Environment Magazine

“Overabundant” Wildlife Usually Isn’t

Posted on the 12 July 2019 by Bradshaw @conservbytes

“Overabundant” wildlife usually isn’tLate last year (10 December) I was invited to front up to the ‘Overabundant and Pest Species Inquiry’ at the South Australian Parliament to give evidence regarding so-called ‘overabundant’ and ‘pest’ species.

There were the usual five to six Ministers and various aides on the Natural Resources Committee (warning here: the SA Parliament website is one of the most confusing, archaic, badly organised, and generally shitty government sites I’ve yet to visit, so things require a bit of nuanced searching) to whom I addressed on issues ranging from kangaroos, to dingoes, to koalas, to corellas. The other submissions I listened to that day were (mostly) in favour of not taking drastic measures for most of the human-wildlife conflicts that were being investigated.

Forward seven months and the Natural Resources Committee has been reported to have requested the SA Minister for Environment to allow mass culling of any species (wildlife or feral) that they deem to be ‘overabundant’ or a ‘pest’.

So, the first problem is terminological in nature. If you try to wade through the subjectivity, bullshit, vested interests, and general ignorance, you’ll quickly realize that there is no working definition or accepted meaning for the words ‘overabundant’ or ‘pest’ in any legislation. Basically, it comes down to a handful of lobbyists and other squeaky wheels defining anything they deem to be a nuisance as ‘overabundant’, irrespective of its threat status, ecological role, or purported impacts. It is, therefore, entirely subjective, and boils down to this: “If I don’t like it, it’s an overabundant pest”.

The second major issue I have with this entire, sorted affair is that the ‘impacts’ that many bang on about are also almost entirely anecdotal. Certain pastoralists will claim heavy losses from kangaroos, or that little corellas do $xxx amount of damage per year. But then when anyone with a modicum of quantitative nouse looks into the actual evidence, there is typically bugger all — no economic modelling, no actuarial reports, no quantified data whatsoever.

Then some bright spark on the Committee decided that it would be a grand idea to propose culling koalas in South Australia. I would truly love any Minister currently sitting in government to try that one on for size, and see how far they get. How disconnected from public opinion does one have to be even to have the courage to say that out loud? Mind-boggling.

The third problem is of course that culling almost never works the way people want it to. This is largely a result of grandiose ecological ignorance on the part of the people who come up with the idea in the first place. Australia has a long, zoo-xenophobic history of trying to kill anything certain people find annoying — from kangaroos, to white sharks, to crocodiles, to wedge-tailed eagles, to dingoes, to emus. Yes, Australia loves to slaughter its wildlife.

It’s worth mentioning too that as someone who has worked on the science of eradication/density reduction for a host of actual pest species (introduced/feral/invasive), — for example, buffalo, to banteng, to rabbits — I can assure you that even when you have a clear case of ecological or economic damage, a sizeable budget, a legislative framework, and an informed eradication plan, it is difficult, expensive, and challenging in the extreme to be able to achieve the targeted reduction. So, ill-informed statements about ‘culling’ as a silver bullet to a few people’s perception of inconvenience is as moronic as it gets in wildlife politics.

Many species have been mentioned in the ‘recommendations’, but I will only focus on the particulars of a few here.

I’ve mentioned koalas, so no need to labor the topic too much more, except to say that it is a thorny issue that I’ve mentioned before, as well as currently running a research programme to discern the most feasible management tactics.

Seals (in our case, fur seals) is also perennial wankery put up by the fishing industry all of the world for centuries. The convenient scapegoat (in fact, most of the claims for ‘impact’ mentioned above are really about pointing the finger at convenient scapegoats) for overfishing and ineffectual fisheries management worldwide usually boils down to this cracker of a logical argument: “seals eat my fish”. Hardly worth mentioning to my illustrious readership that no seal cull ever has ever resulted in a surge of commercial fish abundance, nor the fact that you would most likely have fewer fish given that marine food webs are so complex that removing one predator can actually cascade through to throw the entire community out of balance and disrupt the life cycle of those species targeted by fisheries.

Kangaroos? Yes, well, we probably do have higher densities now compared to pre-European times, mainly because of irrigation (we water the ground, grass grows, more food for kangaroos — not exactly rocket science). But as we expand our agriculture and overlap wilderness more and more, as well as our warming climate pushing species in the north farther south into agricultural zones, we will have more and more cases of such ‘conflict’.

I also find it risible (and vaguely schadenfroh) that farmers are now complaining about ‘overabundant’ kangaroos when they’ve been killing their only predators (dingoes) for centuries. If people had the vaguest notion of ecology they’d realize that by screwing with one side of the ecological equation always ends up screwing the other side too. Add this ignorance to the fact that our State Government has so eroded its own environment department through dedicated under-funding, gagging, and general neglect, there is a waning official capacity to deal properly with any of these issues.

Little corellas waking you up in the morning? Poor, wee dears.

So, just kill ’em. Well done, South Australia.

CJA Bradshaw

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