Sodium monofluoroacetate (sometimes shortened to sodium fluoroacetate) is a highly toxic substance that disrupts the Krebs cycle in animal cells, making it highly toxic to mammals, birds, and insects; any creature that breathes air. Commonly known as “1080″ (a contraction of “Compound 1080“), it has been used to kill non-human “pest” animals since the 1940s. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as quoted by in a 2007 op-ed by Dr Sean Weaver, the “probable oral lethal dose in humans is less than 5mg/kg, or a taste (less than 7 drops) for a 150lb [68kg] person”.

Since it was banned as a rodenticide in the USA in 1990, Aotearoa (NZ) has used around 80%-90% of the 1080 produced in the world each year. In operations organized under the Department of Conservation (DOC), it gets dropped into native forests on conservation land to kill introduced mammalian predators, with the goal of protecting and restoring native bird populations. Other 1080 drops, run by TBFree (overseen by OSPRI), have the goal of protecting livestock from bovine tuberculosis that is allegedly carried by introduced brushtail possums living in the forests around farmland.

Not everyone is happy about this, while other people are very passionate about defending it as a necessary evil. In the comments section of a recent blog piece on the subject, this comment was typical:

“the immediate banning of 1080 would lead to the wholesale extinction of most birdlife on mainland NZ”

Supporters seem very confident about this. But I wonder if they have scientific credentials relevant to this field? If not, they often seem strangely hesitant to offer a source, an article or scientific paper written by someone who does, providing the evidence underlying this conclusion.

Someone with more relevant scientific credentials than myself or any other random commentators is Dr Sean Weaver. A former lecturer in environmental sciences at Victoria University of Wellington, where he still teaches courses as an adjunct lecturer, he is also a veteran of the Native Forest Action (NFA) campaign against logging of native forest by state-owned company Timberlands, in the 1990s. He has published a number of scientific papers questioning the safety and efficacy of 1080, and appeared in the Graf brothers’ documentary ‘Poisoning Paradise‘ (as did a former DOC entomologist, the late Mike Meads). There is also a small group of independent scientists whose website 1080Science checks claims about 1080 against the available scientific literate. Whoever is pumping out the PR key messages that everyone who opposes 1080 is scientifically illiterate, and a useful idiot of the hunting lobby, is wrong, and most likely knows it.

In her response to a new documentary from Hawaii, also called Poisoning Paradise, conservationist Jane Goodall said “We need millions of citizens from around the world to take to the streets in a massive protest against the use of lethal chemicals on our fields and the shocking expose of corruption at high levels”. Yet here in Aotearoa, we have environmentalists at high levels, such as the Green Party MP who holds the Minister of Conservation portfolio in the current government, heaping scorn on those who are taking to the streets to do just that. Clearly there’s more to this issue than meets the eye.

My scientific credentials are limited to a few 100-level undergrad ecology papers. This is supplemented by the various things I’ve read during more than 20 years as an environmental activist, supporting direct action campaigns like NFA, Save Happy Valley (I wrote a report on this area for one of my ecology papers), Project Karangahake, and Oil-Free Otago. But here are a few of my thoughts.

Given that there have been rats and dogs (and possibly pigs) in Aotearoa for around 700 years (at least), but serious species decline began only after scorched-earth European style farming, habitat loss seems to be a much more significant cause of native species decline than mammalian predators. Also, regardless of which population stressor is the most damaging, “mainland island” sanctuaries (like Zealandia and Orokunui) and have been much more effective at revitalizing populations than 1080 drops, with the bonus effect of not killing any of the very birds we’re trying to save. Finally, I don’t often hear any acknowledgement that introduced predators prey on each other, as well as native species, and that uneven dieoff can result in substitution effects. For example, if 1080 kills all of the rats and mice in an area, but not the possums, those possums will replace any rodents they would have eaten with more birds. Again, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Also, there are a few things that an independent political analysis of this issue ought to be taking into account:

  • Preventing mining of predator-free habitat areas would surely help threatened species, yet even as they increased funding for 1080 drops, the previous National government allowed open cast coal mining activity to increase on scheduled conservation land on the Denniston Plateau, which includes Happy Valley.
  • Public funding for 1080 drops was massively increased under a John Key/ National regime that wrote the book on handing out corporate welfare (Sky City, America’s Cup Team, Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, Warner Brothers etc).
  • 1080 drops are a multi-million dollar business, for multiple industries, including helicopter companies, 1080 manufacturers and distributors (including SOE ‘Animal Control Products’ according to a 2015 Dominion Post article by Anthony Hubbard), and the suppliers of the fluoride wastes from various industries from which 1080 is made. Plus all the folks on 6 figure salaries working for QUANGOs like OSPRI and TBFree. All thriving on public money, while families in desparate poverty live in tents.
  • The demonization of anti-1080 protesters as “extremists”, and prone to destruction and violence, is the same tale they spin about all environmental activists when they start to be effective, from direct action campaigners like Native Forest Action to water protection activists elected as ECan Councillors. Why is anyone taking this strategic smearing at face value? What evidence is there for any of the accusations lobbed at anti-1080 protestors?
  • Key’s National regime was so supportive of the environmental movement and its goals, that under their watch, government departments and SOEs massively increased their use of corporate detective companies to spy on green groups, including anti-1080 activists.
  • Recruiting environmentalists to act as “useful idiots” and attack other environmentalists is a common PR tactic used by environmentally damaging industries who hope to greenwash their practices. The “1080: The Facts” website was a joint creation of Forest and Bird and those well-know champions of environmental protection and the public interest, Federated Farmers.

Maybe Kevin Hague was right in his piece on the Spinoff, maybe there is no other way to save threatened species. Maybe the rewards are worth the costs. But surely we can have a mature debate about the very real cons of 1080, based on the facts and research available, rather than engaging in petty name-calling?

There’s been a 1080 page on CounterClaim since 2010. I’ve done considerable work on it today, in the wake of the decision by the NZ SPCA to wade into the 1080 debate, but as always, there’s a lot more to be done. There’s been a lot of linkrot that will take some time to fix. One that this work session made clear to me is that building up long pages of links is of limited use. It’s worth making a quick note in Points of Interest sections when I find something useful to a Counterclaim page while working on something else, and it’s good to have a complete list of the primary sources used in support of any claims on a page. But time working on Counterclaim pages is best spent reading and absorbing the articles I link to, or at the very least the abstracts for peer-reviewed journal articles, and incorporating them into the list of claims and counterclaims which is the heart and soul of the project.

Filed January 11th, 2019 under Uncategorized

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