maps

From the sidelines

Forest & Bird’s group manager conservation advocacy Jen Miller has watched the Eyrewell beetle’s chances of survival diminish over the years.

She was a recipient of the "emotive and preachy" email, and subsequent apology from Roberts.

Her view is the ranger’s email was the result of “utter frustration” after fighting for years to save the beetle and the plants and seeing their chances of a future slip away because of inaction.

She said at the time she was more surprised by Roberts' apology email.

“It seems unusual he would go to that length given the ranger just wanted to do the right thing.”

Since the email she’s seen nothing happen.

“I think the last thing I knew was that DoC had attended the opening of the dairy farm. That’s when a became really anxious again about what was occurring.”

Her worry is DoC’s relationship with Ngāi Tahu took precedence over the beetle.

In February, Newsroom asked DoC why communication about the beetle internally or with Ngāi Tahu stopped in 2013. DoC Mahaanui operations manager Andy Thompson said he understood Ngāi Tahu Farming commissioned Lincoln University to help with restoration efforts after 2013. Thompson was not aware of what the outcome has been.

Lincoln University entered into a contract with Ngāi Tahu, a contract clause means the university is silenced about work done unless it gains permission of Ngāi Tahu Farming to speak. Official Information Act requests show the areas where the five beetles were found in 2005 have been cleared of the forest the beetles lived in. 

Trapping efforts undertaken by Lincoln University will cease next year.

Read more:

The clash between science and silence

Hello cows, bye-bye rare beetle

Dairy conversion threatens rare beetle habitat

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