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Conservation and hunting groups nonetheless occupied the middle ground yesterday, strangely united by separate legal bids to force Doc to meet its responsibilities to the environment and to the people our national parks help sustain. Both say Doc has failed to meet its commitments, albeit from different sides of the fence.
Prior to lockdown, Forest & Bird sought a declaratory judgement as to the legality of Doc’s tahr operational control plan, which it said fell short of the National Parks Act and Doc’s national park management plans. Broadly, both would have it that introduced species are removed from national parks, but Forest & Bird maintains Doc has consistently failed to introduce measures to remove tahr and so is not doing its job.
Doc’s 2020-21 recently released control plan stepped back the concessions of the 2018 plan. Edging closer to the ambitious plan Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage wanted back then, the new plan would see bull tahr culled and the scale of the aerial control programme increased three-fold.
It is worth remembering some hunters wanted to take the 2018 plan to court before the Game Animal Council and Doc forged an agreement to control breeding populations while encouraging hunting.
The council was a forceful moderate, helping to avoid a lengthy delay to the cull while extracting concessions. Among them was that hunters would be consulted on future plans; this was set back when members of the Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group got their copy of the new draft plan two days before they met with the department.
This was clearly not long enough to consult with the sector, but enough for the New Zealand Tahr Foundation to lodge an injunction to stop the department’s first steps towards removing all tahr from the Aoraki/Mount Cook and Tai Poutini national parks. President Snow Hewetson says the cull is excessive, needless, and unjustified in terms of its scale. He and other hunters say it will be a better plan with meaningful consultation.
Hunters and environmentalists have common ground in wanting to engage with Doc to ensure their expectations are met.
On the face of it, the environmental lobby must have the upper hand if a government department is to act in accordance with an Act of Parliament, and as per the instructions of a minister clearly keen to embark upon a game-changing programme. That said, previous, decades-old commitments to "managing" tahr on public land tend to blur the lines.
If management is the mantra, there is room to argue more research must be done to ensure good science underpins future management plans. Such plans, the hunters would hope, would minimise tahr’s impact on fragile environments while maintaining the lifestyle and big game business opportunities the herds support.
National Party Conservation spokeswoman and Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean says tahr need to be sensibly managed, but proper consultation and due diligence need to be carried out. Referring to the Green Party minister’s position on introduced species, she says conservation decisions should be based on science not ideology.
This is fair, to a point, but as all sides seek consultation and action, it must be acknowledged ideology and competing — and often intersecting — values educate each side of the divide. Doc and Ms Sage manage the conservation estate on behalf of all New Zealanders, and they must also manage an enduring resolution to a pressing social and environmental issue that cannot be left to the courts.