Dr Clive Marks has provided a detailed assessment and sound reasons why the scientific aspects of Tasmania’s decade-long war on foxes needs to be independently reviewed.
The fox program began in 2002 with the cliché logo of a ‘fox-free’ taskforce and morphed into a full-blown fox eradication program. The program was reliant on an unproven hypothesis of multiple fox introductions; a fox detection process reliant on finding only their faeces and an elimination policy using one untested approach - buried poisoned meat.
There are numerous reasons to question the genuineness of the whole program and the public policy that supports it.
Firstly there is no evidence of fox breeding in Tasmania.
Secondly there is no legislation that allows a Tasmanian government official to inspect or search for foxes on all Tasmanian properties; let alone attempt to eradicate them. By contrast if they had knowledge of the presence of a serious exotic animal disease - like Foot-and-Mouth Disease - on a Tasmanian property, they would automatically trigger State laws allowing government officers the legal right of entry to inspect any property and take whatever steps necessary to eliminate that serious disease-causing agent. Their actions would be enforced ‘by law’.
So in 2010 what is different about the public policy applied to European red foxes?
If the Tasmanian government believes that foxes are the worst threat to Tasmania’s biodiversity since the Last Ice Age (a definitive statement offered by a DPIPWE scientist appearing before the recent joint Parliamentary Committee) and the State genuinely believes they have the most effective method of eliminating them, why would they not enact legislation to allow for unfettered access to all Tasmanian properties?
The failure to have this legal power is most puzzling and indicates a lack of sincere resolve.
Thirdly even accepting the assumption that foxes have established breeding populations here - a singular reliance on the use of buried poisons to kill all foxes over a landmass the size of Tasmania is particularly troubling. How does that activity work?
Fourthly, there are concerns with the financial administration of this public policy. Even during the period of the Howard government (up to late 2007) it was extremely reluctant to agree to David Llewellyn’s 2006 application for a $56 million, 10-year funding package for fox ‘eradication’. As Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz highlighted in 2007, if Tasmania is still eradicating foxes in 2016 then the program has clearly failed. To rely so heavily on Commonwealth funds to eliminate an unwanted mammal, when the location, abundance and behaviours of these animals are still to be defined and the effectiveness of the tool of eradication is questioned, smacks of financial opportunism.
Fifthly, normally a cart is put before the horse; but what is driving the Tasmanian fox program? To date there has not been one peer-reviewed scientific paper on the field studies from a decade-long program despite the employment of large numbers of biologists, scientists and field staff and an investment of over $40 million of public funds. Forensic methods such as identification of scats and individual animal identification by DNA techniques have been used. Infra-red sensor cameras, fox-attractant lures at bait stations and night-vision equipment have all been purchased. Since 2005, 56 DNA-positive fox faeces have been recovered by scat-detector dogs from multiple sites across the Tasmania yet those fox faeces remain unsupported by any corroborative evidence of live foxes.
What to believe?
Tuesday, Patrick Caruana, AAP:
By Patrick Caruana
HOBART, AAP - Authorities in Tasmania have been hunting for a live fox almost as long as the US military has been scouring Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden, with about as much luck.
Before 2000, it was accepted that the Apple Isle was fox-free, but authorities have found scats - fox droppings - as well as four carcasses scattered throughout the state.
An extensive baiting program began to eradicate the pest, which plagues many parts of mainland Australia, but a live fox is yet to be found.
According to official figures, in the four years up to June 2011, a program which has uncovered 56 scats will have cost the taxpayer more $20 million.
That’s more than $300,000 a turd.
However, the problem would be more costly if foxes took hold, according to Alan Johnston, the fox eradication program manager at the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Wildlife.
“We still believe there is a relatively small fox problem in the state,” Mr Johnston tells AAP.
“There is, however, overwhelming evidence to suggest there are foxes in the state and we’re acting on that basis.
“We’re also well aware that if foxes get established in the state the impacts will be significant.
“The evidence says they’re there and we need to get on and do something now while we’ve got the opportunity to do it.”
But Clive Marks, the former head of the Victorian government’s Vertebrate Pest Research Department, says he has seen no conclusive proof.
“What I’ve said is that either foxes are completely established in Tasmania and we’ll never get rid of them, or they’re not there at all,” Dr Marks tells AAP.
“This incredible paradigm is really related to the lack of irrefutable evidence and the lack of knowledge that the program has produced.
“The evidence is not there one way or the other, so you can’t conclude anything.”
Dr Marks questions the science used to justify the baiting program.
“If you base it upon a belief that there are foxes in a particular area and then you apply a baiting program in that area, then you have no way of measuring whether that program is successful or not,” he says.
“This is just a ridiculous environment to be administering a control program.”
Dr Marks says the fact that a fox den has not been discovered in Burnie - where the foxes supposedly first landed on the island - also raises issues about the entire eradication program.
“If you’ve had an urban fox population in an urban area that small, and you’ve had six breeding seasons, and you can’t find a den, then you’ve only got two options - that they’re not there or that the people looking for them are incompetent,” he says.
“If foxes are breeding, they must have a breeding den.
“In all of Tasmania, there hasn’t been a single breeding den found. I find that strange, but there might be a reason for it.”
Mr Johnston said the department will take Dr Marks’ criticism on board, but said the baiting program will continue.
“He’s obviously a well-respected scientist in his field, so we’ll look at those comments in the appropriate forum,” he says.
“But we consider those comments against all the information that’s available.”
Mr Johnston says comments raising doubts about the program could potentially undermine it.
“This is a program which will only succeed if we’ve got community support,” he says.
“We need access to people’s land, and we need the public to remain vigilant so we can record sightings.”
The program could take another four years, or more.
There’s a chance Osama could be found by then.
Brendan King, AM Breakfast, Wednesday:
Are there foxes in Tasmania?
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There are more than 10 million feral foxes in Australia, but scientists are still debating whether or not foxes have become established in Tasmania. Fewer than 10 have ever been shown to be alive on the island state. A fox expert is calling on the Tasmanian government to reconsider its $40 million fox eradication program, saying it’s a lot of money to spend when the existence of foxes on the island state is very much in doubt.