Editorial - Great Barrier Island on the Map?

by John Ogden


I came back from Australia at the end of October to a pile of mail. At first I thought a lot of it was very positive – everyone from the Local Board to the Minister for Conservation and the local MP seemed to have the pest problem on Great Barrier on the radar:

• A new Regional Pest Management Strategy up for comment;
• “Building the Aotea Conservation Park” from Nikki Kaye;
• Maggie Barry backing Community initiatives for pest control in Northland;
• DOC’s “Ridge to Reef” seminars well advertised (and subsequently well attended);
• The first Report from the “Community Conversations about the future Ecology of GBI” presented to the Local Board;
• Publication of a scientific paper based on GBI work showing that rats slow down succession and thus increase the fire risk1 ;
• Ngati Rehua Ngati Wai ki Aotea welcoming back the black petrels/taiko on Hirakimata, and receiving strong support for their “Bring Back Kokako” programme.

This is all positive and certainly contrasts with Great Barrier’s profile in conservation a decade ago, when even researching the means to improve the Island’s ecology was resisted by some locals and the significance of the Island’s plants, birds and reptiles was unknown to the vast majority of New Zealanders. However, there is certainly no room for complacency, because there is, unfortunately, a wide gap between what is being said in political circles, and what is actually happening on the ground.

In the last four years the GBI Department of Conservation staff resident on the Island have been cut from 18 (14 ‘permanent’) to nine FTEs (Full Time Equivalents), but two of these positions are currently vacant. Only two people, Louise Mack and Craig Mabey, have full-time ‘responsibility’ for biodiversity protection, monitoring, research and advocacy. Identify the importance of the place, list what needs to be done in the Conservation Management Strategy, then halve the staff on the ground and expect it all to work! Yeah right.

Let us be clear, this is not a local decision, someone ‘up there’ (or rather ‘down there’) seems to think that fewer staff can ‘look after’ one of the most significant off-shore islands in the country. Of course the Department has been drastically cut nationally by a government that claims to represent the interests of the nation, but even allowing for this, the internal re-structuring seems to have fallen very hard on Great Barrier. As a result there is no money for a project coordinator to progress the promised rodent eradication on Rakitu, no money to protect the endangered kakariki and tomtits on Hirakimata, no money for research on brown teal / pateke mortality rates (although a review is in progress), no money to investigate the re-establishment of Cook’s petrel, or monitoring bitterns etc., no money for anything much except re-building the infra-structure destroyed by last year’s freak storm and the new visitor centre /office at Okiwi. While that is clearly important, arguably a priority, surely support should not have to come – however indirectly – by cutting local work on biodiversity protection and community relations. I may have got some of this wrong – but that is part of the problem. It is not easy to find out what is being spent on biodiversity without seeming to criticise those at Okiwi DOC endeavouring to get a huge job done with much reduced resources.

One of DOC’s responses to their parlous state nationally is to facilitate community conservation initiatives. While we applaud that, it must not be seen as an alternative to a full-time, properly funded Department, with the capacity to monitor native biodiversity, keep data on trends and initiate both research and appropriate legislation and protective actions. Volunteers can be used to do some of the work, but voluntary organisations cannot provide the long-term continuity required to protect our fauna and flora.
Meanwhile, it appears that DOC’s current Barrier budget will be allocated to track work in the new Aotea Conservation Park. Having a “Great Walk” seems to be the politician’s idea of “recreation to support conservation”, but without pest control the walker’s footsteps will echo through a silent forest. Sadly, this silence will become the norm; most of the urban visitors of the future will have no idea what has been lost. And it is going on right now - an estimated 86,500 native birds are being lost on Great Barrier Island every year from predation by rats and feral cats (see: “Back of Envelope” calculations and references in this issue). Why have we no resident bellbirds on Great Barrier Island? – that is why.

Table 1 (see back page) contains “Guestimates”of the 2015 status of some indigenous birds on Great Barrier, by the author.

Nikki Kaye got the pests present on Great Barrier wrong, but I can forgive that if the general message came across: the Gulf Islands – including Great Barrier – are special places in need of high levels of protection. Support for Glenfern Sanctuary was a government “commitment to contribute to the proposed purchase”. The “We will save Glenfern” announcement was made by Maggie Barry in April 2015 (see: Environmental News 34). This promise has yet to be fulfilled. Maggie has continued to support rodent control, speaking out in favour of the use of 1080 in Northland forests, which are also losing species (kakariki are the latest to disappear from there, but as yet nothing is proposed to save the few remaining on Great Barrier).

Toxins like 1080 or brodifacoum are seen by some as a great menace, or at best, an unknown risk. It is right to be cautious because there are known manageable side-effects (‘collateral damage’), and possibly unknown long-term effects. Long-term environmental persistence has been studied for all the toxins in use today. No long-term environmental build-up, or other long-term detrimental effect, has been demonstrated, only hugely increased survival for forest birds. Of course what is ‘long-term’ is a matter of judgement and, as in medical matters, no scientist or surgeon would claim the risk is zero. Aerially applied toxins are all we have at present to control pests over large areas of rugged terrain, and they have been proved world-wide to be the most cost efficient and effective method of pest control. If you visit somewhere where aerially delivered baits have eliminated predators–such as Hauturu (Little Barrier) or Tirititi Matangi Island – you will see and hear the benefits immediately.

Although new technology is likely to overtake these methods, we cannot afford to wait as several already ‘at risk’ bird species are declining (Table 1) . New technology research is being spearheaded nationally by a group here on Great Barrier – with support from the Local Board. The Glenfern team have developed a “trapminder” system which senses when a rat enters a trap or tunnel, and sends an electronic message to the “cloud”. This server accumulates the data and can be accessed at any time from a home computer or smart phone, so you can see if you’ve caught anything without actually getting out to have a look. While this might seem a small advance, it is crucial because it allows instantaneous calculation of trapping efficiency and should greatly reduce the time spent on checking traps, and thus the person-power costs.

Unfortunately all the hype about Conservation Parks, protecting biodiversity, and community consultation, is not being reflected in action on the ground. This is not the fault of local DOC staff, who need more support from all of us to regain their capacity to protect the Island’s taonga – forest ecosystems, birds and reptiles. As we enter 2016 the Trust and the Great Barrier community are looking for evidence that this island is indeed on DOC’s map. The new Conservation Park warrants more than seven dedicated staff to deliver the stated goal of the Conservation Management Strategy (CMS)–a pest free island where kokako, black petrel, pateke, kakariki and other species thrive.

The sad bottom line: so far as I can determine from the available data–all the species which were declining ten years ago are probably still doing so.

1 Perry GLW, Wilmshurst JM, Ogden J & Enright NJ. 2015. Exotic mammals and invasive plants alter fire-related tipping points in southern temperate forested landscapes. Ecosystems. DOI 10:1007/S10021-015-9898-1 (Springer Verlag Science + Business Media. New York. July 2015).

Environmental News Issue 35 Summer 2016