$35m pest eradication bid

Stewart Island interests are considering an ambitious $35 million proposal to eradicate rats, feral cats and possums from the island.

The proposal has initial support from parts of the community, but is vehemently opposed by deer hunters. It includes a predator-proof fence around the settlement of Oban and plans for widespread aerial poison drops.

Described as New Zealand's biggest conservation project, it aims to ‘‘make Stewart Island the Galapagos of the South''.

Copies of the proposal have been given to community groups and key stakeholders ahead of a public meeting on April 3.

The draft feasibility study has been prepared by the Stewart Island/Rakiura Community and Environment Trust (SIRCET), with support from the Department of Conservation and the Tindall Foundation.

Proposed ‘‘border-control'' measures could include teams of rodent-checking dogs monitoring departures from Bluff and Invercargill and arrivals on the island.

It is hoped bird species such as kakapo, saddleback, mohua, kokako and teal may eventually be reintroduced to Stewart Island.

Trust project co-ordinator Brent Beaven, on secondment from his role as Doc Stewart Island biodiversity officer, said the proposal would ignite passions between various interest groups, but the debate would be good for the island's future.

‘‘Nothing has been attempted in New Zealand on this scale before. Our aim is to make Stewart Island the Galapagos of the South,'' Mr Beaven said.

The draft's controversial points include the Oban fence, and aerial bait drops of the toxin broudifacoum.

Mr Beaven said it was proposed that deer repellent be added to the bait.

‘‘We know there will be strong debate from the deerstalkers. They will be concerned about aerial bait being used, but we have to explore our options.''

The feasibility study was expected to be finalised by June, and Mr Beaven said it would be at least five years before any aerial drop began.

‘‘The important thing for us is that we make a start.''

Creating a 174,600ha predator-free island would result in growth in ecotourism, securing a sustainable future for the island.

While critics might baulk at the estimated $35 million price, it was comparable with the $34 million spent on the 2007 America's Cup campaign, Mr Beaven said.

Stewart Island Southland District Council ward representative Bruce Ford said he, like most people on the island, supported the eradication of rats, possums and feral cats from the island ‘‘but I don't support removing deer''.

‘‘The big concern the community will have, and because of the involvement by Doc, is that the right to hunt deer may be taken away from us.''

During his 40 years on the island, he had watched the island economy change from a reliance on fishing to tourism. But deer hunters were still among the estimated 60,000 visitors each year.

Stewart Island Experience manager Matt Sillars supported the pest-free idea as an extension of what had been achieved on outlying islands.

The feasibility study would go to the trust before the Government was asked for support and funding. 

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