Electric ants, on the cusp of eradication

Feral Herald |
Although tiny electric ants pack a powerful sting and can establish colonies anywhere. Photo: Roby Edrian (CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)
Although tiny electric ants pack a powerful sting and can establish colonies anywhere. Photo: Roby Edrian (CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)

Biosecurity Queensland’s electric ant eradication program, based in Cairns, has successfully eradicated more than 90% of Australia’s only infestation after years of baiting and monitoring, but all this effort could be wasted unless the job is finished.

The electric ant program is an unsung success story in biosecurity responses to toehold invaders. It is a model for the kind of commitment that needs to be brought to bear on a similar invader, the deadly red fire ant.

Since 2006, the small team based in far north Queensland has had great success integrating baits, traps, detection dogs, community awareness and research to develop innovative responses to electric ants.

The expansion of electric ants is slow. They rely on humans to rapidly spread – usually through the illegal dumping of household waste or the swapping and sharing of potted plants.

The ants are tiny, much smaller than fire ants or yellow crazy ants, but pack a powerful sting and can disrupt and displace other species. Electric ants can establish colonies anywhere and usually do not have visible nesting locations. They can form dense populations disrupting fields and backyards and because they can survive in water will sting swimmers, even in backyard pools.

Our outreach officer Reece Pianta is shown the ropes with electric ant sniffer dog Eden and her handler.
Our outreach officer Reece Pianta is shown the ropes with electric ant sniffer dog Eden and her handler Tom Lawton.

Let’s finish the job

Despite the electric ant program’s success, or perhaps because of it, state and federal funding ran out late last year. This threatens all the achievements of the program to date.

With less than a dozen localised infestation sites remaining the program is now in a holding pattern. If funding is not found we could see the re-emergence of electric ant populations, wasting the investment to date and making future eradication potentially much more expensive.

For now the Queensland Government is providing funds to continue vital surveillance and containment work while it makes the case for new national funding. The lack of a determined and sustained response is a key factor in biosecurity response failures in Australia and electric ants serve as our most recent example.

Past experience shows that the eradication of the last few percent of an infestation is the most expensive and time consuming part of any program due higher levels of surveillance and lower ease of detection.

Evidence of this can be seen in the red fire ant eradication effort. The initial success resulted in a reduction in funding and staffing levels. In hindsight, this decision proved extremely costly. The fire ants spread and now we are faced with a multi-billion-dollar economic threat and a $380 million eradication cost.

The Invasive Species Council is pushing for a new national and state funding commitment for the final stage of the electric ant eradication effort. Biosecurity Queensland needs the funds to finish the electric ant eradication.

Success with electric ants will build confidence in the ability of Biosecurity Queensland to handle the much larger southeast fire ant eradication program, which all states will be asked to fund in May this year.

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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.
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