It all started with a court case when NZ Tahr Foundation decided to contest Department of Conservation’s (DOC) 2020/21 Tahr Control Plan. At the heart of the fight is a disagreement between the two parties over how to control the animal’s growing population in New Zealand, which recently led to a protest at Lake Pukaki (there was another protest planned in Auckland when this edition went to print).
“The Tahr Jam was a peaceful protest organised by some local recreational hunters as a form of demonstration to show the New Zealand Government just how devastating DOC’s control plan was for so many livelihoods, and to show the number of upset people at the way DOC and Minister Sage had gone about the cull,” Willie Duley, NZ Tahr Foundation spokesperson, says.
More than 1000 people and 500 vehicles turned up for the drive from the Tahr statue at Lake Pukaki on SHW 8 up the Mt Cook road to the Hermitage at the base of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
“It was finished by some speeches and well attended by various media. It is the largest hunter protest in New Zealand’s history,” says Duley.
With so much reported in the news and social media, F&O decided to speak to both NZ Tahr Foundation and DOC to gain insight into the issue.
The Tahr consultation process
A key element of the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan is to set a maximum population of 10,000 tahr across all land tenures in the tahr feral range, the legal boundary of where tahr are allowed to be.
NZ Tahr Foundation says they were left “blindsided” by DOC’s new plan, the draft of which was released two days before the Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group meeting and two weeks before the work commenced.
“The Tahr Foundation was forced to take DOC to court, as they refused to meaningfully consult with the hunting sector,” says Duley, “and their proposed 2020/21 Tahr Control Plan stands to decimate the tahr hunting resource.”
However, DOC maintains that there has been ongoing engagement with tahr stakeholders within the Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group.
“The group has formally met six times since 2018,” says DOC operations director Dr Ben Reddiex.
“We have repeatedly signalled we need to step up our tahr control efforts to protect the natural values of the national parks. DOC engaged with all tahr stakeholders between May and June to develop the Tahr Control Operational Plan 2020/2021. DOC took the views of stakeholders, including the NZ Tahr Foundation, into consideration while ensuring the final plan was consistent with the National Parks Act and other laws.”
The court case
When the initial appeal to the Minister of Conservation requesting that the draft plan be rejected and to stop the planned cull did not get NZ Tahr Foundation the response they were hoping for, the group of volunteers filed an application with the High Court seeking a judicial review of the decision.
On 10 July, the court asked DOC to reconsider its decision to proceed with the 2020/2021 plan after consulting with interests represented by the Foundation and other stakeholders. However, Duley says, the ruling was a mere “hollow victory of sorts”.
“He [the judge] still permitted DOC to go ahead with half the number of culling hours (125 hours) and target all animals, including bulls, in national parks,” says Duley.
When asked how DOC would approach the second phase of the plan, Dr Reddiex said, “We are currently engaged in a consultation process, which includes the Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group, comprising representatives from Ngāi Tahu, statutory boards, hunters, and conservation groups.
“The consultation process includes an opportunity for submissions from members of the Tahr Plan Implementation Liaison Group in early August.”
Following the consultation, DOC expects to make a final decision on its Operational Plan in mid to late August
Issue of national parks
One could argue that if there are 425,000 hectares and 133,000 hectares of Crown pastoral leases and private land left for trophy hunters, then why are hunters keen for the 148,000 hectares in national parks that have been restricted.
“Thousands of recreational Kiwi tahr hunters highly value and visit these national parks every year, and they are not having their views considered,” Duley says.
“They are also an essential area for many tahr hunting guides and businesses, who number in the hundreds. All these people inject significant spending into local regional economies – helicopter flights, accommodation, retail etc., and they visit the national parks because of tahr existing there. There is no reason why we cannot have a lowly populated and well-managed herd of tahr in our national parks.”
Dr Reddiex says that DOC’s planned control work “will have a minimal effect” on the commercial hunting industry, which mostly operates outside of public conservation land.
In a statement, DOC said data from trophy exports between 2014 and 2016, indicates on average, 1000 to 1100 commercially hunted bull tahr leave the country each year.
“Concession returns show just 316 trophy bull tahr are commercially hunted on the conservation estate annually and less than a hundred of those are taken from the national parks,” says Dr Reddiex. “This means the vast majority of commercial hunting is taking place outside of public conservation land.”
He adds DOC has no plans to eradicate tahr and the Department is undertaking a phased approach to meet the objectives of the Control Plan, and while bulls are popular with hunters, national parks need to be protected too.
“We first signalled two years ago we needed to step up our tahr control efforts to protect the natural values of the national parks. We know bulls are popular with trophy hunters, but national parks are special places and they need to be protected and preserved for all New Zealanders.”
Organisation such as the New Zealand Conservation Authority (NZCA) are echoing DOC’s thoughts.
“Himalayan tahr were introduced to New Zealand in 1904, and so our native flora are ill-equipped to defend against these grazing mammals,” Edward Ellison, chair of the NZCA said in a statement.
“The grazing behaviour of tahr damages endemic flora, such as tall tussock, Mount Cook buttercup, NZ Veronica, and Godley’s buttercup, which is classed by the NZ Plant Conservation Network as threatened and nationally endangered. This damage has lasting implications for a variety of fauna, including insects, moths, birds, and alpine lizards.”
And while Ellison says the hunting tourism in national parks is a “niche one”, Duley argues otherwise.
“The 52,000 people that have signed the petition to halt the cull and the 1000 or so people that turned up at Aoraki/Mt Cook on Sunday should tell Mr Ellison that this is far from some niche tourism industry.”
On the National Parks Act
DOC says they ensured the final plan was consistent with the National Parks Act and other laws, but Duley argues that the act has been “inconsistent with the realities of our national parks”.
“To eradicate all non-indigenous species from national parks is not practical. Tahr have also been in the Aoraki/Mt Cook region before it even was a national park. Given that tahr hunters are one of the highest users of these remote national parks, shouldn’t their interests be considered?
“A lot of the remaining tahr feral range is private, which very few have access to, is highly inaccessible to hunters, and part of no-fly zone wilderness areas so is very difficult for hunters to access.”
As mentioned before, the statutory Himalayan Thar Control Plan 1993 sets a limit of 10,000 tahr across the feral range, including private, Crown pastoral leases, and public conservation land.
“In Autumn 2019, the tahr population was estimated to be approximately 34,500 tahr on public conservation land alone. DOC, commercial hunters, and contractors controlled approximately 11,000 tahr between July to November last year. There has since been another breeding season,” says Dr Reddiex.
“DOC has a legal obligation to reduce the number of tahr in Aoraki/Mount Cook and Westland Tai Poutini National Parks to the lowest practicable densities to protect these special places. Outside of the national parks, DOC will target localised high densities of female and juvenile tahr but will leave all bulls for trophy hunters.
“Tahr will be left for hunters in accessible and popular hunting areas and there will continue to be thousands of bulls and other tahr available for hunters.”
After the ruling, DOC began half of its planned control programme inside of the feral range.
“Control began Thursday 16 July with the objective to protect conservation areas, including Aoraki/Mount Cook and Westland Tai Poutini National Parks from the impacts of Himalayan tahr,” says Dr Reddiex.
For Duley and NZ Tahr Foundation, the next step is a review of the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan 1993.
“DOC can put an adaptive management system in place for tahr going forward that is based on good science and protects native flora and fauna while also allowing for recreational and commercial hunting. None of these are mutually exclusive or need to be at the expense of one another.
“We simply need the opportunity to think this through properly after 27 years of conflict and failed management. What hunters want is for DOC to respect their status as stakeholders and work collaboratively in good faith to achieve acceptable outcomes,” Duley says.