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Thursday, January 15, 2009

A conservation effort for the birds

"It is always with the best intentions that the worst work gets done." -- Oscar Wilde

Take, for instance, the situation on an island halfway between Australia and Antarctica. I read about it today in a story by AP Environmental Writer Michael Casey.

Researchers believe passing ships introduced nonnative cats, rabbits, rats and mice to Macquarie Island within the past century. The invasive mammals soon grew to threaten the island's 3.5 million native seabirds, including the four threatened albatross species. So in 1995 the Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania opted to eradicate all the feral cats in a conservationalist effort to save the birds.

Sure, Antarctic prions began to recover, and the grey petrel successfully bred on the island for the first time in a century. But the greatest consequence was far more devastating: Macquarie Island became grossly overpopulated by rabbits, which proceeded to destroy much of the fragile vegetation that native birds called home.

Someone didn't think this through.

As such, decades of conservation efforts have been compromised, and fixing the "environmental devastation" caused between 2000 and 2007 will cost authorities the equivalent of $16.2 million, according to Dana Bergstrom of the Australian Antarctic Division.

Conservation groups responded not by criticizing the initial eradication but by mourning that cats, rabbits, rats and mice weren't eradicated at once. Plans to do just that will begin in 2010. (Think helicopters dropping targeted poison baits and rabbit-hunting teams shooting, gassing and trapping.)

"The unintended consequences of the cat-removal project show the dangers of meddling with an ecosystem -- even with the best of intentions -- without thinking long and hard," Casey wrote.

And never mind the painful process of eradicating animals, fellow pet lovers. Now even those animals intended to be preserved, the native bird species, have drastically suffered. Let's hope the Parks and Wildlife Service has learned from its mistakes and heeds these further words from Wilde:

"One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards."

-- Sandra M. Klepach


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