Thursday, February 9, 2012

Science vs Rhetoric

The following is an open letter from Dr. Quinn Whiting-Okeefe, to owners of a lodge near Lake Moeraki who unselfconsciously announced their firm support for forest mass poisoning. The letter defending the use of aerial 1080 is enclosed below...

Dear Anne and Gerry,

The ignorance of science evidenced by New Zealand's aerial 1080 program is breathtaking.  Do you seriously imagine that the "observations" that you have cited constitutes evidence that aerial 1080 is of net benefit to native species?

First, I can line up dozens expert environmentalists and woodmen with "experiences" just the  opposite of Doc propaganda's "dawn chorus" that you claim to have experienced.  They all say post-1080 forests are dead lifeless places with decreased bird activity.  Of course neither of you is to be believed.  What one learns from such anecdotes is the prejudices of the teller and nothing more.

Second, where we live we have everyone of the species you cite (except Kea) in abundance and somehow, miraculously I suppose, it has been done without aerial 1080.  Don't you see that we could just as rightly claim that our abundant bird populations are due to the absence of aerial 1080, as you can that yours are a consequence of its presence?

Third, to put it in scientific terms: you have no control, and therefore no validity (in fact virtually all of Doc's "research" has the same problem and in those studies that do have controls, they are badly flawed).  Controls are the essence of the scientific method and the ONLY way of reliably finding the truth about the real world.  What you really have is "20 years" of uncontrolled, unrecorded, unsystematised, un-quantitized, observations made and interpreted under a barrage of unrelenting Doc propaganda.  Doc spends $12M per year convincing people like you that giving them $100M to mass poison is the only way to save native species, and you are living proof the $12M is being effectively spent.

Fourth,  there is not a single scientifically credible study showing a net population benefit from aerial 1080 to any native species--not one, despite 20 years of Doc's trying to scrounge up one. (Please do not cite the Robin study, or the Mapara study or the Wirinaki study or any of the other junk science that gets passed off by Doc and F&B as showing benefit--I did say "scientifically credible").

Fifth, Doc's own evidence shows massive mortality among many native species after each 1080 drop (30% tomtits, 25% robins, 33% Kea, 15% Moreporks, and on and on., and as noted there is no credible evidence of benefit. 

Sixth, 2 years after 1080 drops the rat population doubles.  In three years the rat population triples. After 1080 drops, stoats switch their diet from about 85% mammals to 85% birds.  These are just two of the unintended consequences (all documented by non-Doc scientists) among the thousands that anyone who knows a stitch about ecology would predict to exist in the face from mass indiscriminate poisoning of a whole ecosystem.  Doc does not even look.  As noted, Doc has not documented benefit to a single native species let alone the whole ecosystem or looked for negative secondary and tertiary collateral damage.

Seventh, 1080 kills everything that breath air, in particular 50% of invertebrates die after 1080 drops.

Eigth, Doc's mindless and self-serving aerial 1080 "save-the-birds" program completely ignores the effect of competition from feral birds on native species: myna, magpies, sparrows, etc. all with growing populations that compete with native species.

Ninth, even if there were not all this evidence, your and Doc's premise is prima facia incredible:  who would believe that one could lace high quality food with a universal poison and drop in indiscriminately into an ecosystem and only affect two target feral species … the proposition is laughable everywhere in the world except in New Zealand where the laws of ecology have been suspended by an orgy of propaganda and blind uncritical belief.

Tenth, Doc habitually lies, misrepresents, and hides the truth.  The examples are too complex and numerous to lay out in detail here, but a single well documented example is illustrative: 40% of the Fox glacier Kea population were killed in one 1080 drop.  This tragedy was made public by a whistle blower, not by Doc, which apparently had every intention of not disclose it.  If it has been left up to Doc we would still not know what they did.  How can anyone claim to be an environmentalist and not oppose such outrageous behaviour?  And yet it evidently makes no difference despite all the lack of evidence of benefit, all the evidence of harm, there are legions who, though doubtlessly well meaning, "BELIEVE", and will believe until the last Kea outside of captivity is gone.

Finally, no other country in the world is doing, or ever has done, anything remotely similar to what Doc is doing in New Zealand (despite many other places having very similar situations with invasive native species).   How could a country be so benighted as to believe that this simplistic sledge hammer is a solution to such a complex ecological problem.  Do you imagine that Hawaiians don't care about there native birds or that the scientific juggernaut of the US has somehow missed Doc's brilliant insight: "got a feral mammal problem, poison everything and it will be alright".  Why do you imagine the world is not (and would not even consider) copying New Zealand, if there were real evidence that aerial 1080 were saving New Zealand's native birds.

Like I said the ignorance of science in New Zealand is breathtaking.

Quinn Whiting-Okeefe, MD, MA(Math), BA(Chemistry), FACMI

... In response to the following letter... 

Hi Pat,

What a pity that you will be unable to come and see for yourself the birdlife and the flourishing rata, mistletoe and giant fuchsia in the virgin forest of the Moeraki Valley.

We would love to help show you just what an extraordinary improvement there has been in the birdlife here with regular 1080 operations. This isn’t “bragging” but simply the detailed observations of two enthusiastic naturalists over a 22 year period.

We disagree with your alarmist comments below but we respect your right to free speech.
You need to also respect the fact that we do not agree with your views.

Here are our latest observations about NZ native bird and plant life here based on the last 22 years that we have lived here.
The native birdlife here at Lake Moeraki is now extraordinarily rich compared to years gone by. Bird numbers here, in our view, rival the offshore pest free islands that we have visited. Birdlife here shows a huge increase on the 1990s when we started the Wilderness Lodge in 1989. Our Nature Guide son Michael has worked on Little Barrier and Stewart Island and he confirms the comparatively high bird numbers here.

  • Dawn Chorus: There is an amazing dawn chorus. First just on dawn we always hear the whistle of kaka high on the ridges surrounding us. Then we hear dozens of bellbirds. Then a bit later (say 7am) the tui’s start and the pigeon get active as the sun comes out
  • Colenso’s Mistletoe, Fuchsia and Rata. The mistletoe is in excellent condition on the silver beech around the Lodge and currently in full flower. Because the mistletoe grow in the silver beech tree tops it is sometimes easier to locate the plants from the presence of petals/sepals on the forest floor. Fuchsia is healthy as are all the rata. Just north of us, in the Bruce Bay and Paringa area where there has been very little possum and pest control, rata, fuchsia and mistletoe have almost all disappeared because of possum browsing. 
  • Abundance of small birds: There is a constant noise of all the little birds. There are flocks of silvereye up to 100 strong. Tomtit are everywhere along the paths in close packed territories. Grey warbler, shining cuckoo, song thrush, blackbirds and brown creeper are abundant. We regularly hear parakeet here, a bird that was absent in the 1990s. Ecologists tend to focus with pest control measures on the bigger rare birds and forget about the little birds. Yet these little birds are the main victims of rats so benefit the most from rat control.
  • Kaka – this is now the signature special bird of the Moeraki Valley. In the early 1990s perhaps once every couple of months we would get very excited when we heard a solitary kaka from the ridge above the Lodge. Kaka were then very rare. This summer, we are hearing kaka every day virtually all day from dawn to dusk and sometimes after dark. They fly from the Abbey Rocks/Paringa Hills high across the valley to the Whakapohai-Knights Point country at a height of about 200 metres. The largest flock we have seen was 11 birds. They also fly from the ridge behind the Lodge to the tops of the kahikatea around the Lodge and back again. They rarely come down low around us but we did photograph kaka along the Monro Track. Their calls and whistles are amazing.
  • Kereru-Kukupa pigeon: Last night we counted 27 kereru around our reception area. They are feeding on fuchsia fruits and kowhai leaves. Pigeon numbers are fantastic here. There are no introduced plants or willows that they feed on (some people argue that you need these introduced plants to build up pigeon numbers). The key again seems to be a good food supply and above all predator control.
  • Kea. What Dr Graeme Elliott tells me is that we have a lowland kea population here. They don’t go to the mountains and are constantly all around the Lodge. We don’t feed them so they rarely come down close preferring to spend a lot of their time in the tree tops. At and after dusk, we hear them always from a tall kahikatea towards the Lake Moeraki outlet and we think it likely that they are nesting there. Today at 8.30am, 5 kea came and played on the lawn in front of our restaurant. The restaurant was full of guests at the time who loved it. 4 of the 5 kea were young birds with yellow beak tops and pale coloured heads. We hear kea here almost as frequently as we hear kaka.
  • Tui and Bellbird: These are abundant and clearly love all the food plants around (Fuchsia, mistletoe). Flax is not flowering here this year so the tui are going to the old flower stalks and flying away disappointed.
  • Falcon: A pair of falcon fledged 2 chicks over by our staff house and are now constantly feeding them
  • Morepork: We do a night walk every evening at 10.30pm and always hear up to 3 morepork calling around the Lodge. Morepork numbers are very high  with many birds all around the Lodge at night

Pest Control success: The DOC 1080 operation on 27 October 2011 across the 10,000ha Abbey Rocks block that surrounds us has clearly knocked the high rat, stoat and possum populations here to very  low levels. This is the 5th DOC 1080 operation across this forest since 1998 and every year we are seeing an increasing conservation & native biodiversity benefit from sustained and regularly repeated pest control.

Anne Saunders and Gerry McSweeney


  1. Dear Anne and Gerry,

    I am a possum trapper with a proven history of controlling possums using traps. In the contracts that I have signed I have never failed to achieve the predetermined result (aerial 1080 has at least a 20% failure rate). I have always stated that I will achieve a result that is as good or better than the expected result from an aerial 1080 operation with the same money that is spent on aerial 1080...OR...don't pay me.

    Now....Dr Quinn Whiting Okeefe is not opposed to controlling possums, he is opposed to the wholesale 1080 poisoning of our forests with no proven benefit, of this use of aerial 1080, to the ecological system that the 1080 poison is being dropped into.

    I ask you, Anne and Gerry McSweeny, why would you want a wholesale poisoning of our forests when NZ citizens, such as myself, would like the opportunity to be employed doing what we love hunting and being a part of the bush?....And at the same time achieve the same results that you seem to believe are only available by the wholesale 1080 poisoning of both your and my environment.

    Martin Foote

  2. If Mr McSweeny is so observant can he confirm or deny that at least one huge rimu was removed from right under his nose and within two kilometres of his lodge at Lake Moeraki? I know this is correct and so much for his obseving happenings in his area when I ,unfamiliar with his area was able to track the people to the obvious butt! These theives are almost as distasteful as the poisoners! lloyd Hanson