Australia’s first chief environmental biosecurity officer leaves lasting legacy

Feral Herald |

We pay tribute to Ian Thompson, Australia’s first Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer, who stepped down from his post at the end of November last year.

The creation of this role by Australia’s agriculture minister David Littleproud in October 2018 marked a major turning point in how we approach the treatment of the environment within our national biosecurity system. Up to that point the federal government insisted that the systems protecting animal and plant-based agricultural industries would adequately cover the environment.

Clearly this was wrong, but it took the 2017 independent review of biosecurity and persistent pressure from the Invasive Species Council calling for environmental biosecurity to be given a formal place within the national biosecurity system.

The role’s creation earned the minister one of our 2019 Froggatt awards. Ian was a fitting choice as our first chief environmental biosecurity officer and, once in the role, was an energetic advocate who cleverly began the daunting task of building up the environmental biosecurity system within a national government framework.

He brought to the role more than 40 years of public service experience and a vast network of people, having worked at the forefront of many flagship environmental and rural programs: the National Landcare Program, the National Heritage Trust, the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, water reforms and drought responses.

Our CEO Andrew Cox with Ian Thompson at a biosecurity roundtable in 2019.
Our CEO Andrew Cox with Ian Thompson at a biosecurity roundtable in 2019.

Understanding the value of community

Our encounters with Ian in some of his earlier roles revealed a senior government employee who understood the value offered by the community sector. He never tired of reminding others of the importance of the vast data birdwatchers collect through Birdlife Australia’s annual Aussie Backyard Bird Count.

Progress in the realm of national biosecurity can be glacial – it relies on infrequent meetings of federal and state agricultural ministers as well as department heads. Yet Ian and his small team at the Office of Environmental Biosecurity managed to rapidly address key structural issues that had held back environmental biosecurity for years.

Key among these was the adoption of a National Priority List of Exotic Environmental Pests, Weeds and Diseases, filling a major gap that had inhibited a risk-based approach to dealing with biosecurity risks that could harm the environment.

He also worked hard at the international level to address one of the main biosecurity risks facing Australia – global trade – by convening and hosting an international symposium ‘Limiting the spread of contaminant pests’ under the auspices of the International Plant Protection Convention. This work has real potential to deliver long-term global benefits by reducing the incidence of hitchhiker pests on shipping containers.

His style was consultative and open, evidence-based and ambitious. He recognised the challenge ahead and was blunt about the deficiencies of the current biosecurity system and the huge work needed to build an understanding in the broader community about the risks posed by exotic pests and diseases and how best to manage them.

Ian would regularly warn, ‘not doing something can often be the worst thing you can do’, a reference to the typical government inertia when faced with a difficult problem.

It was probably no coincidence that Ian’s appointment coincided with a greater participation by the agricultural sector in environmental biosecurity deliberations, such as attendance at environmental biosecurity roundtables, and greater collaborations with the other biosecurity ‘chiefs’, the Chief Plant Protection Officer and the Chief Veterinary Officer.

In a similar way to how Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner provided national leadership on the need to take more robust action on feral cats, Ian provided important national leadership on environmental biosecurity.

Ian and his team were highly productive and resourceful as they brought to life Ian’s prolific ideas and sharp intellect. They quickly pivoted after the twice-yearly biosecurity roundtables were cancelled in 2020 due to COVID. In its place they organised a series of eight webinars attended by more than 1000 people. Of particular interest were those focused on plant diseases – myrtle rust and phytophthora.

In a short period, Ian Thompson, Australia’s inaugural Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer, built a solid foundation for our maturing environmental biosecurity system. It was a fitting end to a distinguished 43-year-long career in the federal government public service.

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Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
[Your name]
[Your email address]
[Your suburb], [Your state]