Image for ‘How to eradicate foxes’ in 2003

An external wildlife consultant told the Tasmanian Government in early 2003 that based on allegations of fox releases in several locations and physical evidence of fox presence, the state had three years to find, kill and confirm the removal of the assumed small number of foxes.

Dr Jack Kinnear’s major recommendation in his review - “Eradicating the Fox in Tasmania: A Review of the Fox-Free Tasmania Program” was:

‘Governments and its relevant agencies should recognise the fox threat for what it is - an impending disaster comparable in magnitude to an outbreak of a calamitous disease such as Foot and Mouth [Disease]. The key word is magnitude in reference to damage to the economy and very much more so to Tasmania’s biodiversity…. Eradication of the fox should be given the highest priority…’ 

Dr Kinnear compared the legal and administrative mechanisms in place to eradicate a serious exotic virus - Foot & Mouth Disease virus - with the potential establishment and spread of foxes throughout Tasmania.

Assuming the intelligence on foxes was correct; he considered a scenario on how foxes might become established in Tasmania:

‘There would be no major dramas, no pandemonium because the damage would be insidious. ….poultry owners would experience heavy losses; they would have to fox-proof yards…Tasmanians would begin to notice the absence of familiar wildlife road kills, but there would still be numerous victims, now comprised largely of foxes. People would come to realise that wildlife had disappeared - no more bettongs, barred bandicoots, pademelons, possums or plovers. …Conservation agencies would try to protect pockets of rare wildlife in nature reserves by baiting for foxes, but at a cost, year in, year out.’

Fearful stuff but it was all based on the implicit need for irrefutable evidence for the PRESENCE of live foxes of both sexes at large (free-ranging) in Tasmania.

Most States have prepared comprehensive strategic plans for unwanted organism threats, from microbes or mammals; they are generally known as risk assessments. These plans take into consideration the known biology of the unwanted organism including its natural means of multiplication and spread. The accepted dogma of such risk assessment plans is to understand the means that a particular organism “enters, establishes and spreads” within a new environment.

Managing that risk relies implicitly on the acquisition of irrefutable evidence that reproductively capable individuals of a particular organism have entered a new environment and have the potential to increase in number by natural reproduction (establishment).

Dr Kinnear was concerned that the fox-FMD comparison had its limitations also; ‘Unlike FMD [that] can be eradicated, once [the fox] is established it is unlikely that foxes could be eradicated.’

Based on that assumption Dr Kinnear emphasised the need to develop an Eradication Plan that required the careful and precise discovery of where the small number of forerunner foxes where; he recommended the State Government apply scarce resources to finding those fox hot spots.

In early 2003 Dr Kinnear told the State Government that detecting foxes was a first priority and that it would be a ‘difficult and laborious task’.

‘[Fox] numbers are still low; low numbers make the task of detecting foxes a formidable one.’

‘…difficulties because of the prevailing circumstances - few individual foxes, widely dispersed; behavioural traits - secretive and nocturnal.’

Detection surveillance using effective means of identifying the presence of live foxes was critical.

Reliance solely on sightings (as evidence) by the public without systematic and thorough follow up to confirm was raised.

‘Experience gained from investigations of alleged thylacine sightings has shown that public sightings are notoriously unreliable as most are mistaken identities. [Sightings] can easy to be mistaken…many reports are therefore false. Sightings are more credible when recurrent sighting form clusters or hot spots’

In early 2003 Dr Kinnear listed and detailed the range of methods the State Government could use to collect irrefutable evidence of foxes:

1. Use of dogs - ‘dogs expertly trained to effectively detect foxes’;
2. Spotlighting - ‘is a widely used technique for locating foxes…given the densities of foxes in Tasmania there would be a very low probability of sighting a fox per night’
3. Sporting shooter organisations - ‘Hunter groups may possibly have a role…hunters typically like to sight game and fire their guns, but spotlighting hour after hour without the satisfaction of firing a shot would not be an attractive proposition to most hunters’
4. Indirect methods of detecting foxes - ‘…the presence of scats (i.e. faeces) can provide reliable clues of their presence…scat contain grooming hairs…on average of 20% of fox scats.  Methods of identifying fox DNA in faeces are available. The technology has been applied in Victoria and has been shown to be capable of identifying different individuals within a population. I strongly recommend that the taskforce proceed to investigate the use of this technology; a contact person is Clive Marks (email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).’

Based on his experience of foxes in Western Australia Dr Kinnear warned against relying on poison baiting as without verification of effectiveness. He raised this in a section of his report headed: “No victims, no evidence”

‘There is a need to find an efficient way of locating poisoned foxes with certainty, because without this information, the taskforce cannot tell whether it is successful or not.’

Even back in early 2003 Dr Kinnear’s report told the Government:

‘Many Tasmanians surveyed (40%) are not convinced that foxes are actually present… [This result] stresses the need for the taskforce to produce concrete evidence that foxes are present. A special effort should be made to produce a victim, as it would erase the existing scepticism and legitimise the taskforce.’

The Tasmanian public was solidly in favour of eradicating foxes and 96% strongly disapproved of anyone caught importing foxes into the State.

‘The Fox Program in Tasmania is faced with the difficult task of (1) locating foxes, (2) exposing foxes to poison baits (the best method of killing foxes), and (3) confirming that the baits have killed them.’

In early 2003 Dr Kinnear recommended the State Government set a timeframe for fox eradication.

‘…the time frame for eradication be set at 3 years, dating from the beginning of the forthcoming financial year [i.e. June 2003]’.
Dr Kinnear took the intelligence on fox presence offered in the summary prepared by taskforce senior officer Chris Emms on its face value; Dr Kinnear was seriously concerned:

‘The presence of the fox [in Tasmania] should be seen as a crisis and addressed accordingly. The taskforce’s requirements should take precedent over all other Australian conservation projects. The eradication project should be seen as an exercise in crisis management and not as a typical conservation project competing for funds. It needs to be adequately funded and resourced in a flexible manner that avoids red tape and the lengthy procedures and approvals processes that are typically associated with government bureaucracies. … Accountability can be maintained by periodic external reviews.’

[Reference: Kinnear, J.E. (2003) Eradicating the Fox in Tasmania: A Review of the Fox Free Tasmania Program ABN: 9225-6856-131]