Does the end of the Game Council deal with hunters’ failed feral animal control?

Rally against hunting in NSW national parks, Sydney, 18 April 2013. Photo: Mark Riboldi

Rally against hunting in NSW national parks, Sydney, 18 April 2013. Photo: Mark Riboldi

The abolition of the NSW Game Council from July 2013 was a watershed in the way the NSW Government deals with recreational hunting. But is the job finished?

Up until that point, governments led by Labor and then the Liberal/Nationals coalition had kowtowed to the demands of the Shooters Party and progressively expanded hunting on public lands.

The original premise when the NSW Game Council was set up in 2002 was that it would be a self-funded body for managing hunting on public lands.  Last minute changes saw national parks and native birds excluded, and the legislation renamed from the Game Act to the Game and Feral Animal Control Act. Despite the name change, the control and eradication of feral animals has never been part of the NSW Game Council’s statutory objectives nor obvious in their mode of operation.

The Invasive Species Council has been highly critical of false claims for the effectiveness of the Game Council’s hunting program  for feral animal control.  The results have not justified it being labelled ‘conservation hunting’.

More controversially, changes to the Game Council’s legislation in 2012 saw hunting expanded to national parks and ten native duck species and several native quail and pigeon species added to the game list. Government continued to subsidise about 70% of the operations with $2.6M allocated in 2011-12.

The Game Council came unstuck with these latest changes. There was intense and sustained pressure from conservation groups, national parks staff and the public. The government could not ignore the weekly media stories of hunting embarrassments and the regular local protest rallies. Predominantly the concern was about visitor safety in national parks, but there was also critique that hunting would not assist feral animal control and would divert resources from parks control programs. These concerns built on the disquiet after hunting was first introduced into state forests in 2003.

The independent review of the governance of the NSW Game Council led to the Council’s abolition, the suspension of all hunting on public lands (State Forests and a handful of Crown lands), and the transfer of Game Council functions to the Department of Primary Industries. The recreational hunting program planned for national parks will now be a properly integrated pest control program run by the park managers. Volunteer shooters will be closely supervised by park staff in a trial in 12 national parks, and they will be required to undergo the same training and skills tests as park rangers.

For the national park program, gone is the dispersed ad-hoc hunting, the use of vintage buck shot guns, bows and arrows and dogs. Shooters must be at least 18 years old rather than the proposed 12 year minimum. As the NSW Government claims, the new national park program will be the most stringent volunteer shooting program in Australia, exceeding the standards of the well-regarded volunteer shooting programs in South Australia and Queensland.

The scathing governance report by former senior public servant Steve Dunn found that the NSW Game Council had ‘unacceptable’ governance deficiencies (in areas such as compliance, safety, licensing, lack of strategies and accountability) and an ‘inherent conflict of interest associated with its functions to both represent the interests of hunters, and to regulate their activities’ (Dunn 2013, page 3).

There is little mention in the report of the effectiveness of the Game Council in feral animal control. This is in part due to the terms of reference of the review being constrained by the Council’s objectives, which don’t include feral animal control. There are only two references to this issue. The review says ‘some’ experts don’t agree with the claim that removing any feral animal is beneficial while others suggest it is misleading to claim the success the Game Council does (Dunn 2013, page 13). The review blames the Game Council’s lack of research into the effects of hunting efforts to excuse its reliance on feral animal kills as the sole measure of performance, noting ‘this assumption is not universally agreed to be the case’ (Dunn 2013, page 44)

This is a major failing of the review and understates the issue. No pest control expert disagrees that hunters play only a limited and sometimes a counter-productive role in feral animal control. Except in small accessible areas or where they supplement other methods, recreational hunters are generally not able to apply sufficient pressure to exceed the rate of increase and immigration of feral animals. None of the 55 Dunn recommendations addresses the issue of hunter effectiveness and the review concludes that ‘orderly hunting of game and pest animals is a worthy goal’ that government should oversee (Dunn 2013, page 5).

What is needed now is for the government to heed the advice of their own pest experts and be upfront about the role hunting plays in feral animal control. Government must end support for recreational hunting and stop investing its scarce funds in an activity that is largely a sport and instead support genuine pest control programs.

So, in summary, the government has ruled that there will be no recreational hunting allowed in national parks and instead a legitimate and carefully run feral animal control program that uses skilled volunteer shooters, under the direction of park staff. In state forests and other public lands, hunting is suspended while a safety review is undertaken. There will be no review of the effectiveness of hunting in feral animal control.

Other aspects of the hunting regime still persist and we await news about their future. A major problem with the Game and Feral Animal Control Act that may continue is the Act’s designation of deer as ‘game’ rather than a ‘pest’ animal, preventing its effective control, as well as allowing recreational hunting of a dozen native birds and a handful of exotic ‘game’ birds (potentially assisting their spread).

To abolish the Game Council will require legislation to be passed by Parliament. To do this, the government will need the support of either Labor, The Greens or the combined forces of the Shooters and Fishers Party and the Christian Democrats. It would be surprising if the Shooters and Fishers Party would support the abolition of its own love child. The alternative could see Labor or the Greens seeking more fundamental changes that deal thoroughly with the safety risks of hunters and to ensure the Game Council’s bogus ‘conservation hunting’ program is replaced with a conservation-focused program that assists legitimate feral animal control program, both within national parks and across all other land tenures.

If the work of the Game Council is merely absorbed into the government to address the issues raised by the Dunn report, recreational hunters are likely to remain a powerful influence over feral animal policies, promoting ‘sustainable harvesting’ of deer and other feral animals rather than their control and eradication. The administration of hunting may continue to receiving government funding. Staff moved from the abolished Game Council to supervise hunting within government may again dress up hunting as conservation.

There has been no word on how all the funds ($19.1m) earmarked in May 2012 for the Game Council’s supervision of the now abandoned national parks hunting program are to be spent. These should now be directed into high priority feral animal control programs, not a hunting program.

The initial signs about the future direction of pest control from the NSW Government are extremely promising. When the Minister for Agriculture, Katrina Hodgkinson, announced the abolition of the Game Council on 4 July, she flagged better coordination of government agencies in pest animal control, an emphasis on a cross-tenure approach and a model of pest control based on the successful coordination of bushfire management in NSW.

The formation of Local Land Services at the start of 2014 will combine the work of the Department of Primary Industries, catchment management authorities and the livestock health and pest authorities, providing impetus for improved control programs for feral animals and weeds that threaten the environment and agriculture. Changes have been flagged to the state’s invasive species laws and we can expect this to facilitate a more preventative and risk-based approach.

The decision to abolish the NSW Game Council and halt the use of hunters for feral animal control was the end of a painful and misguided experiment by both the state Labor and O’Farrell governments. The stage is now set for NSW to be a leader in invasive species management rather than an embarrassment.


Related posts

Snap a bee, ant or wasp
Environmental biosecurity chief delivers
Missing in action: our new biodiversity strategy
Feral futures theme for Australasian Vertebrate Pest Conference
Protecting Nature: A night with Australia's environmental biosecurity chief
Cairns Bonantza eco-hunt is on
Asian black-spined toad
Australia draws up hit list of overseas environmental pests and diseases
Fairy tern. Photo: JJ Harrison | www.jjharrison.com.au | CC BY-SA 3.0
Sometimes, even just one cat is one too many
Our first biosecurity symposium a smashing success
Feral cat control in Victoria hamstrung by poor regulations

19 Responses to “Does the end of the Game Council deal with hunters’ failed feral animal control?”

  1. Lets clear something up shall we, Deer are a game species not feral? maybe in QLD they have a different status. In fact Hog deer in Vic are heavily regulated because of the rarity of the animal overseas, there is very few places they live where certain parts of Vic the right habitat for them is abundant. Other deer species i know for a fact “some” farmer’s dont want them shot at all because they like them. But other farmers, farmers sons friends & reloes are actually what you guys would call amateur hunters, these same people kill because they have to, not because they get paid? If professionals are the best at what they do, why is there still so many ferals & problem animals abundant? Cant be because of these amateur’s because all the logic coming from this topic, amateurs like farmers & country folk dont kill anything ? Really shows the relevance in how feral control will never work, because there is far too much dividness between the guys who get paid excessive amounts of money for very little effect to kill & those who do it for free. If the amateurs kill too much theres no jobs for the pros hey? What will we do once 1080 gets banned like SAP, animal liberationists are taking a firm hold hear people, if we dont stick together as i said before, feral control will be lost & fail? At a cost to our true natives. In fact green groups are classing animals such as foxes as being established enough to become native, go figure?

  2. I wonder if Andrew can explain why the US, Canada and many European nations go to such extremes to control the level of “harvest” or “take” of game animals by recreational hunters? The measures they employ include bag limits, closed seasons, size limits, tagging systems, rules about utilising all the meat, rules about not hunting on the same day as flying etc. If recreational hunting was as dismally ineffective at reducing the population size of wild animals as Andrew suggests, why would all these wildlife management authorities bother with all these rules? They could simply sit back safe in the knowledge that no level of recreational hunting would have any affect.
    The same can be said for most fisheries authorities. Same thing – lots of bag limit, size limit, possession limit and gear limit rules to limit the “take” by recreational fishers. And fish are far more fecund and difficult to get at than most feral animals being discussed here.
    For decades hunters have been painted as a dire threat to the very existence of many native animals. We are not allowed to hunt kangaroos or wallabies or ducks or quail apparently because we will wipe them all out and make them become extinct. So are we really expected to believe that hunters are a dire threat to native animals but of no threat whatsoever to feral animals?

    • Allan, one of the problems with hunters being in charge of feral animal control is that they bring that same commitment to ‘control the level of “harvest”‘ to pest species such as deer to avoid reducing the total deer population. As a result we see no overall progress on preventing their spread or eradicating smaller populations. For many other feral animals, ground shooting is not the most effective control method, so the impact of shooting in these cases is limited. As I mentioned, there can be a role for skilled volunteer shooters as part of integrated pest programs, depending on the feral animal.

      • Andrew, you constantly assert that hunting is an impediment to effective invasive animal control that it is more of a hindrance than a help. Yet there are plenty of invasive species that are not subject to any hunting – Cane Toads, Fire Ants, European Wasps, Indian Mynahs, Tilapia, Gambusia all spring to mind. None of these species are subject to hunting pressure, yet they have all spread and proliferated to the same (or greater) extent as those which are. If your theories and assertions about hunting being an impediment to effective invasive species control were correct, then we might have expected that “integrated and strategic pest animal programs” unimpeded by nuisance hunting might have actually eradicated some of these incursions. But of course they haven’t.

  3. Steve i grew up on farm & shot, trapped, dogged & poisoned more animals then you would imagine, yes i was actually a girl well under 12. You don’t know what your talking about your better off sticking to your cooch & anti hunting campaigns. Dont you think it was strange that people petitioned & protested over hunting where NO innocent was killed or injured in 8 years of the gamecoucil? & nobody protested about Sydney drive bys where people get shot & killed every night? Most of the protesters where sydney siders. Pest control is part of conservation, if you kill ferals regardless of how many its part of conservation, even one pregnant sow/fox makes a difference on a farm. Yes there are many amateurs, or inexperienced hunters, but your considered an amateur if your not a contractor, that means farmers, there sons & daughters, friends & family who kill problem/feral animals daily, or regularly are deemed amateurs? Its this sort of arrogance that’s killing this country, & you agree to it. If people choose to go hunting let them go, providing they do no wrong that is…..As far as im concerned its unethical & un-Australian, to penalise everybody for the stupidity of a mere handful, out of the majority that either know what they are doing, or at-least have some experience in hunting down & killing problematic animals? What about humane killing of animals, if we can legally use 1080 & SAP to kill pigs we can use amateurs, its about pest control not ethics.

  4. Its no wonder recreational hunters believe they are doing a public service by killing a few feral animals because the Game Council has been peddling the “Conservation Hunting” myth for a number of years.

    Conservation Hunting is defined in the Game Council commissioned report “Conservation through Hunting” (Bauer and English 2011) as “The ethical and humane harvesting of animal species in their natural habitat by individual hunters for the utilization of their meat, skins, or for environmental purposes.” (p 8). The report then goes on to say the Game Council redefined “Conservation Hunting” to include “ ….feral animals on our natural and agricultural environments.” (p 84)

    Introduced animals are not native to Australia and so by definition their control cannot be defined as Conservation Hunting. When the Game Council uses the term “Conservation Hunting”, it has as much credibility as the term “Scientific Whaling”.

    The Game Council unilaterally redefined “Conservation Hunting” to suit their political agenda. By extending the concept of Conservation Hunting to include feral animals, the Game Council has tried to change public opinion on the value of hunting. Unfortunately, the results on the ground as shown in the Game Council’s own Annual Reports (approx. 1 animal killed per R licence issued) proves that recreational hunters are an ineffective tool for controlling feral animal populations over large areas (ie state forests).

    The Game Council was born out of politics. It was set up and run by men who are now Upper House parliamentarians for the S&F Party. Some staff members have very close affiliation with and membership of the S&F Party. They have, in short, been acting as the bureaucratic arm of the S&F Party rather than as an arm of government (either Labour or Conservative).

    The proposal to allow recreational hunting into national parks was born out of a political deal for the government to sell some power stations. When sustained public backlash against this decision became evident to the government, it is no wonder that the proposal died in a political manner.

    I’m not against people going hunting and I understand the attraction of learning to track and stalk an animal. I hope hunters enjoy their recreation and do it in a safe manner, but please don’t try to call it effective feral animal control – its not – its recreational hunting.

    • There is no one method that is effective, so by your standard, none should be tried. We know this – of course – because none have been tried. I don’t pretend recreational hunting is or is not any more effective than any other method of feral animal control… but it helps. Every animal taken by a hunter is one that has been missed by every other method!

      We live in a world where words and phrases change meanings regularly. The game council was hardly the first to use the term ‘conservation hunting’, but since the (I would think) logical meaning of conservation hunting is lost upon you, how about this definition: “The conservation of one or many species of animals (and in some cases, plants) through the reduction of the negative population pressures caused by invasive, feral species, including the reduction of predators, and competitors for food and other habitat factors”.

      Sustained public backlash was (according to the OEH’s own Q3 2012 survey – after the announcement of National Parks hunting) equates 1% of all randomly surveyed people, with regards to concerns on shooting in National Parks. It died in a political manner because the media gave those against almost unlimited access to its resources, when even the largest sports shooting organization in the country, was refused publication. Fear sells papers… reasonability and facts do not.

      • Just because people change definitions it doesn’t make the changes right. I could say that the sun only comes out at night and it is really what we’ve been calling the moon – but that argument would not have any validity or common acceptance.

        Of course feral animal control needs to be integrated, both in the techniques used and across all land tenures. To me, this means, aerial culling, baiting, trapping and warren destruction. But these techniques need to be integrated otherwise they spoil each other’s effectiveness. Pig dogging and hunting have disturbed many a baiting and trapping program (I know because programs I have organised have been wrecked).

        Ground shooting by recreational hunters alone is a waste of time. I refer again to the Game Council’s own figures on R license takes. 20,000 animals p.a. in 2 million ha of state forest (about 1 per 100 ha and mainly rabbits) is a meaningless protection measure given the estimated populations of feral animals. NSW State Forest Corporation has also given up using any other control method, relying on recreational hunters to do the job (they say it’s saving them $2m p.a.). When the hunting lobby can prove they are effectively controlling ferals on state forests, then come and see me about access to national parks.

        I hardly think we have a fair and unbiased media, but the public backlash was real. The media was only picking up on the number of anti hunting protest rallies being held regularly around the state, the constant stream of anti hunting letters to the editors, the number of issues coming out of the proposal including safety, 12 year olds with guns, use of sound suppressors, etc. Not to mention the sudden upsurge in illegal hunting in national parks, reports of farm stock and horses being shot and threatening of landholders by hunters.

  5. Andrew you claim…For a pest control program to be effective it must use the most effective techniques (for most feral species, ground shooting is not most effective technique), be planned, targeted, sustained and humane.
    Andrew would you please specify which methods you consider effective and humane…please be specific.

    • The following describes the efficacy of ground shooting for feral animals by skilled shooters:
      Rabbits “not an effective means of reducing rabbit populations”; “may have limited use in controlling light …
      but … ineffective in significantly reducing populations or even maintaining them at low levels”.
      Foxes “ineffective in significantly reducing fox populations, particularly over the longer-term”
      Pigs “except in exceptional circumstances…not considered to be an effective technique for control”; “can be
      to other techniques in that it can disperse pigs or make them more wary”
      Goats “only suitable for smaller scale operations” or “if used in conjunction with other control methods such as
      or trapping”
      Deer “considered to be the most effective technique currently available” (however, aerial shooting can achieve
      the aid of spotlights)”; “Silenced rifles may also reduce animal disturbance and facilitate accurate shooting.”
      Dogs “not effective”; “not appropriate for reducing populations over extensive areas.”
      Cats “limited effectiveness”; “best suited to smaller isolated areas such as islands”.

      For detailed information on the best techniques for individual species, see feral.org.au.

      Sources: (a) rabbits: Commonwealth of Australia (2007a); (b) foxes: Sharp and Saunders (2007a); (c) pigs: Commonwealth of Australia (2005); (d) goats: Sharp and Saunders (2007b); Commonwealth of Australia (2007c); (e) deer: Sharp and Saunders (2004); (f) dogs: Sharp and Saunders (2007c);

  6. The game council was a tax payer subsidised joke. Why are fun hunters so hung up on deluding themselves and everyone else about how useful they are? Go shoot some pigs on private land by all means but spare us the hunter hero complex!

    • Exactly how many ferals have you removed? Would you say its more than the average hunter? The Public Benefit Assessment that was independently conducted showed it offered much greater benefit than its expense, and that regional economies gained millions from people undertaking this effort.

  7. A few responses to the comments so far.

    1. The Invasive Species Council has no direct affiliation with the Invasive Animals CRC

    2. We acknowledge that hunting in some situations can reduce feral animal numbers over small areas. Where there are small numbers of pigs, hunters may be able to impact on these population, even though ground shooting is usually not recommended as the most effective method of control for pigs. However, this is not the full story. As we outlined in a number of pieces on our webpages: Is hunting conservation (particularly Recreational hunting NSW: claims vs facts and Critique: Is hunting conservation?) there is a large difference between the work of hunters and an effective pest control program.

    For a pest control program to be effective it must use the most effective techniques (for most feral species, ground shooting is not most effective technique), be planned, targeted, sustained and humane. While it may appear that one dead feral animal is a good thing, this is usually not be the case. As we said earlier in our online analysis, unless hunters kill more feral animals than can be replaced by migration or survival of those that would otherwise die, they do not reduce populations. For many feral animals, this requires up to half or more of a population to be killed annually. Hunters have not been able to demonstrate this level of sustained population reduction over large areas. If they can achieve it for small areas, the benefit is usually temporary.

    3. As for hunters contributing to a broader feral animal control program, this is problematic. We would agree that hunters can make a contribution if a hunter is skilled, is part of a properly planned and controlled program and where ground shooting is determined to be an effective technique. I believe that most hunters wouldn’t call this style of activity ‘hunting’. That is why we support the NSW Government’s proposed use of skilled ‘volunteer shooters’ to support its feral animal control program as is already done successfully in South Australia and Queensland.

    • Aerial shooting is generally not regarded as humane methods by most. There is constant opposition to aerial control of animals like feral horses.

      It is almost impossible to do aerial pest control in dense bushland, safely and humanely – let alone effectively.

      WHY DO *HUNTERS* HAVE TO KILL MORE THAN ARE REPLACED? What is it with this constant assumption that hunting is the only method – as if you set it up to fail by excluding all other methods of feral animal control happening concurrently. That is to say whilst your statement is truthful, it is a half truth because no one expects other methods of control to stop. ie: Animals removed by: Hunting + baiting + trapping + professional pest control + exclusion fencing etc = number of animals that have to be replaced before the program is ineffective.

      Hunters would be happy to contribute to a broader feral animal control program. In KNP for example, OEH managed to remove 14 feral cats, and this was a major success. Of course there are over 10,000 feral horses, but apparently the cats were easier and killing just a handful was publicly published as such. I’ve already mentioned their effectiveness with controlling pigs. We know the effectiveness of OEH is abysmal, but no one’s asking them to stop anyway, all hunters are asking, is to contribute in their own way. Its that simple.

      • i’ve done plenty of aerial shooting for goats pigs and horses and its humane as any other shooting. More effective too.

        Judas goat programs are extremely effective in even the roughest terain. Unfortunately they aren’t ‘recreational’

  8. this is misguided propaganda for political purpose. the green sheeple have been lead down a dark path

  9. What Pest experts? the Greens?

  10. “No pest control expert disagrees that hunters play only a limited and sometimes a counter-productive role in feral animal control”

    So… is a limited role, not a role? A trapper plays a limited role, so does a baiter, a ranger, and so on. Funnily enough its the sum of all these limited efforts that makes the difference by providing sustained pressures from many different approaches. The ISC seems to view hunting in isolation, and bases all of its comments around hunting being a sole method of animal control. Its interesting that I note in Glen Saunders 1993 report for the CSIRO that ILLEGAL hunters amounted to up to 15% of feral pig mortality in the almost 2 year study, yet NPWS accounted for ZERO. Thats right, ZERO…. in 2 years. Saunders goes on to say in other areas where hunting is allowed, mortality rates from hunting may be as high as 40%. I fail to see how that is ‘limited’.

    Every animal taken by a hunter, where other control methods are (still) used, is an animal that every one of those methods, missed.

  11. Good old C.R.C … sell more poison now in the National Parks and reserves… now that the humane shooting of feral animals has been stopped.