Pest eradication on Stewart Island a bold plan

The plan to eradicate all pests from Stewart Island, with a subsequent reintroduction of numerous native bird species, is bold and ambitious.

The bid is an example of the kind of visionary thinking the country needs if it is to find eco-friendly avenues to increase the tourism dollar.

The beauty of this proposal is that it would combine an active demonstration of New Zealand's commitment to bio-diversity and at the same time create a destination of unparallelled attraction for visitors.

The catch phrase that captures the essence of the proposal, and helps to fire the imagination, is ‘‘the Galapagos of the South''.

The scale and difficulty of the project should not be underestimated, however, even if various stakeholders can be unanimously persuaded of its long-term benefits.

Stewart Island/Rakiura (‘‘Land of Glowing Skies'') is New Zealand's third largest island. It measures 64km by 40km with a land area of 174,600ha.

Eradicating possums, rats and feral cats from such large tracts of rugged bush over this vast area is a formidable task. Nor will it be cheap.

The proposal as it stands envisages an aerial bait drop of the toxin brodifacoum, a 5km predator-proof fence around the settlement of Oban, the temporary removal of sheep and cattle during baiting, and the possible addition of a deer repellent to the bait.

As a follow up, species such as kakapo, saddleback, mohua, kokako, teal, seabirds and invertebrates would be introduced to the island.

The projected cost of the venture is estimated to be about $35 million which, while it may seem exorbitant to some, is barely a million more than the sum spent by the Government on the 2007 America's Cup campaign, and is dwarfed by the mooted $240 million upgrade of Eden Park for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

The pest eradication plan is the brainchild of the Stewart Island/ Rakiura Community and Environment Trust (Sircet), which was formed in 2002.

In 2006, the trust applied for funding of $55,000 from the Tindall Foundation to investigate the possibility of ridding the island of pests. The successful bid received support from the Stewart Island community, including Forest and Bird, the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association, the Southland Conservation Board, and local businesses.

Department of Conservation Stewart Island biodiversity officer Brent Beaven was contracted to research and provide a ‘‘road-map'' for eradication.

The resultant proposal, which will be the subject of a public meeting on April 3, has not found favour with everyone, least of all the island's deer hunters. While generally favouring the bid to get rid of the pests, they are concerned about the choice of poisons and the effects this may have on the deer population.

Stewart Island is highly prized as a stalking destination because of its isolation, its population of white-tailed deer, the ruggedness of its bush and the beauty of the environment.

And at least a proportion of the estimated 60,000 visitors each year are hunters. They are yet to be convinced that the aerial drop can be effected without a dramatic loss in deer numbers.

Others are concerned about the viability of fencing off the entire town of Oban. Others might have concerns about turning the island into a top tourism destination and trampling over residents' rights in the process.

So there are, inevitably, issues to be worked through. With good will, however, and open lines of communication, none would seem to be insurmountable.

Ulva Island, one of the many anchored in the environs, has achieved increasingly rapturous plaudits in ecotourism circles as a pest-free bird sanctuary.

To achieve the same status for Stewart Island itself, and turn it into a thriving wilderness full of native bird and animal life, is hugely more ambitious. There remain question marks over whether and how it could be achieved.

But if it could, the rewards of becoming a ‘‘Galapagos of the South'' would undoubtedly be substantial in terms of biodiversity and the associated benefits tourism brings.

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