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Tasmanian Devil Reintroduction on Mainland Australia - Ethical???

Posted on behalf of the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program Inc.

A recent academic publication explores the prospects of reintroducing the threatened Tasmanian Devil into forested south eastern Australia as a way of restoring ecosystems. Two important environmental objectives are considered in putting this forward: increasing the survival prospects of the devil itself which is currently threatened in Tasmania, and restoring ecosystems through the re-introduction of a top-order predator role in areas where the dingo (which currently performs this role) has been ‘extirpated’.

This paper is important for dingo conservation advocates and organizations. This is because dingo conservationists have come to rely increasingly upon reference to the apex predator role of dingoes in making their case to governments.

Further, what initially may seem an innocuous initiative for the re-introduction of devils to mainland Australia, on closer inspection is troublesome both politically and environmentally. First, an outline of the research and what it concludes.

The starting point for the paper is that dingo culling has been linked to ecological cascades evidenced by eruptions of herbivores and introduced mesopredators (foxes and cats), and declines in small and medium-sized herbivores (including small mammal extinction). Increased herbivore populations have resulted in decreased understorey vegetation, which in turn has facilitated mesopredator predation upon small mammal species. The paper identifies mainland habitat where reintroduced devil populations may survive and models the potential effects of devil reintroduction for herbivore numbers, understorey vegetation recovery and small mammal numbers. It is concluded that reintroduction of the devil as an alternative apex predator would restore ecological balance. Suitable areas for devil reintroduction are identified down the NSW coastal region into most of eastern Victoria.

The case for devil reintroduction, however, does not simply rely upon scientific argument. It is based on political judgements which cut to the core of current efforts to preserve the dingo as apex predator, including in south eastern Australian forested regions.

Whereas, the title of the paper and some of the media coverage that it has attracted points to devil reintroduction in forested areas where dingoes ‘have been extirpated’ and ‘where dingoes no longer exist’, a closer reading indicates that devil populations are deemed to be incompatible with dingoes and that ongoing, intensive dingo control, through the use of 1080 poison, would be required over large areas to sustain devil populations. It can be presumed that such ongoing, intensive baiting may also occur in remote forested regions where devils would be re-introduced and where baiting is not currently carried out. Landscape scale baiting against dingoes would be deployed not only to protect sheep, but devil populations, perhaps at intensities and scales greater than at present.

Here, we see an instance of where radical ecology converges with conservative politics. This is because a working assumption of the paper is that dingo conservation is not viable in areas where they are deemed to be an agricultural pest:

"Because dingoes are a major pest to livestock producers the maintenance of dingo populations is an
untenable option for wildlife managers in many regions of south-eastern Australia." (Hunter, et al., 2015:
429)

Ultimately the credibility of the proposal for reintroducing devils to forested south-eastern Australia rests on the conservative (some would say reactionary) political assumption that dingo conservation in these areas is ‘untenable’ because of commercial agricultural considerations. Business trumps nature. The paper appears to be pandering to the anti-dingo prejudice of the pastoral industry in an attempt to rally support for devil reintroduction.

There is no suggestion that the scale of dingo predation is often exaggerated by pastoral interests and reflects an uninterrupted, ingrained cultural prejudice from the early colonial period. In Victoria, a loss of around 3,500 sheep is recorded annually due to ‘wild dog’ predation, out of a population of around 20 million sheep. Historically, a ‘wild dog’ control industry has grown up around an exaggerated perception of the ‘wild dog’ threat and an unwillingness to recognize the ecological role of the dingo as apex predator. It is unfortunate that some scientists now appear to be using this entrenched prejudice as their starting point for a ‘scientific’ investigation into the plausibility of devil reintroduction.

The ethical concerns about devil reintroduction, as conceived in this paper, go further. Other recent genetic research (Cairns, 2015) strongly suggests that there were two introductions of the dingo into Australia. One of these distinct dingo lineages exists in the south eastern forested regions of the Australian continent. What has been loosely referred to as the ‘Alpine’ dingo, it is argued, represents a distinct genetic lineage and not merely a regional adaptation. The very areas where this distinct dingo lineage exists are the areas targeted in the devil reintroduction paper.

To explore opportunities for expanding the range of the Tasmanian devil, including onto mainland Australia, is potentially defensible. But, to give credibility to such an endeavor by scaling up the ‘extirpation’ of another native apex predator, essentially for reasons of prejudice and commercial triumphalism, is deplorable – ‘science’ at its worst.

(Hunter, D, Britz, T., Jones, M., and Letnic, M. (2015) ‘Reintroduction of Tasmanian Devils to mainland Australia can restore top-down control in ecosystems where dingoes have been extirpated’, Biological Conservation, 191, 428-435)

Comments

Hmmm...I don't think you've actually read this paper. Nowhere does it call for the ongoing removal of dingoes. It suggests that devils could be reintroduced into the vast regions, particularly east of the Great Dividing Range, where dingoes are no longer extant. You linking advocacy of upscaling of 1080 poison use and a devil reintroduction is a kooky conspiracy theory and really I know of no environment organisation or agency that views 1080 as a magic bullet in the long term...i.e. nobody wants to keep using 1080 in the long run - it's expensive to deploy. Relax mate.