Researchers propose alternative to ‘unachievable’ Predator Free 2050

A research collaboration is proposing an alternative to Predator Free 2050, calling the current policy "badly designed and unachievable".

The research says the Predator Free 2050 policy is based on three flawed assumptions — that predator extermination is the best way to protect biodiversity, that we need to eradicate every stoat, rat and possum to protect biodiversity, and that complete eradication of predators is possible. This research collaboration was undertaken by Associate Professor Wayne Linklater from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences and ecologist Dr Jamie Steer, who is also a Senior Biodiversity Advisor at the Greater Wellington Regional Council.

“None of these assumptions are true,” says Associate Professor Linklater. “Complete eradication of predators is technologically impossible, and biodiversity is affected more in some places by habitat decline and plant eaters than it is by predators.”

But perhaps one of the biggest issues with Predator Free 2050 is it requires eliminating select predators from complex communities of other plants, animals and humans, he says.

“This will likely lead to negative social and ecological outcomes. Eradicating some predators will cause populations of other introduced animals to erupt. Many people also have valid concerns about the safety and cruelty of predator control methods, and the policy fails to take into account Māori views on predator management as well, particularly on Māori lands.”

Predator Free 2050 could also lead to reduced public and government support for future conservation policies, says Associate Professor Linklater.

“Predator Free 2050 asks the public to engage in predator management, but if they are working towards unachievable targets they could easily become discouraged with conservation. The policy is funded by the Treasury as well, so the inevitable failure of this policy could mean less support for future conservation initiatives.”

Associate Professor Linklater says we need a more varied approach to predator management and biodiversity.

“Building biodiversity sanctuaries, along with work to suppress predators and restore habitats in the landscape around those sanctuaries, has been proven to be a far more effective approach,” he says. “Biodiversity would thrive in the sanctuaries and then spill over into the surrounding areas, eventually creating a network of populations of our endangered species across New Zealand.”

Policies should also take into account urban and rural development, which have a big effect on biodiversity, says Associate Professor Linklater.

Ideally, New Zealand would implement biodiversity-friendly cities and farms across the country. “This could drive a more substantial and sustainable recovery of biodiversity.”

Both researchers also have wider concerns about what Predator Free 2050 says about the relationship between scientists and policy-makers in New Zealand.

“That such a flawed policy could be implemented raises questions about how good the relationship is between New Zealand scientists and our policy-makers,” says Associate Professor Linklater. “Many scientists are critical of the policy, but have been reluctant to speak out at the risk of losing funding.”

“There is widespread scepticism of the policy within the industry, but it is generally expressed in whispers,” says Dr Steer. “This replicates recent reflections on the difficulties New Zealand scientists have with criticising government policy. That said, more robust criticism has started to emerge, hopefully signalling the end of the ‘honeymoon’ for Predator Free 2050.”