Week in Review

Tahr de farce: DoC faces legal challenge

The Conservation Department is accused of buckling to hunters over wild animal culling instead of following the law. David Williams reports

The Conservation Minister is being taken to court over her department’s apparent unwillingness to cull tahr in the Southern Alps.

Forest & Bird has asked the High Court for a declaratory judgement about the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) tahr operational control plan, which the conservation lobby group says breaks the law.

The department’s being accused of having a plan that’s forever in transition – a loose commitment to reducing the tahr population without meeting specific targets. Also, after lobbying from hunting interests, DoC has deliberately avoided shooting bull tahr during official culling operations in national parks.

“We don’t really want to see the national park sacrificed for elite trophy hunters,” Forest & Bird's Canterbury/West Coast advocacy manager Nicky Snoyink says. She confirms court papers were filed before the national lockdown.

Tahr are large goat-like animals which are native to the central Himalayan ranges of India and Nepal, DoC’s website says. They’re sought-after by trophy hunters but their grazing damages fragile mountainous plants like snow tussocks, alpine herbs, and sub-alpine shrubs.

Forest & Bird’s legal action fundamentally argues that the needs of hunters are being prioritised over the natural environment; that the department isn’t doing its job. It’s an echo heard on many parts of the conservation estate these days, from tourists being favoured over trees or an ancient sandstone overhang, to farmers getting permission to graze cattle in a World Heritage Area, or irrigate next to a scientific reserve.

Don Hammond, chairman of statutory body Game Animal Council, says hunting entities were served papers about Forest & Bird’s legal action last week. “There is some discussion going on about how that will be responded to.”

James Cagney, president of the Professional Hunting Guides Association, says: “I can’t talk about that at the moment. I’ll probably be able to in a couple of weeks. There’s a whole bunch of unanswered questions at the moment that I can’t provide answers for.”

Conservation Minister Sage wasn’t saying much yesterday. A written statement from her office says: “I’m aware of the court proceedings and also aware that the Department of Conservation is updating and strengthening the tahr control operational plan for 2020/2021.”

A bundle of documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act reveal the Minister’s keen interest in this topic. She wrote to DoC operations director Ben Reddiex last August, the day before the current operational plan came into effect, outlining “significant concerns about the limited nature” of the plan.

Sage asked a series of questions of Reddiex, including whether the plan could be amended to target all tahr in national parks, not just females, but she didn’t want the answer to delay any control work. “So what assurances can the department provide that a more effective and ambitious control plan will be developed for July 2020 and onwards, if this current plan is able to proceed?”

In response, Reddiex said the department would likely face significant criticism for an about-turn on bull tahr, and more consultation would be needed to make such a “significant change” and “maintain any credibility in the leadership of tahr management”. He told the Minister: “The department is designing an approach to develop a longer-term tahr control operational plan (c. 4-years). All of the key issues that are now very well aware of will need to be worked through in that process.”

Tahr numbers are meant to be governed by a 1993 control plan, which mandates the population on conservation land is limited to 10,000. Two years ago, the number was estimated to be 34,000 animals.

Subsequently, the Minister announced plans for a big cull, dubbed “tahr-mageddon” by opponents. That sparked a messy public spat, in which Sage was accused of inadequate consultation, legal threats were made by hunting groups, and the National Party started an anti-cull petition.

The initial cull figure of 17,000 animals was dropped to 10,000, and the heat went out of the debate after a helicopter crash in Wanaka in October 2018, killing pilot Nick Wallis and DoC senior rangers Paul Hondelink and Scott Theobald.

Big inroads have been made. Reddiex says in an emailed statement a “significant control” of about 11,000 tahr occurred between May and November last year. DoC and commercial contractors have “controlled” 5500 female and juvenile tahr in the national parks since 2018, with “further tahr” taken by recreational and commercial hunters.

(Reddiex uses “control” over “cull”, adhering to a request from hunting groups last year to “to support those marketing tahr hunting overseas”.)

Last Friday, the hunter-heavy tahr liaison group considered the draft plan for the coming 12 months. DoC won’t confirm details but it’s understood to be considering dropping the policy of allowing bull tahr to remain in national parks. Details are expected to be released within a week.

“You said you listened to us, but this is not supported by the facts.” – Forest & Bird staffer

The OIA documents released to Newsroom show DoC has been bracing for a Forest & Bird legal challenge for months.

A September 13 internal DoC memo was sent out “to make staff aware of DoC’s media approach” to tahr control in national parks.

“Forest & Bird has indicated it believes DoC isn’t doing enough to control Himalayan tahr, as legally all introduced species need to be exterminated from national parks,” the memo says. “There is potential Forest & Bird may seek legal action against the department or proactively engage media over its concerns during Conservation Week.”

All media queries about tahr were to be referred to DoC’s national media team. A “key message” was the department was working with Ngāi Tahu “and tahr stakeholders” on a strategy to reduce tahr in the national parks to the “lowest practicable level”, and this would be included in a long-term operational control plan.

The threat was made explicit by Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague in October, when he sent a draft statement of claim and affidavit to DoC director-general Lou Sanson. One of Sanson’s deputies, Mike Slater, and the Minister were copied in.

“We believe the recently published plan to be inadequate for achieving the necessary goals, and believe that it needs to be replaced,” Hague’s email said, noting it would prefer not to mount the legal challenge. “I would appreciate your urgent attention to this, as obviously we will need to file shortly if that is your preference.”

The tension was exposed previous month, by a Forest & Bird staffer, whose name is redacted. They told Reddiex: “You said you listened to us, but this is not supported by the facts. The plan does not address the concerns we raised, for example, bull tahr in national parks. As we have said before, a case of clear illegality.”

Not taking bulls in national parks breaches the National Parks Act, which requires introduced plant and animals to “as far as possible, be exterminated”, Forest & Bird says. There’s also a clash with DoC’s own general policy for national parks and the management plans for Westland Tai Poutini and Aoraki Mount Cook.

According to the 1993 tahr control plan, the “target density” of tahr in national parks is zero – and the plan says numbers are to be kept at the “lowest practicable level”.

To keep tahr numbers low, the plan relies on – mistakenly, as it turns out – commercial and recreational hunters, who have an interest in allowing the population to increase. Another factor in the exploding population is, before this most recent population survey, DoC stopped monitoring tahr in 2006.

DoC called last year’s operational plan transitional. But the unnamed Forest & Bird staffer retorts last September: “The precedents set in this plan foreshadow an intention never to comply with the control plan.”

A major change – one that caught Forest & Bird by surprise – was DoC measuring tahr control by the number of helicopter hours flown, rather than the number of animals shot.

DoC’s website says in the current year it spent “40 hours in the air protecting the national parks as well as another 40 hours in the air controlling the edge of the feral range boundaries”. What’s unclear is how it can meet a plan by measuring its effort, when the document is framed by animal counts.

Snoyink, of Forest & Bird, tells Newsroom it wants DoC to decide on an operational plan that complies with the law, and meaningfully reduces the tahr numbers in a way that complies with the 1993 control plan.

She says the tahr population estimates are only on public conservation land, not private land and Crown pastoral leases. National parks make up a small proportion of the animals’ feral range, she says. “There are heaps of other places they can do their trophy hunting.”

DoC has carefully cultivated media interest in tahr management. After receiving reports of “very large mobs of bulls” from helicopter contractors undertaking culls, DoC staffer Paul Jansen wrote an email last September saying the department needed to “get the media hooked on this story in the right way” by offering video footage and still images. It had to “get the pitch right in the right sort of media”.

To be fair, Jansen’s email also said any story should highlight the damage tahr was doing to ecologically sensitive or high-value areas, and to flag if hunters didn’t step up then official culling operations would need to be deployed. Forest & Bird could also be brought into the discussion, Jansen suggested.

Science and sound planning

Hammond, chairman of the statutory Game Animal Council, puts up a stern defence for hunting groups, based largely on science and the fact tahr management is based on a 27-year-old plan.

An up-to-date plan should be based on current knowledge and research, and societal desires or needs, he says, but would change over time and “provide a good outcome for New Zealand”. “It’s frustrating that collectively we’re going to use a whole lot of resource on fighting court cases and all these sorts of things when that resource would be better focused on getting better outcomes for New Zealand,” Hammond says.

The bedrock of a new plan, he says, should be scientific research and sound planning. “All of these debates – tahrs, fish quotas – are a judgement call that is best based on science.”

That reasonable line seems to fall apart, somewhat. Hammond claims there isn’t a deep understanding of the tahr problem, saying that decisions need to based on “good science”, not on “people’s gut feelings or estimates or things of that nature”.

That’s a crack at DoC’s estimates of tahr numbers. But the 2018 research, conducted by two Australian contractors, is based on aerial surveys over three years using accepted scientific methods.

The research gives a wide range of estimates to account for changes in tahr densities at some plots. Hammond attacks this scientific rigour to suggest the estimates are “really not helpful”.

“It’s like saying New Zealand’s population is somewhere between 2.5 million and 7.5 million.”

A follow-up survey last year improves the numbers. The updated estimate is 34,478 tahr on conservation land, with a 95 percent confidence range of 26,522 to 44,821. Even at the lower range, that’s more than two times the population allowed in the 1993 control plan.

While uncertainties were high in some of the 117 plots, covering four square kilometres each, the average tahr density exceeded thresholds in all seven management units except one. Tahr were also spotted in so-called “exclusion zones”.

(Minutes from consultation interviews last year state all tahr interest groups agreed “there are currently too many tahr for the natural environment and a reduction in total numbers is required”. “One experienced operator said that there were the highest tahr population in 30 years and they need to be controlled,” a summary noted. However, some worried if the population dropped to 10,000 there wouldn’t be enough animals to sustain the commercial hunting industry.) 

In the management unit covering the Westland Tai Poutini and Aoraki Mount Cook national parks, there were an estimated 6973 animals, with a 95 percent confidence range of between 4470 and 10879. That weakens the argument, somewhat, for leaving bulls out of official culling operations.

Hammond says what’s more important than population estimates is the need to understand their impact on the indigenous flora and fauna in need of protection. Every ecosystem has a carrying capacity, he says – its ability to support, tahr, keas, or other fauna.

“The hunting sector is saying let’s manage these herds using science and understand where really low numbers are required, and equally understand where higher numbers the carrying capacity of the site is such that higher numbers can operate, or can exist.”

However, there’s already established research on vegetation damage. DoC’s tahr website has links to two scientific papers.

A 2016 paper published in the journal Biological Invasions, which studied vegetation plots between 1990 and 2013, said overall tussock height declined proportionally with increasing tahr activity.

“The impacts of tahr were greatest … where tahr activity levels were high. Managers aiming to protect adult snow tussocks need to control Himalayan tahr so activity remains low in these catchments.”

To achieve overall recovery for montane grasslands, “including highly sensitive, palatable species, tahr need to be controlled “to very low activity levels”, or “exclude them completely”.

A 2014 report by three of the same authors recommended “improved efforts to maintain tahr levels proposed in the tahr management plan”. The report noted aerial counts often underestimate densities, compared with ground surveys, and it suggested further assessment of the impact of other introduced herbivores, such as hares and possums, on snow tussocks.

(If there’s a plan for tahr, Hammond asks why isn’t there a strategy to control the likes of hares, deer, wasps and hieracium, “and a whole bunch of other threats to national parks”? At a guess, that may have something to do with the size of tahr.)

There’s a circular aspect to Hammond’s arguments.

Hunters are responding to high tahr numbers in national parks by shooting nannies and juveniles, he says, leaving the valuable bulls for a commercial industry that attracts an estimated $50 million to the country from high-net-worth individuals.

Asked why bull tahr should be left alone, Hammond says the National Parks Act is vague. (Forest and Bird says it’s not.) Then Game Animal Council chair then challenges population estimates, saying it’ll take further research to arrive at numbers “with some level of confidence”. Also, more needs to be known about the damage they cause, he says.

Circling back to the beginning, he argues by taking bulls out of national parks, hunters won’t go there and shoot nannies and juveniles as “bycatch”. (More bulls would have been shot over the last hunting season, Hammond says, but it didn’t happen because our borders were closed by Covid-19.)

But Hammond’s arguments seemingly ignore 27 years of history.

The 1993 control plan was established as a middle ground, after commercial harvesting in the 1960s and 1970s reduced the tahr population by about 90 percent. The idea was taxpayer money could be saved by allowing recreational and commercial hunters to reduce tahr numbers on conservation land.

The plan states DoC would liaise closely with hunters to tell them where tahr numbers were too high and “encourage them to take an active role in herd reduction where this is not being undertaken by commercial operations ie. By taking female tahr in addition to trophy bulls”.

Clearly the system has been unable to cope with exploding numbers and, in that way, can be correctly called a failure. DoC has had a role to play, by stopping monitoring tahr numbers for a decade and then adopting a wishy-washy operational plan promising to “work towards” reducing tahr populations. On the other side, hunting groups and commercial companies have not killed enough animals to keep the numbers down.

Arguments about blame will probably be swept aside by the looming general election, however. Hunting interests are influential, politically connected, and well-resourced. Round two of “tahr-maggedon” might get even more heated than the first.

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