Poisoning Forests = Remedy for Drought? 2

This is a part 2 of an article first published in the “Tasmanian Times” on 5 March 2016. It relates to the so called crisis over trees dying in Northland and agitation from “Forest and Bird” and others, to blame pests and drop 1080 to solve the “problem”.

In Part 1 Bill explained that forest modification has gone on since trees first started growing, and extremes of weather such as drought, are key factors in vegetation dying. (Scroll down to 10 March to read Part 1.)

Die back in the Northland forests, most likely  because of drought Photo credit: Forest and Bird)
Die back in the Northland forests, most likely because of drought. (Photo credit: Forest and Bird)

A forest crisis in Northland?

By Bill Benfield

Though the impact of drought is a seemingly rational and observable cause and effects situation and one that can be verified, it was also a “crisis” occurring in the emotionally charged area of forest decline, spurred in the district by the kauri tree dieback crisis.

It is just the sort of crisis that would be vulnerable to capture and be capitalised on by commercial conservation interests. This indeed appears to be the case as Forest and Bird’s Northland chairman, Dean Baigent Mercer enters the fray.

A long and fanatical proponent of the use of 1080, Baigent Mercer even holds a handler’s license for the deadly poison. Such a zealot would be anxious to have a crisis that can be manipulated to provide an excuse to use poisons.

A”plague”of possum?

Dean Baigent Mercer: man on a poisoning mission
Dean Baigent Mercer: man on a poisoning mission

The drought damaged forests are a heaven sent opportunity that just needed a bogey man to complete the picture. Baigent Mercer found it in the possum. Although observable road kill in Northland is very low indicating that animal numbers were low, Baigent Mercer claimed the forest “was being skinned alive” by a plague of possum.

With the resources available through Forest and Bird, Baigent Mercer arranged a drone fly–by to take video images of selected forests showing dying trees and a lot of drought damage.

It has been used to front an almost hysterical campaign on TV and national media demanding government action to put more resources into Northland to save the forests from a plague of “pests”.

It was not long before “action” was translated into dollar terms, and the call came out for $30 million dollars to mount an aerial 1080 poisoning campaign.

The Conservation Department joins the fray

The much maligned possum
The much maligned possum

The crisis of the damaged forests soon attracted the attentions of other human predators keen to feed on its plight. First on the scene was none other than the government’s Department of Conservation (DoC).

Citing the same bogeyman of possum, they set about poisoning the Warawara Forest with aerial 1080 in late 2015.

A photo of the alleged possum damaged forest published in the “Northern Advocate” of 17 October 2015, shows defoliated tree crowns which look more like a mixture of senescent decline coupled with drought in an old cut over forest.

Given the low numbers of possum road kill on the roads, they look the least likely culprit.

The New Zealand Herald backed the crisis a few days later in its 29 October 2015 edition trumpeting the release of the drone fly over footage. In this release, Forest & Bird claimed over 1000sq. kilometres of forest was dying and re-iterated its demand for emergency funding to counter the “relentless attack” from various pests.

A scientific voice of reason

A voice of scientific reason: Dr Peter N Bellingham
A voice of scientific reason: Dr Peter  Bellingham

However, in the same article there was an interesting voice of reason from forest ecologist, Dr Peter Bellingham of Landcare Research, whose views had been sought.

After paying his obligatory gesture to the exotiphobic paradigms of New Zealand science by saying there was good evidence to suggest that slashing possum numbers etc.. he then went on to say that pests weren’t the only driver. Adding It all needs to be set against a backdrop of a variety of things that can cause trees to decline.

He further said. They will die as a result of drought, and trees in Northland are also sometimes side-swiped by cyclones and these can spike death rates of trees.

Bellingham said drone footage of dead trees offered a “snapshot” that did not necessarily prove possums were to blame.

He considered a point in time evaluation was no substitute for an un-biased temporal evaluation.

(In the final part of the article, Bill sums up on the so-called Northland forest crisis and how the “Forest & Bird” led hysteria might lead to more pest poisoning. This would benefit certain interest groups, but in the long term damage the forest ecosystem.)