For more than 80 years bushwalkers have been at the forefront of conserving Australia’s most precious wild places. Whether scrounging together cash in the midst of the depression to save the Blue Gum Forest or slowly working away over decades of tedious lobbying, educating and campaigning to protect the now internationally recognised greater Blue Mountains area, bushwalking and conservation have always gone hand in hand.
So while our posts are usually confined to the excitement of our trips — with the simple goal of encouraging more people to get out there and explore our bountiful natural assets — we’re unapologetically making an exception for this issue.
In one of the most bizarre political deals ever seen, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell’s yesterday announced that in return for supporting his deal to sell off the state’s electricity generators he had agreed to allow recreational hunting in 79 National Parks, Nature Reserves and Conservation Areas.
And the parks that have been opened up to gun-toting amateurs wanting to go on yippee-shoots in the name of “conservation hunting” aren’t just obscure patches of scrub in remote corners of the state, they are some of the most significant — and popular — national parks we have.
The full list includes places like Kosciuszko, the Warrumbungles, Morton NP, Oxley Wild Rivers, the Watagans, Myall Lakes, Goulburn River NP, Gibraltar Range NP and Brindabella NP. These areas have incredible environmental value, not to mention the tourism value with their amazing scenic vistas that have for decades drawn visitors from far and wide.
Indeed, on the same day the Premier was announcing hunting season was open, the Environment Minister was announcing the launch of a brand new “state-of-the-art” national parks website as part of a plan to double tourism expenditure in NSW over the next decade. This could be a challenging aim if flak jackets suddenly become an integral part of the prepared walker’s kit!
Now the emotive concerns about being shot by a short-sighted marksman who mistook you for a wild boar (I have been known to bear some resemblance in the early morning) are an obvious element of why this is bad policy, but there is actually some serious science that says exactly the same thing. (On a side note, the experiences of Victoria suggest the hunters generally shoot each other — there are several cases a year — rather than bushwalkers, but I’d rather not be the poor bugger who gets to prove this wrong).
While invasive species, including feral animals, are a terrible thing for the bush and cause real and lasting damage (you only have to see what pigs have done to sections of the Coxs and Kowmung Rivers), their eradication needs to be done in a planned, coordinated way. To instead have a gung-ho band of amateurs taking pot-shots means that while you may kill a small number of feral animals, you are likely to spread the remaining critters more broadly, worsening the impact of these invasive species.
To put it bluntly, feral animals are a serious issue, but one best addressed by professionals relying on science, not red-necks relying on firepower.
It is also important to remember that National Parks were created for two reason: for the protection of some of our most significant natural areas and for the enjoyment and recreation of the people of NSW. At no point during the conception, creation or ongoing development of our national park system has the provision of public lands for hunters to roam with an arsenal of deadly weapons been a guiding principle.
Worst of all the State Government already knows all this. During his first week in government the Premier promised the people of NSW that he would not allow shooting in National Parks, for exactly the reasons I’ve already covered. His decision to backflip is not based on new science, but rather political expediency and the desperate need to get his hands on the $3 to $4 billion the state’s power generators are worth.
Hopefully, like us, you are someone who enjoys the natural wonders that have been protected by previous generations of bushwalking conservationists. If so, I’d suggest a few easy things you can do to try and put a stop to this dangerous and destructive policy. Spend a few minutes sending an email, or making a phone call, and letting our political leaders know the backlash this decision will cause. Join a conservation organisation and become part of the campaign. And most importantly take people into our wonderful national parks, show them the natural wonders that have been protected, educate them about the risks these places face, and make sure our wild places are valued and protected for future generations.
What can you do?
1) Contact Premier Barry O’Farrell. Call his office on (02) 9228 5239, send an email to [email protected] or a letter to Premier Barry O’Farrell, GPO Box 5341, Sydney NSW 2001. If you don’t have lots of time to spare you can send a form letter here (also check out their map showing the parks impacted by this decision).
2) Contact your local member of parliament and let them know how strongly you feel about this appalling decision (click here for a full list of MP’s by electorate). Highlight the purpose of national parks, the risks hunting poses, the science that says uncontrolled hunting causes more harm than good, and the fact that you believe this broken promise is a major betrayal by the Premier.
3) Join a conservation organisation like the National Parks Association of NSW or the Colong Foundation. (You can find a local conservation group near you on the Nature Conservation Council of NSW’s website).
A number of people have made comments below asking for more information about what the evidence and expert opinion is on the impact and effectiveness of amateur hunters targeting feral animal populations. Here are a selection of documents I have found interesting, useful and informative. They all raise concerns about the fact the recreational hunting can and continues to worsen feral animal problems.
I would suggest starting by reading the Invasive Species Council’s very well researched essay, Is recreational hunting effective for feral animal control, which concludes:
To date, it is likely that greater harm than good has resulted from recreational hunting of feral animals, with most species having expanded in range and numbers despite hunting and, in some cases, because of hunting. The evidence indicates that recreational hunting is not effective as a major or primary method of feral animal control.
The report prepared for the Howard Government’s Department of the Environment and Water in 2007 titled Managing feral animals and their impacts actually concludes that recreational hunting is worsening feral animal problems in Australia:
The sport and business of hunting is contributing significantly to Australia’s feral animal problems. For example: One hundred and twenty-seven new feral deer populations are reported to have been created by hunters across Australia; Buffalo, deer and blackbuck have been freed on Cape York Peninsula; and The newly-created Game Council New South Wales has been given a mandate to manage Californian quail, pheasant, chukar partridge, peafowl and turkey, even though none of these species (yet) occurs in the wild on mainland Australia.
Because hunting access to private lands has become more difficult, deer have been released into national parks, state forests, catchment lands and other secluded places for future sport…
Pigs are also being released into national parks and other lands to create hunting opportunities. They can often be recognised by their torn ears from having been held down by dogs…
The sport and industry of hunting should be monitored to prevent new feral animal problems arising… Any subsequent changes to legislation and policy should consider that some hunters are ‘mavericks’ who ignore laws.
And then there is the NSW Government’s own experts from the National Parks and Wildlife Service.In their Blue Mountains Pest Management Strategy the negative impacts of illegal hunters who currently operate in our National Parks are highlighted as a top priority because:
Illegal pig hunting… often leads to the release or escape of hunting dogs. These dogs are then reliant on predation for survival and can potentially breed with dingos… Prevention of pig dog activities and releases of pig dogs in proximity to threatened species that may be impacted such koala colonies and dingo strongholds is of a higher priority.
Finally, a NSW Parliamentary discussion paper produced in 2010, when this issue last came up, includes the following assessment:
Studies indicate that professional, targeted feral animal control is much more successful than recreational hunting; Game Council data indicates that the kill rate of feral animals by recreational hunters is very low (less than two feral animals per licensed hunter and less than one animal per hunting day in 2007- 2008); Recreational hunters have a vested interest in retaining a sustainable population of feral animals to facilitate future hunting; Feral animal populations were, in some instances, established by hunters to facilitate hunting; There are safety issues associated with hunting in national parks and hunting conflicts with other recreational uses.
The following is from a post by a NPWS ranger on bushwalk.com. He is involved with feral animal management in many of our National Parks, including some of those that hunters will now be able to access. He provides some very interesting and informative points:
- This whole issue is about the government wanting to sell the state’s power stations and is not based on any rational park management policy.
- NPWS staff are just as confused as everyone else as to how the system will be implemented. If you listen to the Shooters and Fishers Party upper house members, then the system for hunting in national parks will be run in the same manner as it is in state forests. If you listen to the Premier, Environment Minister and read the internal Q&A memo, then the system will be organised and controlled by NPWS in selected areas. We need clarification on this issue.
- I am actively involved in aerial feral animal control programs in various reserves as a navigator and lookout/spotter and I know from first hand experience we can kill up to 200 goats and pigs in a couple of hours flying. Depending on the terrain and the number of animals we can cover up to 500ha in that time. Often this country is very rugged and ground based shooters would not even be able to cover 10 ha in the same time frame, let alone get into a position for a clear shot at all the feral animals. Further west in the more open country, culling of greater numbers is possible.
- The 2010-11 Game Council Annual report pp 13 & 15 states in that year they issued 15,080 licences and the total take reported was 14,161 animals. This equates to about 0.9 animal per hunting trip. Some 46% of the animals shot were rabbits, about 20% were goats and about 16% were pigs. Wild dogs, which are one of the biggest problems for landholders made up just 0.5% of all animals taken under licence. These figures reflect the information provided by the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre’s findings about the usefulness of ground based shooting in controlling various pest species. That is, rabbits are easy to shoot from the ground, while dogs are not. These figures clearly demonstrate to me that ground based recreational hunting is an ineffective means of feral animal control over large areas of land. The rabbit population in Australia numbers in the millions yet less than 10,000 are removed annually from licensed recreational hunting.
- Controlling feral animal populations is a whole of landscape issue. All land managers be they public or private need to do their part if it is to be effective, otherwise animals just migrate into the controlled areas from adjoining lands.
- The risk of serious injury or death to park visitors and staff from accidental shooting is very real. The chances may be low, but the consequences are tragic and devastating for the victim, their family and the hunter and the hunter’s family. As has been reported on tv, there have been two fatal accidental shootings in New Zealand in the last two years. It can and will happen sometime.
- I know employees of State Forests who do not like the hunting in the forests where they are working and there was a lot of opposition amongst the Forestry staff when it was introduced. They never know for sure if a hunter is actually out there and it has changed their enjoyment of the job, because they now have a constant feeling of unease when out in the field. I personally don’t want to happen to me and yes, some of the parks I work in are on the list of 79.
- National park estate covers just over 8% of NSW, lets be generous and take away another 10% for urban and other areas where shooting isn’t feasible. That still leaves about 80% of NSW that they can currently hunt on if they gain permission of the landholders. One has to ask why the hunters are so interested in getting access to the national park estate when they have so much land they could use. It is not because most of the feral animals live on national park estate, they are spread across the landscape.
- I believe the Shooters and Fishers Party is actually trying to enact a profound social change in community attitudes and getting permission for recreational hunting in these first national parks has been a longstanding goal in trying to legitimise their sport. In 2009, they tried to introduce a bill that amongst other things allowed for the hunting of animals in all national park estate across NSW, forbid a national park ranger to approach within 10 metres of a licensed hunter on a national park without their permission (how am I supposed to check if they are licensed if they refuse me permission ?) and provided for the setting up of game reserves on private property, where new introduced species can be released into the wild, but the landholder would not be responsible for any that escaped beyond their fences (including a number of game bird species which could simply fly off the property). This is a recipe for a whole new suit of feral animals in the landscape. It is obvious that the main goal of the Shooters and Fishers Party is to provide hunting opportunities such as these, it is not about feral animal control, it is about trophy lists and unimpeded enjoyment of their sport.
- The State Forest experience is enlightening. 31 state forests were opened to hunting on a “trial basis” which lasted 1 month. Within 6 months, recreational hunting was permitted on some 400 state forests. While state forestry officers can temporarily close areas to hunting while they are undertaking works such as harvesting and hazard reduction burning, I have been told by a Forester that he constantly receives phone calls from his superiors questioning why he has temporarily stopped access to hunters. These calls are obviously being made in response to pressure from sources outside of State Forests.
- I believe the Shooters and Fishers Party still has the goal of gaining access to all national park estate for recreational hunting and that the list of 79 reserves is only the starting point. What will be their price for supporting the government legislation in the future – another 50 or 60 national parks and nature reserves added to the list ? Given enough time (5 years ?), they will achieve their goal by chipping away at it every time the numbers in the upper house give them the deciding vote.
- The fact that nobody has yet been shot in NSW state forests should not lead anyone into a false sense of security. Besides the two deaths of park visitors in New Zealand recently highlighted in the media, there is also a high number of hunters killing/injuring fellow hunters. In fact, the biggest threat to hunters appears to be other hunters. In New Zealand there is a hunter related gunshot injury/fatality on average every nine months and this has been happening since 1979. See this interesting article.
- Another factor potentially increasing risk of injury from hunting in national parks is the sheer number of park visitors compared to those visiting state forests. In NSW some 35 million visitors come to our parks per annum. I do not have the figures for state forests, but I am confident it is nowhere near this many. Granted many national park visitors go the very popular parks such as those around Sydney and Kosciuszko (I’m sorry, I don’t have the breakdown of visitors by park), but there are still millions of visitors to many of our less popular parks as well.
- For those of you who may feel that recreational hunting is ok because its only in 79 parks and reserves, I refer to my comments in my original post. I believe this is just the start. The S&F Party have stated they want hunting in all parks and reserves and I’m sure they will keep working away at that goal over time. In the meantime, there is a map showing the proposed hunting reserves here.