The denial agenda: How anti-1080 activists wage war on our wildlife

2019-01-09 11:02:34

OPINION: The greatest threats to our native wildlife – and our rural economy – may yet be science denial and conspiracy belief.

Early in December, the Court of Appeal issued a final, frustrated rejection of the legal challenges of the Brook Valley Community Group (BVCG), ending a dismal and costly charade of junk science and delirious zealotry.

Or has it?

The Waimarama Brook Sanctuary is a community conservation project in the hills behind Nelson. Last year, having completed a pest-proof fence, the sanctuary sought consent for an aerial drop of anti-coagulant poison brodifacoum​ to eradicate the rats, mice and other pests inside it.

The "Brook Valley Community Group" is an Orwellian trope. Its leading figures live nowhere near Nelson, let alone the sanctuary. Rather, the BVCG is a cabal of anti-1080 activists from around the country.

Its legal case was a hyperbolic raft of charges based on opinion and speculation. There were apocalyptic premonitions of mass poisonings beyond the fence of residents, dogs, seagulls – even fish out at sea. It ignored a compelling precedent that other fenced sanctuaries – Zealandia in Wellington; Orokonui, near Dunedin; Shakespear Park, north of Auckland; Maungatautari, near Hamilton – all used aerial brodifacoum to eradicate rats, with none of the doom foretold for Nelson.

Justice Peter Churchman, in the High Court, threw out every last challenge. His judgment dripped with exasperation at the quality of the BVCG's "evidence", and at the desultory cynicism of the legal action.

By then, BVCG had inflicted costs of more than $100,000 on a community conservation project. But it was only just getting started: its lawyer Sue Grey promptly applied for an injunction in the High Court and, on rejection, to the Court of Appeal.

That was also rejected, and the Brook Sanctuary finally made three aerial drops of brodifacoum over September and October 2017, but not before the Sanctuary fence had been vandalised, and trees cut down across the access road. The morning of the first drop, safety fences were pushed over, and a hole drilled in a helicopter refuelling tank. Later that morning, Nelson MP Nick Smith claimed a protester had tried to rub rat poison over him, and threatened to poison his family.

Grey then took a fresh case to the Court of Appeal, claiming the drops had been unlawful. She tried to overturn a recent amendment to the Resource Management Act that allowed for the use of toxins such as brodifacoum for pest control.

BVCG had nearly bankrupted a community conservation project with its previous cases, but that did not stop the group also appealing against reparation costs of $71,000 for the sanctuary, on the grounds that BVCG had acted "in the public interest".

The appeal court echoed the High Court judgment, finding that BVCG had "rejected the science and data".

We don't have time for this. There are now 4000 species on our threatened list, and we have a rescue plan for barely a couple of hundred. Some populations face oblivion as 2019 shapes up as perhaps the biggest mast season yet, promising to ignite explosions of pests across nearly one and a half million hectares of the conservation estate.

Meanwhile, across 8m hectares, roam possums known to be infected with bovine Tb, a debilitating and costly blight on the nation's dairy and beef farmers. Four decades of focused pest control have brought the number of Tb-infected herds down from 1700 in the mid-1990s to 35 today. There is no reasoned argument for staying our hand now.

But antagonism to aerial poisoning is not rooted in reason. If it were, it would heed more than 60 years of research into the behaviour and environmental effects of toxins such as 1080, which show incontrovertibly that prophecies of doom are nothing but hyperbole.

If it were, Grey would not have gone on to try to block a 1080 drop over the Hunua Range in September with yet another lawsuit – a drop, incidentally, that saw monitored kōkako in the range enjoy 100 per cent breeding success, bolstering a population that has recovered from a single breeding female in 1994 to 103 pairs.

Anti-1080 sentiment is now an indentured article of faith in the New Zealand conspiracy community, where facts hold no currency. There is no tool in the policy box to deal with wilful, determined ignorance, as evidenced by BVCG's sworn oath to continue denying science wherever it contradicts their beliefs: "We get knocked down, and we get up again," chairman Christopher St Johanser told media after the group's latest court defeat.

Such is the sad, whack-a-mole reality of conspiracy ideation. People might be entitled to their beliefs, but that confers no implicit right to be taken seriously. Extinction won't wait for reason to prevail. The legitimacy of aerial pest control has now been validated in four courtrooms – it's time to get on with the job of saving our threatened species and seeing off bovine Tb once and for all.

* Dave Hansford is an environmentalist writer, blogger, and photographer. ​Comments on this story are now closed

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