Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Letter to the New Zealand Ecological Society.

A Letter to the New Zealand Ecological Society.
 - By Bill Benfield - 
The editorial (following at the end of this letter) of the December edition of the NZ Ecological Society’s newsletter is an interesting window into the mind of one of those involved in New Zealand’s conservation science. While the editor may not be the society, it is reasonable to expect that the editor’s views and attitudes would reflect those of the ecological society as a whole.

It chronicles the events of the year, starting with Prime Minister John Key's likening ecologists to lawyers, much to her chagrin. It then recounts the editor’s travels, in the first instance, beset by the sight of posters on the West Coast seeking to ban 1080. She questions the motives, or "just the plain ignorance" of those responsible. Her second event was an encounter that left her feeling frustrated with a fellow passenger "misinformed about 1080" on an airline and who, despite her obvious badgering, failed to accept her views. She reflects that people only take on new information that supports their view. In her blinkered vision, does she not see that it is her, and even possibly the Ecological Society itself, that is equally as guilty of failing to see the legitimacy of other viewpoints?

The editorial outlines coming advocacy strategies of an ecological society that believes its ends can be best achieved by carpet bombing the land with a deadly universal poison; even to the indoctrinating of young children - shades of the Hitler Youth! Of course, if the arguments supporting 1080 were sound, there would be no need for indoctrination as advocated by the editor of the Ecolgical Society's  newsletter - see Editorial below.

It is interesting to consider the pre-disposition displayed in this editorial when looking at the society’s role as the publisher, through its journal, of peer reviewed scientific articles on the impacts and benefits of aerial 1080 operations. 

Typical would be a study to determine the effects of 1080 on kaka and kereru survival and nesting success. It is cited by both DoC and Forest and Bird as a success story for 1080. (Powlesland R.G. Wills D.E. August A.C.L. & August C.K. Effects of a 1080 operation on kaka and kereru survival and nesting success, Whirinaki Forest Park. New Zealand Journal of Ecology. Vol 27 No2. 2003. P 125 to 127.). What is interesting about this study is that there is a poisoned area and an un-poisoned control. The impacts of the poisoning are monitored for the "predators" (possum, rats and stoats) in both areas and the results compared. They show aerial 1080 is a stunning success story for stoats whose numbers have exploded post poisoning; rats have recovered to their former levels in two years. Slow breeding possum have logically not recovered, but it is claimed fur recovery operations in the control area have depressed that population to the same level as in the poisoned area. For the kaka and kereru, the results on survival and breeding success between the poisoned area and the un-poisoned control have been combined, so absolutely no conclusion can be drawn as to the benefits or otherwise arising from 1080 operations. 

It begs the question, would the results have been combined if field observations had shown a clear and conclusive benefit to the birds from 1080 poisoning? The abstract then claims that aerial 1080 "should" benefit these bird populations. There is absolutely no evidence it "should" or "should not" benefit. Although the study is meaningless in terms of what it set out to achieve, it does provide compelling evidence that predators are the real beneficiaries of aerial 1080 and, as the result for the birds has been concealed, we are left to assume that the consequences for them were dire.

Other peer reviewed studies published by the society reveal similar flaws:-Sweetapple P. Fraser K. and Knightbridge P. "Diet and impacts of brushtail possum across an invasion front in South Westland". New Zealand Journal of Ecology28(1) 2004. P19 -33. This study claims in the abstract, the part most people read, that forest bird populations "declined with increasing length of possum occupation". In the body of the report, it changes its tune to "weak support" for the hypothesis that native bird numbers decrease with increased length of possum occupation. From examination of the actual observations a case can be made that there is an increase in bird numbers with increasing length of possum occupation.

Another would be the often cited Powlesland R, Knegtmans J, Styche A. "Mortality of North Island tomtits (Petroica macrocephala toitoi) caused by aerial 1080 possum control operations, 1997-98, Pureora Forest Park". New Zealand Journal of Ecology 24(2): 161-168 (2000). This study is claimed by DoC to show the beneficial effects of aerial 1080 to tomtits, robins and moreporks. To the untrained the study looks sound, but to scientists, Drs. Pat & Quinn Whiting O’Keefe, there is significant and deceptive use of statistical analysis of the raw data. They also found tests of statistical significance were not used to support major conclusions. The only explanation they could offer is deliberate misrepresentation. (Drs. Pat & Quinn Whiting O’Keefe. "Aerial Monoflouroacetate in New Zealand’s Forest". Submission to ERMA. 2007.)

The question has to be asked, is this peer reviewed science, as published by the New Zealand Ecological Society, the result of incompetence or is it a deliberate and ethically questionable manipulation of data to suit an agenda? The December editorial would suggest the latter but, either way, I think many people would call it "junk science". It certainly does nothing for the reputation and integrity of New Zealand science. The real tragedy is that it is the "science" used to justify the continued destruction of New Zealand’s unique beautiful wildlife and forests. It is used by people such as the Parliamentary Commissioner of the Environment in the preparation of her report endorsing the continued use of 1080. It is used by both DoC and the Royal Forest & Bird "Protection" Society to support their venal objectives to the expense of New Zealand’s conservation.

Clearly, to have any credibility, the New Zealand Ecological Society should immediately examine the role of its journal editors. The whole published catalogue should then be properly scrutinised and purged of rubbish such as the examples here. When you think about it, it is lawyers who may feel aggrieved by John Key likening them to ecologists!
Yours Faithfully. W.F. Benfield.
(W.F. Benfield is the author of the book "The Third Wave – Poisoning the Land" published by Tross Publishing. E-mail Address <>

A series of recent events has convinced me of the importance of getting sound ecological knowledge out into the public domain. John Key’s BBC interview in which he likened ecologists to lawyers was a shocker. A West Coast holiday with anti-1080 "Poisoning Paradise" posters lining the otherwise empty roads was hardly surprising. The "Ban 1080" election hoardings placed by vote-hungry (or possibly just plain ignorant) politicians were rather more galling. A random conversation on a flight home from Auckland with a stranger misinformed about 1080 but unprepared to read about the facts (good and bad) left me feeling particularly frustrated. Perhaps it was a manifestation of the phenomenon observed by social scientists that people tend to only take on board new information that supports the viewpoint they already hold.
So what can we do as individual ecologists and as a society? In the short term, it’s policy makers, politicians and other decision makers that we need to influence. Some politicians never let the facts get in the way of a good story, so maybe these ones are a lost cause. But I’m pleased to say that Fleur Maseyk has taken on the role of Submissions Officer for the NZ Ecological Society, so we will now be able to respond much more effectively to important issues. In the long term, we need to dramatically improve the ecological knowledge of the general public. Ultimately, the New Zealand public will decide the future of our country by how they vote and their submissions during public consultation. I’ve always said we need to indoctrinate children when they’re young—I’ll be keeping that in mind when doing my Christmas shopping this year!

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