To: Hon Eugenie Sage, Minister of Conservation
Date: 26 July 2018
At the Authority’s June meeting, DOC presented the Himalayan Tahr Control Plan 1993 (HTCP) annual report for the 2016-2017 year. It was very troubling to learn the estimated total population of thar is now at 35,634, well exceeding the maximum density of 10,000 animals specified in the HTCP, and also their expansion beyond the feral range. We are aware that in recent weeks DOC has spent $70,000 and culled 3,000 thar, a great first step, but extra funding will be needed to keep this momentum.
Following a discussion of the report, the Authority noted with concern an example of a pastoral lease property, outside the allowed range, which does not allow DOC contractors access to cull thar. The Authority noted that the Crown has a right to interfere on pastoral lease land, with the good husbandry clause of the Land Act 1948, if the land is being degraded to an unreasonable extent and where wild animals are not being controlled. We would suggest that DOC’s legal team could provide more advice on this matter, as there is currently a $20,000 annual ‘work-around’ cost for the taxpayer.
The Authority recommends an immediate reduction in thar numbers, with initial focus on removing animals outside of the feral range. We have requested from DOC that the 2018-2019 Operational Plan for Tahr Control is available at our next meeting in August, and that a review is conducted and made available to present to the Authority at our December 2018 meeting, along with a timeline of actions and milestones so we are able to monitor progress.
Please see attached an Authority paper prepared in June 2018 which provides a broader context on the problem, the challenge and the solutions. If you would like to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me.
Himalayan Tahr – Urgent Policy Direction is required from the NZ Conservation Authority
The Himalayan Tahr in the 1980s came close to becoming the first large introduced feral herbivore to be eliminated from New Zealand. Helicopter hunting to a supply a specialty restaurant market for feral tahr meat coupled with thar extermination policies for National Parks that were managed by Lands & Survey reduced total tahr numbers to the low thousands.
Tahr are goats. They breed into large groups that travel as a mob and camp amongst native alpine to montane vegetation where they will eat large quantities of mountain vegetation. They have a devastating impact on palatable herbs with a favourite being Ranunculus species, particularly the alpine Godleys, Graham’s and Buchanan’s buttercups, as well as the more widespread and famous sub-alpine Lyall’s buttercup or Mt Cook Lily. Mobs of thar not only eat the leaves but also target the nutritious underground storage stems of these unique plants found only in the NZ.
The backlash against helicopter hunting of tahr from the hunting community was strong. The Himalayan Tahr Control Plan 1993, the “Tahr Management Plan (TMP)”, was developed by DOC as a consequence and is still operative, with Annual reports submitted to the NZ Conservation Authority. The TMP severely constrains helicopter hunting for thar within their “natural range” defined as being between the Haast Pass and the Rakaia catchment. A target figure of 10,000 tahr as a total population was agreed in the Plan as the desirable maximum level, above which intervention is required by DOC to lower thar numbers to the 10,000 level.
Forest and Bird did not agree with the Plan and saw it as the sacrifice of our highest mountains and their unique natural biota to an introduced goat. Forest and Bird also doubted the ability of the land managers to maintain thar numbers within the population limits and contain thar geographic spread to the areas defined in the Plan.
A high level of control was established for the mountain area outside the so called “tahrr natural range’. Huge efforts have now gone into seeking to eliminate thar outside that range, with DOC sponsored shooting of thar in places including:
- The Humbolt and Thomson mountains in the Wakatipu country
- The Oteake Conservation Park, Bendigo and Upper Hakataramea Valley in Waitaki-Central Otago
- Intense control efforts closer just south of Haast Pass near Minaret Station and in the Okuru catchment.
- The northern range includes thar that have bred in the Grey catchment (Gloriavale/Haupiri) and in the Craigieburn Range in the Waimakariri catchment.
DOC Control Plan Annual Reports list how many tahr are being killed each year by recreational hunters, trophy hunters and DOC staff in control operations. Here is a selection of the recent numbers:
- In 2010-2011 3183 tahr were killed with 2115 (66%) of these killed by DOC funded operations.
- In 2012-2013 4745 tahr were killed with 3254 (69%) of these killed by DOC funded operations
- In 2015-2016 4375 tahr were killed with 1835 (42%) of these killed by DOC funded operations
- In 2016-2017 4615 tahr were killed with 2809 (61%) of these killed by DOC funded operations.
Despite hunting, the DOC 2016-2017 Annual Himalayan Tahr Control Plan 2016-2017 presented to the NZCA at its June 2018 meeting advises that total Tahr numbers are estimated to have now reached the astonishing level of about 35,634 animals across the entire thar range (Page 7).
The TMP envisaged that most control of tahr would be by recreational hunters. The reality is quite different. Using the 2016-17 figures, recreational and ballot hunting only accounted for around 12% of the thar recorded as shot. Aerial assisted trophy hunting (AATH) accounts for another 7% in bulls taken as trophies. AATH is required by DOC to shoot roughly 5 other non-trophy thar for every trophy taken, or contribute to helicopter flying time (7 trophy = 1 hours flying time). This accounts for about another 20% of the 2016-2017 kill.
Despite this recreational and trophy hunting, DOC hunters still accounted for 61% of the tahr kill in those 2016-2017 figures. The DOC hunting is also likely to be the most difficult and expensive to carry out because they will be carrying out mopping up operations in pockets of country beyond the tahr natural range. DOC are also hunting in the West Coast bush and sub-alpine scrub, where recreational tahr hunting is less attractive than on the more open mountain tops of the central and eastern high country. Assuming the tahr population is around that 35,600 level, half or perhaps even more of these are likely to be female. Estimating annual breeding and a young kid natural mortality as high as 30%, perhaps 10,000 young tahr may be added to the total population each year. Around 5,000 thar are being shot every year so tahr numbers in the wild could be increasing by as much as a nett 5,000 animals annually.
DOC’s staff charged with hunting tahr have had their efforts capped by budget constraints and it seems that politicians have simply ignored the problem hoping that it will go away. Tahr numbers have skyrocketed. DOC land managers and their researchers seem to have instead focused on developing new methods for trying to measure the tahr population and the tahr impact on vulnerable vegetation – instead of a major effort on reducing tahr numbers to the Plan’s agreed level of 10,000 animals.
A clear message from local DOC staff charged with controlling tahr is that in every valley they fly up on control operations, especially on the West Coast, they are now encountering large herds of tahr. The 2016-2017 report advises that in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the cull rate in DOC operations was 44 thar per hour of aerial hunting effort. A high-country farmer would be hard pressed to shoot that number of sheep on his/her range land. The National Park has become a tahr game park. Is that key issue addressed in the Draft Park Management Plan in preparation or is it considered an operational not a policy matter?
To reduce tahr now to the Plan’s 10,000 total “acceptable” level will require many years of intense hunting pressure largely funded by the taxpayer. It might be possible to re-establishment some specialty restaurant market to the level that was seen in the 1970s and 80s. Unless this occurs, the control of tahr will remain an ongoing drain on taxpayer funds. One danger of a restaurant trade is that it could encourage the retention of large accessible herds of tahr rather than their elimination. It is ironic that in the early 1980s with that well-established market for tahr meat, a skilled helicopter thar hunting industry coupled with land managers determined to eliminate tahr, we came close to removing this challenge once and for all. We are now back to square one. It will cost millions and will be the subject of great hunter debate to reduce thar numbers to where they are legally supposed to be.
- NZCA seek an immediate review of the Tahr Management Plan to determine why the plan has been such a total failure in capping thar numbers to the agreed 10,000 level, and why it has also allowed thar to expand their range well beyond the agreed geographic limits in the Plan.