The truth behind ‘tahr-mageddon’

An explosion in tahr numbers on conservation land shouldn’t be a surprise – DOC stopped monitoring them in 2006. David Williams reports.

You’d have thought Eugenie Sage had brandished a rifle and promised to shoot every last tahr herself.

Last September, the Conservation Minister announced she’d asked her department (DOC) to step up efforts to control Himalayan tahr on public conservation land. The estimated population had reached 35,000, she said, way above the department’s control plan which permitted tahr numbers to reach only 10,000.

The outrage was strong and swift – and, generally, light on fact and heavy on hyperbole. Detractors dubbed the plan “tahr-mageddon”.

National MP Sarah Dowie labelled Sage’s approach “Greens-know-best”, saying proper consultation with hunters hadn’t happened. She started an online petition – urging Sage to halt her cull “of tens of thousands of tahr” – that garnered 20,000 signatures in less than 15 hours.

Hunters themselves mobilised, raising almost $170,000 for a court injunction, suggesting the Minister was hell-bent on “destroying more than 100 years of New Zealand heritage and culture”.

From an initial cull figure of 17,000 animals, a final figure of 10,000 was accepted by Sage in October – labelled by Dowie, inevitably, as a backdown.

The arguments faded because of last October’s fatal helicopter crash. Two veteran DOC workers – Scott Theobald and Paul Hondelink – and pilot Nick Wallis died when the machine crashed in Wanaka. They were flying to Haast to shoot tahr.

Questions remain unanswered

The cull operation officially resumed last week – though DOC said yesterday bad weather had meant no shooting had actually occurred. (As reported by Newsroom, 165 animals were killed in the upper Rakaia last October. It has also shot 63 tahr in the Perth Valley catchment, in Westland, in partnership with Zero Invasive Predators.)

But many questions remain unanswered. Why did tahr numbers get so out of control? How much influence do hunters have over DOC operations? And where will this debate move to next?

Years of tahr operation reports and other documents, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act, shed some light. Hamstrung by budget cuts, and distracted by a massive restructuring, it made no serious attempts at assessing tahr numbers for years. That lack of monitoring meant, hand on heart, it didn’t know if it was abiding by the Himalayan tahr control plan, even though all the signs suggested it wasn’t.

The department turned to hunters to cull tahr, in a move that coincided with the creation of the powerful Game Animal Council. Now, the Minister appears to have tahr numbers in her sights. But there are concerns from conservation groups that DOC appears to be giving ground for no good reason.

“This hasn’t been enough to keep up with the breeding rate and the tahr population has increased year on year.” – Ben Reddiex

DOC doesn’t make anyone available for an interview but it quickly admits its mistakes.

In a statement, its director of tahr control, Wellington-based Ben Reddiex, says the department scrapped its existing tahr monitoring in 2006, because of increasing costs. That’s backed by a report to the NZ Conservation Authority last year which mentioned a “10-plus year cessation of tahr monitoring”. (Ground-based monitoring was abandoned, again, because of costs, in the early 2000s.)

The control plan, which came into force in 1993, mandates DOC report annually to the authority. Tahr operations on the conservation estate is broken down into seven “management units” and two “exclusion zones”. But for years DOC told the authority the “overall density in most management units is not known”.

A 2014/15 report to the authority stated that “given current density assessment techniques, an estimate of absolute tahr abundance at management unit scale is still not possible to achieve”. Yet, on the next page, DOC said it continued to apply tahr herd control “in places where other forms of control have not met the plan targets”.

It was a nonsense.

Observations, anecdotal reports and pellet counts gave a “general picture” of tahr density which, the report conceded, was “somewhat crude and unscientific”. The message to the authority was that DOC just didn’t have reliable tahr estimates. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it was clear tahr numbers were getting out of control and DOC didn’t have the budget, or political backing, to do much about it.

DOC figures show cull numbers, including kills by commercial and recreational hunters, varied from about 3750 and 6000 animals a year since 2012. Reddiex says: “This hasn’t been enough to keep up with the breeding rate and the tahr population has increased year on year.”

(In the 2012/13 year, 5221 tahr were killed – 62 percent of them, or 3254, by DOC. The following year, DOC killed 1148 animals, or 31 percent, of the 3751 total. In 2016/17 and 2017/18, DOC’s cull numbers rose, as offsets from aerial hunters and organised groups of recreational hunters dropped off. The 2017/18 cull of 5975 was the biggest number in at least a decade. It was also the most costly, at about $400,000, compared with $257,000 spent in 2012/13.)

Focus on veggie plots

DOC had hoped to rely on measurements of tussock grassland plots as a cheaper way to estimate tahr numbers.

Measurements started in 2011 and were reported in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the scientists said they couldn’t estimate total tahr numbers from animal counts and activities in and around 117 vegetation plots spaced across the management units. The Landcare Research-commissioned paper noted this “large uncertainty” and that its analysis was unable to meet the aims of the tahr control plan.

The Conservation Authority lost patience. In March 2015, it told DOC it was concerned over the significant effects tahr were having on tussocks and other alpine vegetation, as noted by the vegetation report. It demanded DOC produce robust estimates for tahr densities.

It promised to do that. But it took until June last year – after two summers of monitoring – for that data to be presented to the authority. (The latest work estimates the total tahr herd on public conservation land at 34,200 animals, in a 95 percent confidence range from 24,800 tahr to 47,500. Those estimates don’t include animals on private or pastoral lease land.)

DOC then came under pressure to explain to the Minister, and the authority, why numbers were so high – and how it would reduce them to the 10,000 limit.

The research results led to a tahr plan liaison group meeting on August 29 in Christchurch. According to the minutes, released to Newsroom by DOC, the purpose was to seek input from hunters and others about helping the department comply with the 1993 control plan.

Hunting groups raised concerns about the future of commercial and recreational hunting if the plan’s limits were enforced, and questioned the quality of DOC’s tahr estimates. A big worry was whether DOC planned to cull bull tahr.

DOC’s operational plan would later confirm bulls wouldn’t be culled. Reddiex says: “DOC made a decision to prioritise the control of female and juvenile tahr, and expected other stakeholders to take action on reducing the male tahr population as well as targeting females and juveniles.”

Years of neglect

Game Animal Council chairman Don Hammond tells Newsroom DOC spent years ignoring the plan. “You can’t expect to fix something in one year.”

He expects the “vast majority” of big bulls to be shot this winter by trophy hunters. “We’re saying, does it really matter if a few hundred bulls, or whatever the number is, are left for an extra few months and shot by people who place value on them, shall we say, rather than a cost?”

Under an agreement with DOC, each bull trophy has to be offset by the killing of five nannies or juvenile tahr, or by companies providing helicopter hours to the department. Hammond: “So if you take the bull away, it’s not just the bull it’s the five nannies that the department has to shoot as well.”

Peter Anderson, a lawyer for conservation lobby group Forest & Bird, points out the National Parks Act requires introduced animals to be “as far as possible exterminated”.

“The issue with bull tahr is especially prevalent in the national parks,” he says. “You can’t have zero density if you’re leaving bull tahr. That’s just not right.”

Over years of “neglect”, when the plan wasn’t enforced, Anderson says businesses sprung up that relied on high tahr numbers. Given that, he’s not surprised DOC’s coming under pressure now to keep tahr numbers high.

Walking into an ambush

Following public pressure by hunting groups and National Party MP Dowie, there was a showdown on October 1.

Minister Sage attended a meeting of the Tahr Liaison Group in Christchurch. (While conservation and recreational interests are represented, the 13-strong group is stacked in favour of hunting interests.)

Sage walked into an ambush of opposition, disappointment and anger.

Some businesses could be forced to the wall, she was told. The cull would affect “tens of thousands of families”. It’ll be harder for trophy hunters to find appropriate animals and there’ll be more conflict with recreational hunters, the meeting was told.

DOC’s science was knocked and the relevance of a 25-year-old plan questioned.

Benefits from the commercial trophy industry was talked up. Hunting tourism brought in $45 million a year, with tahr accounting for about $12 million of that. It was said this country has the only “sustainable” population of Himalayan tahr for hunting in the world.

Bottom lines from hunting groups emerged – “no males to be taken”, and a staged approach to the cull “while science builds”.

On the counter, Forest & Bird’s Anderson, who attended the meeting, said DOC was legally obliged to implement the plan and there should be no compromise.

Sage called it the most constructive meeting of the tahr liaison group she’s seen, according to the minutes. But, with a flinty edge, she noted she’ll be taking a strong interest in the situation as DOC is “bound to implement” the plan.

The next day she confirmed only 10,000 animals would be taken by the end of August this year. DOC’s operational plan, which commits about $1 million for tahr control and research, confirms its long-standing policy of not shooting bulls on public conservation land.

Culling in national parks would be a combined effort, the plan states. “It is expected that recreational hunters and the guided trophy hunters will provide concerted effort.”

Reducing time in the shooter’s seat

That sentiment’s echoed in a prominent grey box in the Canterbury Conservancy’s tahr control plan for the 2012-13 year. (Otago, West Coast and Canterbury prepared separate plans until two years ago.)

“Due to the prevailing economic outlook, the department faces financial restraints and this includes the funding available for tahr control in Canterbury,” the plan says. “The outcome means a reduction in the Canterbury tahr management budget and a reprioritisation of where work will be completed by the department and why.”

To make up the shortfall, DOC hoped to “build capacity within the various hunting sectors”, in the same way it was actively pursuing partnerships across the board to “enhance and increase” conservation work. The department would become a co-ordinator for tahr operations, the plan said, reducing its time in the “shooter’s seat of the helicopter” to reprioritise its resources to high conservation value sites.

The plan stated improved environmental performance and “net gains” in biodiversity were integral. But it shot itself in the foot by adopting a policy of not culling bull tahr on conservation land.

A push for partnerships with volunteers and corporates stemmed from years of conservation-targeted austerity. That started in 2009 with lower baseline budgets for DOC, followed by huge staff cuts, and several restructurings. Conservation work was still being done, but more was done or paid for by someone else.

The danger of cuts, reprioritising, and absenteeism – on public conservation land spread across a third of the country – is that things get missed. That includes statutory bottom lines for controlling pests, like tahr. Also, the group carrying out the work might not always have the same values or intentions as the department.

As DOC relied more heavily on hunters to cull tahr, the Game Animal Council was established. In 2012, then Associate Conservation Minister Peter Dunne, of the United Future party, said it would give hunters a greater stake in managing wild animals. The council was given powers to manage “herds of special interest”, including tahr.

DOC had to listen. That threw together two groups with seemingly conflicting views – one saw a pest, the other a valuable resource.

“This was exactly what I was hoping for when the GAC was established.” – Peter Dunne

The Game Animal Council is influential, says one DOC insider, as it’s a group appointed by the minister.

Asked if it’s influencing DOC decisions, council chairman Hammond says: “I’d love to think so.”

But he points out its mission is to protect hunting for conservation, commerce and recreation. “We try to encapsulate all those things. We’re not out there to be a ginger group. We’re out there to be a progressive and professional group, putting forward hunters’ interests but not at the expense of everything else. It’s got to be a balance.”

Former Minister Dunne says DOC had already started taking the council’s (GAC) views of the council on game management more seriously while he was in the chair. “My expectation would be for the DOC/GAC relationship to strengthen. I do not see this as a case of the GAC having too much influence on DOC's decision making, but more a case of DOC recognising the GAC's particular expertise, and working collaboratively with them.

“This was exactly what I was hoping for when the GAC was established.”

Forest & Bird lawyer Anderson tries not to point the finger, saying it’s hard to know what’s influencing DOC’s decision-making.

“What you can say with a degree of certainty is that the law isn’t being complied with, in respect to tahr management. Whether that’s the result of pressure being put on by the Game Animal Council or the Deer Stalkers’ Association, or DOC just not fulfilling its job because it wants to spend the money elsewhere, that’s not a particularly important issue for us.

“It’s not doing its job, and we want to make sure that it does.”

Where to next?

Submissions by hunting groups to DOC’s operational plan for this year suggest where the debate will go next.

DOC’s science needs to be peer reviewed, one submission says, suggesting its tahr estimates aren’t accurate. But hunters can’t have it both ways. If the science isn’t settled and it take years to establish the tahr population, the government will have time to reduce tahr numbers to 10,000 animals.

That’s not what the Game Animal Council wants. Hammond says the 1993 tahr plan has to be reviewed – sooner rather than later. He says DOC has agreed to review the plan, but Sage’s office says a review is “not on the agenda at present”.

While he’s hesitant to say 10,000 tahr is too low, Hammond says more work needs to be done to ensure that’s the right number.

“What is the number that the conservation estate collectively, and the pastoral leases and private land, can sustain, in terms of our conservation values? I don’t know whether that number’s 5000, 10,000 or 50,000. The work needs to be done to understand what is the number.”

Sage wants low numbers of tahr, Hammond suggests, while hunters want higher numbers – “they don’t want high numbers because you end up with rubbish animals”. “So the real debate is where do we find that centre ground where our conservation values are protected but there are enough animals out there to keep hunters enthused and active and interested.”

Is there wiggle room? Not according to Forest & Bird lawyer Anderson.

The evidence is that tahr are causing damage to ecosystems on conservation land, he says, and there’s a statutory plan which says numbers should be culled to 10,000 animals. “I’m not sure what the principled basis for any negotiation would actually be.”

Hammond says the Government, including the department, has offered concessions to professional hunters, encouraging them to bring overseas visitors to the country. “You could almost argue the department’s got a legal obligation now to provide the resource.”

Anderson retorts: “What would a court say about that?”

It seems a classic tension for DOC, these days. Is it more interested in partnerships or doing its job? It’s likely some Sage advice will help make up its mind.

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