22 September 2005
A Conservation Challenge for Coalition Negotiations
While everyone is thinking Left and Right, there's an opportunity for a centrist response to New Zealand's deer population explosion, writes Dr Ken Hughey.
Deer numbers in the wild are exploding for the first time in decades, threatening large areas of the conservation estate and raising tensions between those in favour of pest eradication and those wanting careful management of a valuable resource by recreational hunters.
The population dynamics of deer have been studied in detail and there is no lack of understanding of the complex relationship between economic, social and political influences. The reason for the latest fluctuation is simple: basically there are no commercial animal recovery operations. Deer management by recreational hunters is largely uncoordinated and simply cannot keep deer numbers under control.
One would have thought that New Zealand might have resolved the pest-resource dilemma by now but, despite the threat to the natural environment, we are still without a practical and durable response.
Instead the Department of Conservation has inflamed the situation, first by promoting a national deer control policy with virtually no support from the hunters, and secondly by promoting radical changes to deer farming regulations across the entire country. These regulations assume the risks are the same in the North and South Islands, when clearly they are not.
The focus on deer farming regulations, and how to prevent escapes into the wild, is a mistake. A much higher priority is on determining how to effectively manage numbers in the wild in the absence of a commercial recovery industry. We have done this successfully with Himalayan tahr, which live in the open and are more easily accessed, and a similar situation also applies with chamois. In both cases the conservation estate is being managed in good condition by recreational hunters, including a very viable tourism industry, with targeted control by DoC as required.
The approach to these high altitude game animals recognises, albeit reluctantly by DoC, that they have commercial and recreation value, but can have unacceptable impacts when populations increase. Successive governments seem to be incapable of applying the same logic to deer.
The current coalition negotiations are an opportunity to put this right. We need to make sure that deer management is one of the issues on the table after the politicians have shuffled the deck and started the inevitable policy trade-offs.
The chances of a resolution are high because, significantly, the current policy positions on deer management are characterised by one extreme, in this case on the Left, and an opposing view which is really rather moderate. Labour and the Greens are likely to maintain a preservationist stance, insisting that all deer are contained behind secure fences or otherwise exterminated from the wild. The opposing view sees deer as a resource but is not really at an extreme from the preservationists. It argues for careful management of populations within defined limits, similar to the approach for tahr and chamois, and so could hardly be called a free-market or hands-off approach.
Politically the cards appear to be stacked in favour of preservationists on the Left, which depends heavily on support by the environmentalists. The problem with this position is that it is patently not working. But in the absence of a radical response (there being no legal mandate to protect deer in the wild) the Right already holds the middle ground. This view acknowledges that deer can be managed as a resource and a pest using a model similar to the Fish and Game councils which manage freshwater fish species.
If a government of the centre Left insists on maintaining the preservationist approach, the current relationships between conservation authorities, recreationists, and deer farmers will soon be untenable. The outcome will be entirely at odds with stated government polices on conservation, sustainable resource management and economic growth.
A centre Right government, though one is looking increasingly unlikely, would be far more likely to propose and support the middle ground, improving deer farming regulations that target priority areas, and having a clearly defined state of the natural environment. However, this happens to also be the position that any other incoming government should take. In the absence of a sustainable means of deer control it should promote a new regime that places the responsibility for management in the hands of those who will benefit most from its implementation - and that's the hunters. It must define the desired condition of the natural environment and make sure the institutional arrangements are in place - national policies, Government resources and community-based agencies - that promote collaboration. DoC would then set the desired condition targets and a separate hunting organisation would manage animal and human resources in such ways that meet those targets. If hunters cannot meet the targets then alternative forms of control, such as poisoning, would have to be introduced.
As part of coalition negotiations the government could adopt the centrist position. The Greens could concede on deer management but win on a larger policy plank such as sustainable transport and energy policies. This is entirely consistent with the intent of MMP, but more importantly it is possible to communicate the concession to the electorate in a defensible way.
The late Graeme Caughley, a New Zealander recognised as one of the great population ecologists, wrote a seminal book in 1983 entitled 'The Deer Wars'. In that work Caughley explained the nature of the enormous population fluctuations in deer numbers in New Zealand. It was his work that lifted the lid on political influences. Nearly 20 years later we are yet to apply this knowledge successfully. In another 20 years when the books start appearing on New Zealand's coalition wars under MMP, it is my hope there will be a reflection on the nature of conservation management in New Zealand and how it fared under a proportional system. Such a reflection might conclude that there is no silver bullet for big game animal management in New Zealand - never was, never will be - but that coalition negotiations opened the door for a sensible middle ground and the opportunity to try something that might work.
Ken Hughey is Associate Professor of Environmental Management at Lincoln University.