From feral cats and foxes to rabbits and feral goats, our native lands are reeling from the effects of uncontrolled pest animals. The destruction of habitat and demise of many native species has reached such high levels that the federal government last year appointed a Threatened Species Commissioner to tackle the dire situation.
It may seem strange to non-hunters in particular to think that hunting can play a pivotal role in combating such destruction. Travel to the national parks in northern South Australia, however, and the involvement of SSAA members in feral pest control activities will dispel any doubts. Here, the reinvigoration of native wildlife and the restoration of a species previously extinct to the region is now a celebrated reality.
Detailed previously in the Australian Shooter, members of the SSAA South Australia Conservation & Wildlife Management Branch have been credited with creating conditions for the western quoll (Dasyurus geoffroii) to be reintroduced in the Flinders Ranges. But this landmark project, which received a $60,000 boost from SSAA National last year, has been years in the making and is made possible through our hunters partnering with the South Australian Government’s Bounceback program. A broad-scale landscape conservation program, Bounceback has successfully combated further species losses and ongoing habitat destruction throughout the Flinders, Olary and Gawler Ranges.
While the program and its challenges have evolved over 23 years since it began, the goal remains the same: to restore the landscape to a sound, functional ecosystem. Key to this has been the control of pest animals in the region, especially feral goats and foxes.
Gil Hartwig, founder of the first SSAA CWM branch that formed in South Australia in the early 1990s – then called Hunting & Conservation – was there at the inception of Bounceback. He described in the April 1992 edition of the Australians Shooters Journal how the first joint feral goat control program with the National Parks and Wildlife Service came about, saying, “…it is not unusual to hear landowners complain that all goats breed in National Parks…At the same time, National Parks and Wildlife Service can be heard criticising lease holders for not controlling the feral pests on their land.”
This was followed by a thought that still haunts other states without a wildlife management system on public land: “What hunter has not had the thought cross his mind: if only I could hunt the National Parks legally.”
After discussing the feral goat plight on local radio with an outback station owner and the head of National Parks at the time, the then SSAA National Executive Director Keith Tidswell extended a hand to the state government, encouraging them to call in responsible hunters to help stop the destruction of a beautiful part of South Australia’s outback.
After approval was given for SSAA hunters to tackle the feral goat situation, Gil and a team of 78 SSAA members converged on the Gammon Ranges in the Northern Flinders Ranges in early 1992. Gil recalls the eerie landscape that greeted him on his first visit to the region with his wife Marlene, repeating his wife’s exact words. “It was like a lunar landscape,” he said. “There were mobs of goats in valleys and gullies, and it was hard – almost impossible – to find grass on the ground.
“That year, the drought broke when the team was up there, and around 3500 goats were culled in one week. From that success, an official formal meeting of what was to become Hunting & Conservation South Australia was called, with the branch officially formed in August 1992.”
Gil said 46 members attended the first meeting, with around 80 per cent of the original founding members still currently involved in CWM activities.
Trevor Naismith was the District Ranger stationed at Hawker in the Flinders Ranges at the time this all began. “Many of our national parks in the Flinders area were in very poor condition,” he recalled. “We were dealing with over 100 years of land degradation.”
Mr Naismith was one of three involved in the formation of Bounceback and has high praise for CWM’s involvement beyond the initial goat culling. “As the Bounceback Program rolled out and we started to get good levels of goat control, we needed to have a very good understanding of the population of foxes and cats, particularly in the Flinders Ranges and neighbouring properties,” he said. “A monitoring program was set up, which CWM readily accepted responsibility for.”
SSAA CWM founding member Kaz Herbst was involved in this program, now known as the Flinders Ranges Predator Program. Many cats and foxes shot by SSAA SA CWM members in the early days also provided data for a scientific paper published by the CSIRO on ‘The impact of rabbit haemorrhagic disease on introduced predators in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia’, including 63 animals shot by David Peacock, who has been involved most recently in the quoll release.
While some foxes and cats were removed by CWM, a spokesperson from the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) said the involvement of CWM in terms of feral goat control has been significant. “The Sporting Shooters’, through controlled programs on our parks, have made significant contributions to ongoing pressure on vegetation caused by goats, removing around 30,000 goats from the north Flinders and Gammon Ranges,” she said. “This has contributed significantly to goat control.”
The spokesperson said goats have also been removed in annual aerial goat culls on reserves and pastoral properties in the Flinders. Aerial goat control is funded by the South Australian Government and conducted by trained DEWNR staff and paid contractors.
Today, Gil, who has received an Order of Australia award for his contribution to conservation, reflects on the involvement of SSAA SA CWM in Bounceback with pride, calling it “an achievement, absolutely”.
“It is definitely a feather in our cap,” he said. “Hunting & Conservation was a world first, and now there is a CWM branch in nearly all states.”
These days, the recovery of the Flinders Ranges to its former glory is obvious. “You can tell the difference over the years, and it’s absolutely magnificent in the years we’ve had rain,” he said.
Gil estimates that close to 63,000 goats have been removed from the Ranges over the past 23 years by various methods, but points out that it’s a “boom and bust cycle” when it comes to population numbers. “It’s great to have created an environment that has recovered and has benefitted with the quoll release, but it’s a boom and bust situation up there…the best time to hit them [the goats] is in the drought years, as the numbers can come back in good conditions.”
Gil is also involved in the Yellow Footed Rock Wallaby Preservation Association. This rare breed is also threatened by goats that compete for food, water and shelter in the same regions. The Bounceback program, along with the work of the Preservation Association, has led to an original four wallabies increasing to a reported 30-plus seen in the Bunkers Conservation Reserve over the past 10 years. The total wallaby population across the central Flinders Ranges region has increased to several thousand after starting from a low base of around 500 animals.
The DEWNR spokesperson pointed to this as another success of the program. “There is no doubt that the yellow-foot, for example, really benefitted from the goat control by the Sporting Shooters’,” she said.
While in days past SSAA CWM had up to five teams of up to 22 members tracking the hills on foot to tackle the goats, Gil says the current twice-yearly managed goat shoots in the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Parks and once-yearly in the Flinders Ranges National Parks remain an important conservation activity.
With foxes effectively controlled in the areas, thanks to 1080 baiting complemented by some shooting, feral cats are a growing challenge. This pest has been blamed for killing around 75 million native animals each night by Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt.
The recent release of the quoll in the Flinders Ranges – a project where DEWNR partnered with the Foundation for Australia’s Most Endangered Species (FAME) to deliver – the DEWNR spokesperson said the loss of some released quolls to feral cats is to be expected, but these feisty carnivores are known to survive in the presence of feral cats in Western Australia. “Targeted cat control by the Bounceback’s fauna reintroduction team involving regular cat cage trapping and monitoring using remote cameras is our current approach,” she said.
Gil said SSAA CWM would be “happy to help” deal with any feral cats in the national parks if asked, with many members experienced in hunting this notorious predator, particularly through involvement in the Flinders Ranges Predator Program.
The reintroduction of previously extinct species such as the quoll, with plans to reintroduce the brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) later this year, is the culmination of more than 20 years of this pioneering project. “It has always been on our agenda to bring back some of those species,” said the DEWNR spokesperson.
For Mr Naismith, seeing the incredible transformation of the Flinders Ranges after more than 130 years of environmental pressure has been particularly rewarding. “The commitment, dedication, loyalty and friendship that the members of CWM have shown has been outstanding, with many giving over 23 years of volunteering to protect South Australia’s natural environment,” he said. “The Bounceback program continues to make headway, it continues to evolve, and the partnership with FAME is another great story.”
While the quest to recover the magnificent landscapes of outback South Australia continues, with new challenges such as a changing climate and the trial of more control methods on the horizon, one thing is for certain: members of the SSAA SA CWM team are in it for the long run.