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The consortium behind a $30million plan to eradicate or intensively control predators across a vast swathe of the Queenstown Lakes district is back to square one after a series of funding setbacks.
The Southern Lakes Sanctuary, announced last May, is aimed at eradicating possums, rats and mustelids across a 660,000ha area between Lakes Wakatipu and Hawea, to create a sanctuary for more than 20 threatened or at-risk bird and lizard species.
It was also intended to be a lifeline for adventure tourism workers who had lost their jobs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, creating more than 100 jobs.
But late last year, after six months of intensive fundraising work, the consortium was forced to relinquish an offer of $8million from Predator Free 2050 (PF2050) because it could not secure matching funds from other sources.
The consortium, led by the Whakatipu Wildlife Trust, includes the Routeburn Dart Wildlife Trust, Central Otago Lakes Forest & Bird, Wanaka Backyard Trapping as well as about 50 community trapping groups in Wakatipu.
Whakatipu Wildlife Trust executive officer Leslie Van Gelder said it received the $8million offer in July, on the condition it matched that amount with other money.
PF2050 is a Crown company set up in 2017 to fund large, landscape-scale predator eradication projects.
The consortium then applied to the Department of Conservation (Doc) for $15million over five years from the $1.25billion Jobs for Nature Fund, on the understanding it could use that money to match the PF2050 offer.
It was not until November it was told Crown funding could not be matched with other Crown funding, despite senior Doc managers in Wellington being aware of that since June, Ms Van Gelder said.
"For some reason, that information did not filter down to us.
"We would’ve looked for non-Crown money to match the Predator Free money instead of spending all that time thinking that Jobs for Nature was going to do that."
Doc southern South Island director Aaron Fleming admitted "things could’ve been done differently".
When it received the consortium’s July application, it was still setting up a framework for assessing proposals for the newly created Jobs for Nature Fund, Mr Fleming said.
"Unfortunately, Crown funding cannot be matched by Crown funding.
"We became aware of the potential conflict in mid-October, and communicated with the consortium in early November.
"We’ve acknowledged to the consortium that things could’ve been done differently, and importantly, we’re now working with them to help reframe their proposal, knowing what we now know."
The Southern Lakes Sanctuary was an "exciting" proposal that Doc supported in principle, he said.
Ms Van Gelder said Doc subsequently made an indicative offer of $900,000 from the Kaimahi for Nature fund, a $200million subset of the Jobs for Nature Fund.
The consortium now planned to apply for money from a new body considering applications for Kaimahi for Nature, the Southern South Island Alliance, which then made recommendations to Doc.
The consortium would ask for $3million, over three years, out of the $24.5million available for projects in Otago and Southland.
"Our hope is that [Conservation Minister Kiri Allan] will recognise and understand the significance of our region."
It also remained confident of getting funding from the "hugely supportive" PF2050 in the future, provided it could find other sources of money, including from regional charities or philanthropists.
"They would love to be able to find a way to work with us."
Ms Van Gelder said the consortium’s original vision was not too ambitious, just "visionary".
While its members were frustrated by the setbacks, the experience had brought them closer together, and they will soon form a Southern Lakes Sanctuary Trust.
"Last year was challenging for everybody, but I think we’re people who hold that big vision and we haven’t lost that at all."
If its application to the Alliance was successful, it would use the money in the first year to "amplify" the work of the consortium’s many community trapping groups, and develop a detailed technical plan for the next 10 years.
Groundwork would get going in the second and third years, alongside continuing efforts to secure enough funding to achieve some of the group’s eradication targets, she said.