Image for FOXES: Tasmania’s fantastic joke

First published June 17

An Integrity Commission investigation into Mr Dean’s official complaint entitled “Fox Fraud and the measured manipulation of material evidence” is in play. At least that much has been publicly acknowledged in the media – ‘Fox hunt program back in the spotlight’ – Mercury, 8 April 2017 ( HERE ).

We also know the Journal Applied Ecology, the journal that published the paper entitled: “Foxes are now widespread in Tasmania: DNA detection defines the distribution of this rare but invasive carnivore” has placed an ‘expression of concern’ on the paper ( Mercury HERE  ) and it is still awaiting communication from DPIPWE on an internal investigation by an independent person into the staff probity issues.

In my opinion this one program and its advocacy has had a detrimental impact on Trust: trust in conduct of publicly-funded science in Tasmania, trust in the day-to-day relationships that exist between a government and its biosecurity agency; trust between the State and Commonwealth and trust between a public service agency {DPIPWE] and ordinary citizens ( Tasmanians ).

Until the independent scientists’ group began to methodically publish articles ( see: http://www.tasmanianfox.com for article downloads ) on the evidence DPIPWE relied on to support a sensational but baseless claim that a free-ranging fox population existed in Tasmania, the Tasmanian community received a constant stream of fox-news - via the local daily newspapers and via fox program propaganda. The analysis on this fox-media has just been published in the journal Conservation Biology. ( see: http://www.tasmanianfox.com for access )

In the earliest years (2001-02) the Federal Government was asked to finance the Tasmanian fox incursion but to its credit it requested a formal ‘case definition’ which could be properly and scientifically evaluated. But the State Minister at the time David Llewellyn publicly badgered the Commonwealth into providing emergency assistance based on a perceived immediate need to detect and remove live foxes DPIPWE alleged were on the run in various parts of Tasmania … the blurred world of science risk assessment and political opportunism.

Tasmania’s ‘war on foxes’ policy was completely government-inspired. This fantastically imaginative campaign had its own special workforce; a small army that we were told kept on looking for this rare and elusive creature for 15 years … but they were never able to locate them in any Tasmanian landscape.

What Tasmanians don’t know (and hopefully is a matter that will be examined by the Integrity Commission) is a claim that false and misleading information that was accepted as critical intelligence was provided to a nationally-recognised fox ecologist in an attempt to convince that person to professionally and publicly support Tasmania in its quest to get the Commonwealth to pay. Astonishingly that information given as trustworthy official knowledge to a known fox ecologist turned out to be patently wrong – i.e. baseless and uncorroborated. But Tasmania’s fox was out of the bag and on the run!

In daily life we are constantly warned ‘Caveat Emptor’ - Buyer Beware. That “the devil is in the detail”. That “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” These sentiments are reasons why scientists (as well as public policy decision-makers) have a need to be particularly cautious when asked to quickly accept or take snap decisions which might be based on unsupported claims ... claims which turn out to be deceptive and misleading. One could argue that in such situations the public ‘responsibility’ is then passed to those individuals who take that leap of faith. Fair enough … but how is an incorrect record ever corrected? 

Who blows the whistle on deceptive and misleading conduct when reputations and money are at stake?

And just maybe that’s the fox joke that was played in Tasmania after 1998. And in my opinion the government agency responsible for upholding the highest standards of biosecurity and biodiversity is at the centre of this fox joke.

Becoming the recipient for tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for an ‘eradication program’ it would be mandatory that such an organisation would go out of its way to demonstrate ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the program is linked to solid irrefutable proof (not just consequential risk) that is evidence-based and has been independently evaluated through unbiased processes.

Will Tasmania learn something from this?

*Dr David Obendorf lives in West Hobart; he’s lived in Tasmania since 1980 having been drawn to the natural beauty of the rugged island. As a veterinary pathologist by training and experience much of his adult life (now retired) has been dedicated to ensuring public agencies and governments fulfill a sacred duty to protect Tasmania’s social, economic and natural values. The public’s trust in government’s ability to deliver sound policies that claim to protect and sustain Tasmania’s unique biodiversity and biosecurity advantages has been at the core of his drive to stand up for the island’s living diversity. The weaknesses in the Tasmanian Fox Program, originally brought to our attention by Ian Rist, became a protracted debate and ended up an extensive analysis process involving multi-disciplinary scientific effort led by Dr Clive Marks. Through that time, Tasmanian Times was there to ‘bear witness’ to the need for transparency on how public policy is conceived in Tasmania. Tasmania must learn from this saga and may we always have a free and independent media to report on such controversies.

• Jason Hearn in Comments: If you want to catch a fox you just have to let some chickens run around. I could set up a program with a couple hundred chickens, if there are foxes I should have one in a couple of days. I can do it for 10% discount on the existing forward estimates (mates’ rates)

• Jack J in Comments: #45: I guess we will see. After being on the forefront of post truth cryptozoology, best practice media propaganda and enough hubris to choke a fat real estate agent we await the Tasmanian government’s next move.  Nothing will surprise me. It might be that there was ‘no problem at all’ OR that ‘we have all learned a lot from the experience and will do better next time, so let’s all move on…’

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