Why 1080 is a dirty word

Last updated 13:43 02/08/2013

The term 1080 has long been a bit of a dirty word among a subset of New Zealanders.  I've often wondered whether if it had a nicer name, people would be so quick to react to it. What if it was called "Pest-rid" or "Wildlife rehabilitator" or something far more creative?

Trying to have a rational conversation about the use of 1080 in New Zealand is like trying to negotiate bedtimes with a toddler. Why is it that proponents and opponents of pest control toxins speak different languages and how can we create a better conversation*?

Campbell clip
I spotted this tweet from Campbell Live last week, relating to a cycling story, but making the point that there are certain topics in NZ which get people very rarked up.

Last month, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, released her follow-up report on the use of 1080 in New Zealand. In it she criticised the Department of Conservation in particular for not using enough 1080, and for spending more money on research than on carrying out operations. But if you were to believe social and (sadly) some of our mainstream media, calling for more 1080 to protect native wildlife would seem counterintuitive. So what's going on with the conversation about conservation and the use of 1080 in New Zealand?

Dr Wright raises some good points about why communities get upset about the use of 1080 - in particular she says, "The idea of dropping poison out of the sky just gives you a bad feeling...". To people in areas who feel fearful about this, it seems no amount of scientific evidence, or GPS tracking of 1080 operation helicopter grid lines, will ease their minds. But the facts do provide reassurance if people are willing to accept them.

The problem with the 1080 debate is that the level of frustration on both sides leads to problems trying to communicate with one other on what's really going on out there. I reckon it's time for a truly honest discussion about the use of this toxin, and that means all sides of the debate.  

I have long been a proponent of the use of 1080 to protect our native wildlife in New Zealand. First with the Department of Conservation, then with Forest & Bird, and more recently as a pest control advocate for TBfree New Zealand. To begin, I thought I'd offer some of the basics on 1080:

* 1080 is the common name for sodium fluoroacetate - a chemically synthesised toxin that is found in a range of plant species throughout the southern hemisphere (including tea) - thought to have evolved to deter browsing mammals.

* 1080 is used by the Department of Conservation to kill mammalian predators of native wildlife; TBfree New Zealand to protect our multibillion-dollar agriculture industry from bovine tuberculosis, which is spread by possums; and regional councils as part of their pest control work.

* New Zealand uses the most 1080 because our native wildlife has no native terrestrial mammals (with the exception of two tiny species of bat) - we are uniquely placed to be able to use a toxin that targets mammalian predators, because in other countries there are native mammals (lions, tigers, bears, foxes) that would be harmed. (As an aside, we used to have three species of bat, but a rat plague on Great South Cape Island in the 1960s wiped the greater short-tailed bat off the planet.)

* 1080 application rates 30 years ago were as much as 30 kilograms of baits per hectare, now rates are down to 1 or 2kg per hectare and in some cases just half a kilogram per hectare.

* 1080 breaks down in water and in soil. There have been more than 2500 independent tests of waterways after 1080 drops. The level for detection set by the Ministry of Health is two parts per billion. This has never been breached in drinking water supplies, but if it was, a person my size would have to drink 60,000 litres of water in one sitting in order for it to affect me.

* While 1080 can (and does) kill a range of animals - the most susceptible to the poison are mammals.

* At particular risk are dogs, but also native birds have been killed by 1080 - including kea on the West Coast of the South Island (seven were killed in one drop but, interestingly, there were two other drops in kea habitat at the same time, and none of the kea in those areas were affected).  As a side note, the biggest cause of death for kea on the West Coast is predators - estimated to take out 60 per cent of kea nests (eggs, chicks, even parents) in areas without pest control.

* Most of the recorded bird deaths were associated with a handful of operations 35 years ago that used poor-quality carrot baits, which had many small fragments. Today's operations largely use hard cereal baits.

Silent forests

 

Many opponents of 1080 claim that they have been into the bush after a 1080 drop, and the forest is silent, due to 1080 having (apparently) killed all the native birds. This is one of those native wildlife myths that drives me mad. The forests are silent because of predators. Every single night, we are losing the very creatures that define us as a country. In areas where we don't do pest control (which is most of our public conservation land), we lose 95 per cent of kiwi chicks, up to 60 per cent of kea nests, and most female kaka (just to give a few examples). The stoats, ferrets, weasels, three species of rats, possums, pigs, cats, dogs and yes even hedgehogs are sucking the very life-force from our forest. Visitors to the bush after 1080 drops may well experience a silent forest, but the cause of this is not 1080, it's the predators.

If our first ranger, Richard Henry, noticed the disappearance of kakapo (once one of New Zealand's most common birds, now down to 125 individuals) and kiwi just seven years after the introduction of stoats, ferrets and weasels to the country, why are we not making the connection today?

stoat with bird

 

Strange bedfellows

 

The use of 1080 in New Zealand is supported by a wide range of agencies and organisations who have a vested interest in protecting our natural heritage and agriculture industry. This includes a couple of outfits that would usually be found at opposite ends of the room on a range of issues, yet the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society and Federated Farmers have an enduring partnership over the use of 1080 in New Zealand.  

Why would New Zealand's largest independent conservation organisation support the use of 1080 if it was killing the very things that they are trying to protect? It doesn't make any sense. Unless, of course, the conspiracy theorists are wrong, and in fact the use of 1080 is beneficial to our native wildlife, like for example kokakokaka, and mohua.

Federated Farmers support the use of 1080 to kill possums, because the possums can spread bovine tuberculosis, threatening our crucial agricultural export industry. Forest & Bird and Federated Farmers have a partnership to promote more education and understanding of the use of 1080 in New Zealand, and this includes their joint website.

Independent reviews

 

In 2007, the Environmental Risk Management Authority (now the Environmental Protection Agency) carried out a review of the use of 1080 at the request of the Department of Conservation and the TBfree New Zealand Programme (then the Animal Health Board). This independent review took two years to complete, and took into account hundreds of submissions from the public, scientists and practitioners. They concluded that the use of 1080 in New Zealand was safe and necessary to protect our wildlife and agriculture industry, and made some recommendations to tighten up operations and communication.

In 2011, the independent Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, produced her report on the use of 1080 in New Zealand, Predators, Poisons and Silent Forests (which I highly recommend reading if you're interested in the issue). 

In this report she found (to her surprise) that not only was 1080 the most effective tool to protect our native wildlife, in fact we should use more of it. She concluded that predators were wreaking havoc on our native wildlife, that 1080 was not a necessary evil, in fact we were lucky to have it - and that in order to protect our unique native species "we do not have the luxury of time".

The science is in

There has been a huge range of science and research carried out on the use of 1080 in New Zealand. After decades of its use the application, monitoring and regulation of it has been improved and honed to sharp precision. Yet stories of government departments having a vested interest in using 1080, of "millions of dollars" of profits being made by those who advocate for its use, of huge cover-ups abound via social media channels particularly. I've yet to find any evidence of such a thing.

The Science Media Centre has a range of information and responses from credible scientists in New Zealand on the use of 1080 which is well worth a read.    

One of the criticisms by Dr Wright in last month's report is that there has been too much focus on carrying out more science, and not enough on carrying out actual 1080 operations to protect our native wildlife. 

I've noticed an alarming reluctance by New Zealanders to read and understand science on issues like 1080. In one situation when I was working on the restoration of Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands in the Hauraki Gulf (in that instance DOC used brodifacoum or rat bait to eradicate the pests), a woman claimed that people were being "blinded by science". That statement has haunted me ever since.  

Media - the issue of 'balance'

Admittedly, since the release of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report on 1080 in 2011, the media have settled down a bit with their approach to reporting 1080 issues in New Zealand. Over the past 10 years I have dealt with dozens and dozens of journalist requests about 1080 stories - and it hasn't done much for my view on our journalists' ability to research a topic, or to present science in a credible way.

Much like what has occurred with the reporting of climate change in the media, traditionally journalists in New Zealand have gone for the old "he said, she said" approach to reporting on 1080 issues. As a result, we've been subjected to story after story where experts have spoken about the use of 1080, and then opponents are interviewed for their "expert" opinion. It irks me no end that the opponents are given half of the story space, as if there was a a 50-50 split in the facts or science on the issue.  

This story in the Herald on Sunday a few years ago probably takes the cake, where it was reported that 1080 residue had been found in marine life after a pest eradication operation on Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands in the Hauraki Gulf. Quite a scientific feat given that 1080 breaks down in water, and hadn't been used for more than 10 years in the area. The article refers to the 1080 being detected by an EAV machine, which turns out to be a "holistic healing device" that is subject to a bunch of federal lawsuits in the United States. I pointed this out to the journalist at the time, yet the article was published with no reference to what an EAV machine was, or that 1080 hadn't been used in the gulf since 1996. 

Thankfully, the media have taken on board the independent report of the PCE, and after she called for more use of 1080 to protect our native wildlife last month, the media have largely reported on the issue in a more responsible manner

Scare-tactics

I'll admit that I felt a little nervous about writing this blog. Over the years I've experienced a range of threatening behaviour by some of those who oppose 1080. I've dealt with the abusive phone calls, the "what would you know?" attacks, and even getting shoved (!) in the halls of Parliament after a select committee meeting on the use of 1080. Colleagues and friends have had death threats, and on occasion have been subjected to violence, including one ranger being punched in the face, or the incident when local farmer, conservationist and community board member Arthur Hinds was held down and punched and kicked because he supported 1080 on his farm, which had led to a huge increase in birds like kiwi and kereru.

On social media the same behaviour goes on - I've seen 1080 blamed for the global collapse of bees, for the lack of kiwi in our bush (yet more than 200 kiwi have been monitored after 1080 drops and none have ever been found dead as a result of 1080). It seems that for some, the facts (proven study after study on the use and benefits of 1080 in New Zealand) aren't enough to shift their thinking.

About 10 years ago, this guy claimed to have found a kiwi that had died as a result of 1080 - which was later found to have been a hoax, and he'd stuffed the poor dead bird with polystyrene in an attempt to make his point of protest.

Focusing on what's at stake

It is a well accepted fact that the greatest threat to our native wildlife in New Zealand is predation by introduced mammals. The use of a toxin that breaks down in water and soil, targets mammals and can be used over large areas in difficult terrain gives us an opportunity to use a tool to give our native wildlife a chance to thrive. It's not a "silver bullet", but for now it's the most effective, well-researched tool we've got. There are a huge range of other pest control tools being used in New Zealand, and they all have their place, but we should be making the most of the whole range of tools at our disposal, especially when the people charged with protecting our environment have given 1080 such a stamp of approval.

There of course has been bykill in the past of native wildlife, and there will no doubt be accidental deaths of native wildlife in the future, which is not ideal or wanted by anyone. But the simple truth is that the net loss to our native species due to predators far outweighs the handful of individual native animals which are unfortunately killed by 1080.

I think Vicki Hyde (head of the New Zealand Skeptics Association) put the issue most succinctly.

"We can't say that any bykill of native birds means all use [of 1080] should be condemned - that's like complaining that the firefighter who is busy trying to save your house is getting your favourite chair wet."

Got one (Al Nisbet)

 

This 2008 cartoon by Al Nisbet neatly captures some of the issues around perception of 1080 use in New Zealand. ("Got one!", by Al Nisbet, 2008. Alexander Turnbull Library. NZ Cartoon Archive. DCDL-0007273). 

Why do you think we speak different languages when it comes to the use of 1080 in New Zealand? Have you got any suggestions for how this conversation could be improved?

*NB: Today's blog is about how we can improve the conversation about 1080, it's not an invitation for a sledging match on the facts or otherwise about its use. We've had two independent reviews and endless media coverage for those issues to be raised. What I really want to know is how we can improve the debate.

Please feel free to email me with questions, feedback, ideas or photographs for In Our Nature blog posts. You can also join the In Our Nature Facebook page. 

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