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July 11, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Failure to Communicate – Ten, Eighty, Science, Hike!

Use of 1080 poison to protect native birds has for as long as I can remember been something of a contentious issue.

For quite understandable reasons, many people feel poisons are unpleasant, and that poisons dropped from the sky are dangerous. There have been arguments back and forth between proponents and opponents of the currently used 1080 aerial drop schemes, and both sides claim that the scientific evidence is on their side. For anyone who’s not a specialist in the field, this has caused a great deal of confusion.

Recently a report was published by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on the risks and benefits of the continued use of 1080 in New Zealand. I read this report, as well as an earlier ERMA document from 2007 to try and find out what the balance of evidence is on 1080. I can’t claim that this is an extensive study—I have not checked everyone’s references. But hopefully I can be of some benefit to you.

The reason 1080 is used is to reduce numbers of introduced predatory species in New Zealand forests, mainly possums, rats, and stoats. It is also intended that native bird numbers increase (due to reduction in predators); and that forests become more healthy. Nobody is arguing that 1080 is not effective at killing rats, possums and stoats. Indeed, it is the effectiveness of 1080 at killing not just predators but also native birds themselves, or aquatic and insect life that forms the main argument against 1080. So do these claims stack up?

There is no doubt that 1080 kills native birds. The toxicology is quite clear, and studies of 1080 drops have found dead birds with 1080 in their bodies. But whether 1080 kills birds is not the important question. The question we should be asking is: do the overall numbers of native birds decrease as a result of 1080 drops? Now, there have been recorded 1080 drops in the past which have resulted in a drop in native bird numbers. However, it is worth noting that most of these unsuccessful 1080 operations were carried out thirty-five years ago. At that time, methodology of the operations was less well developed. For example, at that time the average amount of poisoned bait that was dropped per hectare was five to ten times higher than is currently used. If one looks at the results of 1080 drops after 2008, when the most recent changes to 1080 laws and protocol were made, the results are positive. As time goes on, we have become better at using 1080 poison for the benefit of bird populations.

I think that a lot of people confuse the statement “1080 kills native birds” with “1080 has an overall negative impact on native birds.” What evidence suggests these days is that 1080 kills some individual birds, but has a noticeable benefit on the overall numbers, and I support that Commissioner’s finding that 1080 drops should continue. It is backed by robust science, and I can have confidence that it will be of benefit to native bird species.

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