Wily inhabitants losing island residency battle

19:59, Jun 30 2014
hunters
Winning bunch: Deer hunters and Department of Conservation members, back row from left, John Clark, Dean Hansen, Norm MacDonald; front row, Chino Apiata, left, Puni Tiakiwai and Dave Crouchley, who are chasing down the final few deer on Secretary Island. A recent trip to the island netted an elusive stag.

The Department of Conservation is confident it is finally outsmarting the handful of deer remaining on Secretary Island in Fiordland.

From a population of more than 700 estimated in 2006, it is believed only four cunning deer are still on the run.

The eradication project that began almost eight years ago has pitted the skills of DOC hunters against a population of deer believed to have swum across to the island from the mainland because of overpopulation.

DOC senior services ranger and project co-ordinator Norm MacDonald said evidence from DNA, camera and tracking data indicated there were three stags and one hind still evading hunters on the rugged island.

Shooting the final dozen deer had been a huge challenge especially because they had grown extremely intelligent and wily to avoid being shot, MacDonald said.

The latest deer to be shot, a stag, provided an example of how smart the outlaw deer were.

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"The dogs were on its tail and pushed it towards open space. It then just lay down and was completely still," MacDonald said.

"It was so accustomed to the helicopter being in the air it knew its best chance of survival was to drop under a tree and not move. It had the nerve to do this even with dogs closing in on it," he said.

Luckily, the eagle-eyed helicopter pilot spotted the crafty stag and it was removed from the population.

MacDonald said to combat the smart gene developed by the last surviving deer, new approaches to hunting had been implemented and adopted by DOC. This included using dogs from the North Island that specialised in sniffing out and chasing deer.

Good old-fashioned hunting had been complemented with science and technology, he said.

"I am confident we will get the last few deer sooner rather than later." All the DNA collected to date had been traced back to the original deer that swam across, MacDonald said. "This shows once the deer population is eradicated and without population stress on the mainland, there should not be another invasion," he said. Freed of deer and with continued stoat control, Secretary Island could support rare and native species.

"The deer have mown down many areas on the island. They prevent regeneration and compete with other species," MacDonald said.

SECRETARY ISLAND

Secretary Island (8140 hectares) is on the Fiordland coast at the entrance to Doubtful Sound.

It is the third-highest island in New Zealand, rising sharply to a height of 1196 metres, and supports a diverse range of plant communities and habitats.

Deer and stoats are the only animal pest species on the island.

With stoats and deer no longer having an impact on the native flora and fauna, the island ecosystem can begin a natural process of restoration.

The Southland Times