The $50 Million Fox Hunt
By Sam BungeyFebruary 28, 2012
So, are there foxes in Tasmania? After a decade, and tens of millions of dollars, spent trying to rid the island of them, there is still no agreement that there were foxes there in the first place.
Bob Judd's dog, a blue heeler kelpie cross, spotted it first. From the verandah of his South Hobart home, Judd saw the red, bushy tail explode out of the long grass as his hound pursued the animal from the front yard into a nearby paddock.
Judd's dog lost the animal in the grass, which was particularly high that October in 2010, following a long dry spell. So Judd didn't get a great look at its body. But he had encountered enough foxes growing up on a farm in South Australia to know what it was he saw. That bushy tail was unmistakable.
"This was a bloody fox, believe me," Judd says.
Nick Mooney, who is the longtime public interlocutor for Tasmania's Fox Eradication Program (FEP), believes that if foxes establish in Tasmania, it will be the worst thing to happen here ecologically "since the ice age."
There are five or six calls about sightings like Judd's made each week to the FEP's dedicated fox hotline, and the program's 47 staff take them all seriously. Over the past decade they have fielded almost 3,000 calls and, though no-one at the program has ever photographed, caught or shot a live fox on the island, they are convinced foxes exist here in low numbers, a ticking time bomb for Tasmania's ecology.
Then there are people who take none of it seriously, such as Ian Rist, a Tasmanian hunter and outspoken critic of the government-run fox program. He used to manage a game farm in the northeast of Tasmania.
"It was like a giant McDonald's for foxes. There were 2,500 pheasants, on a single paddock. We never had a fox anywhere.
"There are thousands of us shooters out at the coalface, not one person has seen anything," says Rist. "It's absolute bunkum."
On the mainland, foxes are key to Australia's world-leading record for species depredation. Homesick settlers in Victoria looking for something to hunt began to introduce them in 1845, and today there are more than 7 million foxes in Australia, killing up to 190 million birds each year. That's 361 dead birds a minute.
But, moated by the Bass Strait, Tasmania was spared the ravages of this invasion and has become the final outpost for dozens of species of marsupials and birds. Naturalists refer to it as the ark. And there's money in that ark: at stake is a tourism trade built on Tasmania's outstanding biodiversity, as well as an estimated $20 million a year in livestock.
And the FEP points to hard evidence of foxes in Tasmania. The fox program has amassed a collection, going back to 1998, of four fox carcasses, a skull, two paw prints, blood traces and 59 scats that have tested positive for fox DNA at the University of Canberra. Many people take issue with this evidence and how it was obtained, but more on that later.
The quest to free Tasmania of foxes began in 2002 with much derring-do. Armed with guns, trucks, cameras and the winning name of Fox Free Tasmania Taskforce, a score of newly appointed officers went forth into the wilderness with the clear goal of annihilating these vulpine invaders.
But tracking the furtive, crepuscular creatures across the Tasmanian landscape proved mind-bogglingly difficult. It is for good reason that a group of foxes is called a skulk. They can den under a house and remain undetected for years.
And while Melbourne is home to up to 16 foxes for every square kilometre, the Tasmanian fox program assumes it is looking for foxes at as low a density as 1 per 100 square kilometres. And Tasmania has far fewer potential witnesses - it is roughly the size of Ireland but with a population smaller than Newcastle, New South Wales. Actually coming into contact with a live fox at this density would be pure chance. On top of this, though the fox program has identified a core fox habitat, really the foxes could be anywhere.
So basically the taskforce (renamed the Fox Eradication Program in 2006), gave up trying. In May 2011, FEP manager Craig Elliott announced that the decade-long search for the foxes was over.
"The task force's initial response was to jump back and forth across the state, in response to reported sightings," he says. "We're now using the precautionary strategy, modeled on the type of places the fox would habitate."
He says the volume of fox evidence collected over a long period is compelling, but, as to whether the foxes are really out there, Elliott, like everyone else, cannot offer any certainty.
"I think so," he says.
None of this has affected the program's bottom line: The FEP receives more money than ever - $5.5 million this year in a mix of state and federal funding. The program (which comes under the umbrella of the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment), employs 47 staff, and state and federal governments have committed costs that by 2018 would bring total spending on the program since 2000 to at least $51 million - it may be more like $63 million if Canberra renews its current annual contribution in 2013.
Craig Elliott is the program's sixth manager in 10 years. A former Queensland Criminal Investigation Branch detective, Elliott also worked in biosecurity on the mainland before taking up his new post in March 2011. He says the program's $5.5 million annual price tag is defensible.
"A lot of money has been spent on this program. I think it's still justified, but we need to get it finished," he says. "It's a case of, what is the end goal and how quickly can we get there?"
But Elliott is confident he is close to an exit strategy with the program.
"Hopefully we're down to the last few [foxes]," he says.
In the meantime the FEP has embarked on a Napoleonic baiting campaign. Flanking the island from the northeast and south, the program has established dual fronts, re-baiting some areas and adding vast new swathes of land. Armed with steel boxes of sodium fluoroacetate, 1080 poison, and hand trowels, field officers bury pellets of poison-laced meat at 10-acre intervals, marking the spots with ribbon tied to a nearby tree. Detection dogs follow behind the baiters to check for scats or carcasses. The use of 1080 poison has been controversial: lethal to foxes and not to most other animals, fox program 1080 baits, for which there is no known antidote, are suspected to have killed several dogs.
The FEP already has laid 150,000 baits. This new campaign will target 12,000 square kilometres, or one fifth of Tasmania. No eradication program on this scale has been attempted anywhere in the world.
"This is so we can say with some certainty, these foxes have been eradicated completely, whereas previously there had been no clear way of saying, 'We have succeeded,'" Elliott says.
But, as Ivan Dean, independent MLC for Windemere and fox program critic, is keen to point out, there is "not a skerrick" of evidence that a fox has been "within a boar's roar" of any FEP baits.
IT ALL STARTED after a stowaway was reported hiding between containers on a ferry from Melbourne in July 1998. Several witnesses saw the fox trot off the ferry at the dock in Burnie. The animal reportedly was later captured on video at a nearby beach, but a search party organised by Parks and Wildlife turned up nothing.
Then in 2001 a rumour emerged that a criminal gang had smuggled fox cubs into Tasmania by boat, reared them in secret and set them free at several locations across the island, in a coordinated release. The rumour was that the illegal import was a protest against strict new Australian gun laws, introduced after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 in which a lone gunman killed 35 people. A five-member police taskforce was set up to investigate the truth of the matter.
Clive Marks, a noted Australian fox expert, was coordinating research on fox fertility control with several universities from London when he got a call from a colleague about the conspiracy. He swiftly returned to Australia and went to the media about the threat to the environmental purity of Tasmania.
He told ABC TV's Catalyst in 2002: "We're dealing with something which is akin to September 11 for our wildlife in Australia."
Foxes are wily and highly adaptable. The same species thrives in the backstreets of London, Saudi Arabian desert, Artic tundra and the Himalayas. They spread virulently too: a vixen's typical litter numbers four to six but can be as large as 13. And Tasmania presents a smorgasbord of prey for the invading predator.
Marks was shown three maps, prepared by the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, of the alleged release sites, and he toured the affected areas by plane. At this stage though, says Marks, no-one in Tasmania seemed ready to embark on an intensive baiting campaign at the sites - and funding was scarce. Marks favoured heavy baiting, using PAPP, a fox-tailored toxicant he had helped develop, in place of the unpopular 1080 poison.
Marks was instrumental in getting the political and public support to help secure the funding for a fox taskforce. He used media contacts to help achieve national ABC coverage and organised a group of scientists to brief Tony Peacock, the head of Pest Animal Control Cooperative Research Centre (PAC-CRC), in Canberra.
"I pulled in some heavy-hitters," he says. "Urgency was the main message… there was no time to waste."
But in fact, Tasmanian police had already dismissed the import case. By the time Marks learned this, years later -- after the police records were obtained by a Freedom of Information request - the Tasmania Fox Free Taskforce was in full force. Marks now feels he was duped into believing there was an organised importation of foxes when the police could find no evidence to support the claim.
"No-one contacted me to say things have changed," says Marks. "I have never seen an organisation like [the fox taskforce]."
Marks also says his advice on responding to the threat was ignored. Systematic baiting was resisted for nearly two years in favour, Marks says, of an ad hoc approach.
"Just why they decided to produce a home-grown task force around blokes charging about with rifles is anyone's guess," he says.
The fox program has been through four separate enquiries, including a government Public Accounts Committee inquiry that in 2009 found in favour of continued funding for the program. (Marks and others hold that these inquiries were insufficient, unscientific, or lacking neutrality.) Though some members of the Tasmanian Government continue to accuse the program of mismanagement and financial waste, calls to end the program are unlikely to gain any political traction, argues Lindsay Tuffin, editor of Tasmanian Times, a site which covers the fox issue closely.
"To rip out $70 million from the commonwealth, and then a fox pops up? They would be fucked," he says.
Windemere independent MLC Ivan Dean regularly goes further, alleging that the program conveniently presented new evidence of foxes at budget time, simply to ensure continued funding.
For his part, Elliott says he sees absolutely no evidence of this, or of any other foul play by members of the program. But he admits that mistakes were made.
I bring up the example of when a former fox taskforce leader announced on ABC Radio National that blood work from two fox carcasses showed they were siblings. If true, this would suggest that foxes had bred on Tasmanian soil. However, a 2005 letter sent from a Victorian lab technician to then-taskforce manager Chris Parker, and obtained under a Right to Information request by Ivan Dean last November, revealed that the blood work was inconclusive.
Samples from the three foxes recovered during that period, "yielded very degraded DNA that did not amplify well, they either produced no results or very limited results that were hard to interpret." The FEP no longer holds that there is evidence of sibling foxes.
Elliott initially declined to discuss the announcement made by one of his predecessors, but wrote later in an email:
"Maybe [an] earlier examination suggested a familial relationship, but further testing conducted later didn't support this. I don't have any details of what the initial or later testing was. Why certain statements were made or not I don't know but I'm not spending time rehashing history or trawling over old media interviews. We have a band of sceptics doing that for us."
Elliott concedes the fox issue caught people by surprise.
"It was a rush response…" he says, "I can't change the way these things happened. Every biosecurity program I've worked on, mistakes are made. We do the best we can and can't change history."
Meanwhile, Clive Marks is frustrated at the lack of engagement in the science by members of the FEP.
"No person in this program ever answers scientific questions [about proper aseptic techniques - contamination control - in processing DNA evidence for example, or the chain of custody for handling evidence] claiming detailed knowledge or expert status," he says.
FEP director Craig Elliott told me he was trying to reach out to program critics but that debates about past evidence chewed up valuable time and resources.
If Marks has one overriding beef with the evidence it's that, from the 59 fox positive scats collected across Tasmania, no two are from the same animal, and none contains the DNA of any endemic species. It means that there is no evidence of a breeding population, and yet there seems to be a startling geographical spread of fox presence. He says he has tried to bring up these concerns but has been rebuffed.
"There are some issues here that don't add up, and I don't really want to speak to someone unless they're going to look at this scientifically," says Marks.
Skepticism about the program runs deep in Tasmania. On blogs and forums some Tasmanians vent their frustration with the program. (On the Hobart Mercury site, one man asks if the FEP's precautionary strategy should also be applied to Martians. Others write darkly of conspiracy. These "foxaholics" hold that the evidence is all rigged, planted by hoaxers and reward hunters. Still others think the program, and some members of the state government, are in on a scam. One concerned citizen even fears a "Psychological Operation by Animal Liberationists in order to discredit hunters."
The motherlode for fox debate is Tasmanian Times, which is somewhere between a forum and a news site. On Tasmanian Times, pieces of fox evidence have their own nicknames. Badly damaged roadkill recovered in 2003 is called "the fox in a box."A bungled FEP stake-out of a chicken coop suspected of being attacked by foxes, at Old Beach, outside Hobart, is snidely referred to as "the sensational Old Beach incident." One reader posted a $1,000 open reward for anyone with hard evidence of a live fox. He later upped the sum to $5,000. There were no takers.
Tasmanian Times is a largely unregulated site (its slogan: "Pure, unadultered Tasmania") but Lindsay Tuffin , its editor, has been forced to remove several fox threads, where debate has become too heated. A typical post generates anywhere up to 300 comments. Tuffin says distrust of the fox program is island-wide.
"It's seen as a bit of a joke," he says. "The fact that no substantive evidence has been produced, despite massive expenditure. [Tasmanians] are increasingly pondering, why all the money?"
The FEP is so used to receiving prank calls that there is now a tracing procedure in place to root out timewasters. Craig Elliott even considered trying to prosecute these hoaxers under the federal telecommunications law, after one late night caller said he was standing next to a fox carcass. A staff member looked up the number of the name given - he called and found the person asleep. Elliott tracked down the original caller and put on him a watchlist.
"It's a sad reflection of what some people need to do for a good time," he says.
At a recent meeting in the community center at the tiny town of Collinsvale, outside Hobart, FEP officer Dave Sayers tried to convince local landowners to permit baits to be laid on their land (the program can bait on property only after gaining permission to access). The room was packed, mostly with people who had been asked to attend by letter. Sayers was sanguine about the baiting program.
"Look, there is no guarantee this will work," he said. "There's lots of uncertainty, it's never been done before. We try to put them all [foxes] at risk."
Sayers was greeted with heckles. One man cut Sayer off continually, aggressively questioning him on the fox evidence. The level of rancour was bizarre. What should have been a procedural outreach meeting suddenly felt like a serious confrontation.
One of the hecklers, a former farmer named Ray Green, told The Global Mail afterwards that he used to aerial bait his property with 1080, preparing kilos of poison-laced meat in a cement mixer and dropping it from a helicopter, in an effort to cull dingoes. It had no effect on the dingoes he said. And here they are only using handfuls of poison and only on land they have permission to access.
"It just won't work," Green said.
Nick Mooney is probably Tasmania's best-known wildlife expert. (A longtime consultant for the FEP, he remains on its technical advisory board as a volunteer.) Mooney says Tasmanians are a wary people in general, turned cynical by a succession of corporate and political scandals.
"The Tasmanian people are distrustful of government," says Mooney. He adds that the fox issue is tarred by years of dubious "sightings" of Tasmanian tigers, an animal not officially seen since 1936.
"But once you start being cynical about these things there is no end, because you always have the cop-out, 'You guys just made it up,'" he says.
Elliott says he is trying to improve communication between the Fox Eradication Program and its critics but accepts that he will not change some minds:
"Some people are rusted-on at this stage. A fox could sit down next to them on a busy street and they'd say, 'Oh, that was brought in by the fox program.'"
Simon de Little runs his own video production company specializing in events. Two years ago, spurred on by a fiery blog post on Tasmanian Times written by Clive Marks, he had the idea to make a documentary film that would get to the bottom of the allegations against the fox program - specifically that people working with the fox taskforce and the FEP deliberately planted fox evidence in order to keep the program going.
Twenty or so hours of tape later, de Little came to the view that the fox program was guilty of nothing more sinister than mismanagement.
"There's been some pretty serious accusations, and I've been looking for evidence to support them," he says. "It just doesn't exist".
"I think [the program] has been a complete balls-up from the start. The wrong people were consulted when they began, and ever since then they've just thrown money at it. Basically they just wasted a hell of a lot of money."
The spirit of Catch-22 hangs over the fox problem in Tasmania. One field officer told me that though community support for the program was vital, community opposition is also a good sign - that things are working. People need to see to believe, he said, but the program is working only if they do not see. A fox in the field, considering the statistics, would probably mean foxes already are established. Once a breeding population is established, an eradication program cannot succeed.
I put it to Nick Mooney that continuously baiting vast swathes of the country might be tilting at windmills, given that the last live fox was seen at least 10 years ago. Yes, Mooney argued, the FEP may be the "doing a Quixote" on the basis that if they noticed foxes without looking hard a decade ago, then they were likely well enough entrenched that the eradicators never had a hope.
Given the paucity of facts, each theory can seem as good as the next. The question will be debated for decades to come, says Mooney.
For him, it's too much to hope the foxes just "conked out." Mooney's own view is they are out there, skulking around in low numbers, sunk back under the detection thresholds, still out-foxing the FEP.