Thursday, August 12, 2010

Australia’s War on “Pests”

So today I read an article in an Australian newspaper that said: “Arid Recovery has won a $29,500 Community Natural Resource Management (NRM) grant to undertake field trials into innovative feral cat management techniques.” By now most of us are familiar with Australia’s fight against “invasive species,” “exotic,” “alien,” “introduced,” “feral,” “pest” or whatever term you chose to use, but we might not know that the country is “waging a war” against these species, which seem to number in the thousands, but no one is actually sure. Australia spends around $3.5 billion a year just on the control of noxious weeds; that’s not including populations of mammals, birds, insects, fungi, or diseases that are being managed.

According to their website, “Arid Recovery is an ecosystem restoration initiative based in the South Australian outback and dedicated to the restoration of Australia’s arid lands. Established in 1997, the program is centered around a 123km² [approx. 403,543ft] fenced reserve. Feral cats, rabbits and foxes have been eradicated from a total of 60km² [approx. 196,850ft] and this has provided an area of complete protection into which four species of locally extinct mammals have so far been reintroduced. Arid Recovery is a unique example of a highly successful partnership between industry, government, education and community via the four way partnership that supports Arid Recovery.”

So I did some research and found out that two of Arid Recovery’s partners or “sponsors,” appear to have their own agenda for lending a hand in conservation. The first is BHP Billiton, “the world's largest diversified natural resources company.” In 2008, BHP Billiton Olympic Dam (the site of an extremely large iron oxide copper gold deposit producing copper, uranium, gold, silver) began expansion on the site, sealing its fate by becoming the largest mine in the world. BHP Billiton donates some land towards conservation and provides some funding, and in return they boast about their mining operations. “[We] aim to be a premier global company, we occupy significant positions in major commodity businesses, including aluminum, energy coal and metallurgical coal, copper, manganese, iron ore, uranium, nickel, silver and titanium minerals, and have substantial interests in oil, gas, liquefied natural gas and diamonds.”

The other company to sponsor Arid Recovery is ODT Australis, a heavy equipment contractor. They specialize in mining, demolition, waste management, pastoral management (lease land for livestock and assist with feral eradication programs), and rehabilitation (reclaiming land after it has been degraded - ODT Australis assists the mining industry by providing “minimal disruption to the environment” when establishing site clearing for exploration, drilling and construction projects), along with other services. ODT Australis boasts about being one of the top contractors for the Olympic Dam. Again, to help conservationists, like Arid Recovery, get passed ODT’s clearly destructive behavior, they are provided with financial assistance as well as help in carrying out pest eradication programs.

So let us come back to this group receiving money from its “partners” to continue eradication programs on feral cats. The threat of feral cats in Australia is listed as “high to extreme” on Wikipedia, noting from Australia’s Department of the Environment and Heritage that feral cats are “the most widely spread and invasive of all introduced species. It is possibly responsible for the extinction of some species of small mammals.” Well coincidentally, I also read some of Tim Low’s analysis of feral animals in Australia today, where he speaks of the cat issue as “overrated.” In Feral Future, he points out that the majority of ecological pest research goes towards mammals, when other pests, like insects, fungi, and disease, cause more damage and receive less attention. Low goes on to say, “Many conservationists treat cats as they were our number one pest, but I believe foxes, rabbits, pigs, toads, trout, and some weeds all pose a greater menace.” He also talks about how cats get a bad rap for their predation, when foxes may actually be responsible for the loss of some mammal species.

This book is simply convincing me that everything is SO interconnected and more complicated than we can imagine, that humans need to take it easy when trying to manage the natural world. I know humans have a hard time restraining ourselves from expressing our opinions and sometimes placing our ideas on others, but the earth has been managing the environment for millions of years prior to our living on the planet and it will continue to do so long after we are gone. Taking from Rev. Professor Andrew Linzey of the University of Oxford, we should be acting as “servant species” rather than “master species” when it comes to our place in the environment. And as a servant species, we should be practicing humane, nonlethal management practices. Countless non-killing methods of population control do exist, including TNR for feral cats. Plenty of people are willing to get involved with humane control, but instead, our conservationists continue to do deals with land developers (and chemical companies) and human activity continues to destroy the very environment we are trying to protect.

Eradication attempts are pointless because killing is a continuous cycle; it does nothing to stop the cycle at its beginning. Australian Environmentalist Frankie Seymour says, “Reducing a population of mislocated animals is a complete waste of time (and money) unless you are prepared to keep on reducing it—killing and killing and killing, generation after generation. The moment you turn your back for a year or a season, the population will return to full occupation of all available niches.” With thousands of different species named as so-called “pests” in Australia, that’s a lot of killing.

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