Before the March 2014 State election the State Liberals indicated they would stop the wastage of public funds directed to the fox program. In May the Tasmanian Legislative Council unanimously passed a motion that effectively ended the political underwriting for Tasmania’s fox eradication program. Not unsurprisingly, in the circumstances, this was a silent finale that contrasted to the years of fox media. The end was not covered in any Tasmanian media.
You have to go back to the beginning to make any sense out of Tasmania’s $50 million-plus attempt to ‘eradicate’ foxes.
Extraordinary claims usually require extraordinary evidence but apparently not in this case. All that was necessary was a cobbled together mish-mash of rumour and hearsay and a constant dip-feed of dead fox material and public sighting reports.
It all began with a Melbourne fox that was probably coerced onto and then off a Burnie-bound freight vessel in 1998; a silly prank that was to lead to consequences. A few years later  PWS told its Minister that a group of Tasmanian-based deer hunters had smuggled in litters of foxes, reared them in captivity and then released them for hunting.
Mark Twain once said: “A lie will go half way round the world before truth has time to pull its boots on.”
That “fox plot” importation and release story had several re-incarnations through 2001 – it actually got a couple of media runs - and by 2002 PWS biologist Mr Nick Mooney was quoted in the prestigious international journal Nature that he was in ‘no doubt that this live fox smuggling incident had occurred’.
What the Tasmanian public was not officially told was that the police taskforce commissioned to investigate the named fox smugglers had comprehensively discredited the PWS allegations.
Mr Mooney was to later publicly criticise the Tasmania Police investigation claiming they had stuffed-up their investigation. And yet how could that be? Police documents indicate that PWS actually withheld critical information from the police taskforce investigators for several days until DPIPWE were compelled to co-operate [as identified in FOI released police documents dated 2001].
By 2002 the fear of foxes had led to the creation of an eager fox posse of PWS rangers egged on by at least one Gonzo-journalist. All the PWS fox hunters needed was money and lots of it.
Rohan Wade, then a journalist with the Examiner interviewed the PWS fox hunters. The message had not changed. Mr Wade wrote:
’Fox taskforce manager, Stan Matuszek said it was beyond doubt that foxes had been deliberately brought into Tasmania and released.
The mentality of those people is indescribable. They have a “Me, me, me” mentality. “I’ll do what I want to do and bugger the rest of you” ’, Mr Matuzsek said.
Some of these people might think they are getting one over Parks and Wildlife Service. Well, I’ve got news for them; our jobs are safe. We’ll still be here trying just as hard to look after the scrap of wildlife that’s left after foxes take over, Mr Matuszek said.
But more resources – spelt M-O-N-E-Y – are the best chance of a win in an increasingly bleak situation. Many experts are critical of what they call the Federal Government’s lack of response to the Tasmanian fox crisis, saying it has turned its back on its own fox abatement plan by refusing funding. The abatement plan not only identified the importance of keeping the island state fox-free, but stated that its objective was to “prevent foxes occupying new areas of Australia” and also “develop and implement contingency plans to contain and exterminate any incursion by foxes onto islands with high conservation values.’ [Sunday Examiner, 20 January 2002]
And so it came to pass that Minister David Llewellyn gave the fox baton to Bryan Green who, in mid-2003 declared: “Remember if we had foxes turning up as roadkill we would probably know that the fight to eradicate them was lost.” [Examiner, 6 June 2003] A few months later an alleged ‘roadkill’ fox did ‘turn up’ in Burnie and Minister Green had his media moment holding a dead fox in a box.
A few more years of unproductive fox hunting by DPIPWE’s Fox-free Taskforce and 2006 was the big year for roadkill foxes turning up – two - and some fox DNA recovered on a property in the Hobart suburb of Old Beach. Tasmanians were told the fox hunters were feverishly crunching the numbers guesstimating how many live foxes there might be in Tasmania based on three dead foxes turning up on Tasmanian roads. Bryan Green’s earlier claim that roadkill foxes turning up would signal ‘the fight to eradicate the fox was lost’ was no longer mentioned.
Yet by the end of 2006 there was still no empirical evidence of any live Tasmanian foxes to be had for love nor money. The fox program claimed many hundreds of alleged sightings had been reported [over 3000 sighting logged by 2013]; Nick Mooney dismissed sightings as ‘soft evidence’. But those sightings and the dead fox exhibits was all DPIPWE had to claim there was a population of live foxes in Tasmania. But the fox hunt game was about to change. In November 2006 Nick Mooney and David Llewellyn held a joint press conference to launch Tasmania’s $56 million decade-long war on foxes; Mr Mooney told the assembled media there could be ‘up to 400 foxes’ living across Tasmania. I’m presuming this was based on a guesstimation made from the three dead fox DPIPWE accepted were ‘road kill’ foxes.
From 2006 to 2012 hunting for fox poo now took precedence over hunting live foxes. A genetic test provided by the Invasive Animals CRC claimed it could specifically identify fox faeces from all other carnivore scats [feral cats, devils, quolls, dogs] found in Tasmania. All that was needed were human poo gatherers and later a team of trained fox-scat dogs to find these turds for testing. And to assist in training the fox-scat detector dogs the newly named Fox Eradication Program decided to import large consignments of fox faeces from various suppliers on the Australian mainland.
And it came to pass that the annual fox scat tally increased from just one in 2005 to twenty-six in 2008 but still no confirmation from the genetic lab that any one fox was responsible for more than one of these tested fox-positive scats. By the end of 2012 the University of Canberra scat testing lab was screening thousands of Tasmanian carnivore scats from north to south and east to west. By late 2012 based on the 56 positive-fox positive scats found since 2005 a science paper claimed ‘foxes were now widespread in Tasmania’; based on the fox scat recoveries - from Gladstone to Boat Harbour, from Port Sorell to Geeveston; even on Bruny Island. Three years of ‘Great Poo Hunts’ and the efforts of three scat-detector dog teams had turned up DNA-positive fox scats. By the reckoning of the technical advisors to this program, if fox faeces were that widespread then it was only logical that defaecating live Tasmanian foxes were also widespread.
‘Science is nothing but trained and organised common sense.’ - Thomas Huxley, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, 1840.
Five peer-reviewed papers have now been published by a group of independent scientists. [See Tasmanian Foxes? website: http://www.tasmanianfox.com/Tasmanian_Fox/HOME.html ]
The papers report that:
(1) the critical index event – the alleged conspiracy of Tasmanian hunters to import, rear in captivity & release foxes – was unsubstantiated;
(2) the quality of the physical evidence related to various fox incidents in Tasmania since 1998 is generally poor with only the 1998 Burnie single fox escape from a freight vessel being corroborated with empirical evidence;
(3) the claimed species-specific mitochondrial DNA scat test used to screen approximately 10,000 carnivore scats collected in Tasmania was subject to Type 1 error in that the test as applied as a ‘quick and inexpensive screening test’ was prone to false positive results;
(4) all the physical evidence data collected was not supported by empirical in situ monitoring data which showed that live foxes existed in Tasmania; and finally (5) the use of 1080 buried baits for fox control as an eradication tool applied across one-third of Tasmania was ill-conceived and unsupported by field data.
The difficulty for many onlookers has been the continuous barrage of fox stories offered up by the Government media sources over a decade.
The heavy reliance on the local media to highlight fox stories, the dismissal of well-reasoned criticism and the absence of genuinely independent scientific review seems to have led to its own form of lingering embarrassment.
There were important lessons to be learned for Tasmania from this Cry Wolf program.
Unless Tasmania accepts the defective processes used in the conduct of this costly attempt to eradicate an invasive species that remained intangible and changes its approaches to its biosecurity responses, a future high-risk invasive incursion might not be taken seriously.