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The brush-tailed possum may be cute, but the invader is posing a serious threat to New Zealand’s native species.

Tobias Bernhard Raff/Minden Pictures

New Zealand aims to eradicate invasive predators, but winning public support may be big challenge

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND—A year ago, the national government here announced a bold plan to rid the country of a trio of invasive predators that threatens native birds. Experts say the task will require new technologies—such as deadlier toxins and possibly even the release of genetically modified organisms—that have yet to be invented. But winning public support for using these new methods could be an even bigger task, scientists say.

Moving any new control measures from the lab to the landscape will be “as much of a social challenge as it is a biological challenge,” says conservation biologist James Russell of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

With that in mind, scientists are eyeing a social experiment to rival the biological one: finding ways to include the public early and often in discussing predator control plans, and allowing people to have a say in which methods are deployed. 

Last month, a bioethics panel made up of experts from about a dozen perspectives—including an ecologist, a geneticist, a lawyer, a hunter, and a Māori leader—gathered here for the first time to discuss the ethical and social challenges to eradicating invasive predators. At the same time, a separate group of researchers is getting ready to conduct a national survey aimed at gauging the public’s tolerance for novel predator control technologies.

The massive eradication effort—dubbed Predator Free 2050—calls for wiping out millions of brush-tailed possums, rats, and stoats (a type of weasel) that threaten native birds and other species. Experts say current control technologies, which rely heavily on toxin-laced baits, won’t do the job. So new—and likely controversial—methods are needed, perhaps including genetic modifications that prevent predators from reproducing. And the effort won’t be cheap; eradication could cost one-quarter of New Zealand’s gross domestic product, according to some estimates. So backers say public support will be crucial for success.

Polls show that New Zealanders strongly support protecting native species. (The country has one of the highest extinction rates in the world.) But “the devil is in the details” when it comes to rolling out eradication programs, says Russell, one of the country’s top predator control experts. Though the public has generally supported clearing invaders from uninhabited islands around New Zealand’s fringe, there’s been some resistance to control efforts in populated areas. Ecologist Cam Speedy of Wildlife Management Associates in Turangi, New Zealand, says that many of the people he works with in rural areas, for example, oppose the use of toxins to control invasive predators. “They’re hunters and gatherers, they get food from these places, and these toxins are seen as a threat to their food supply," he told ScienceInsider after last month’s bioethics meeting. “And things like genetically modified organisms scare people.”

To learn more about how New Zealanders think about such issues, a group led by Edy MacDonald, who heads the Department of Conservation's social science team in Wellington, is finalizing a national survey. The goal is to uncover not just what concerns people, but why. “Whatever their response is, we need to work with that and have that conversation,” she says. “‘So you’re not comfortable with that technology? Why? Tell me more.’”

The survey is specifically designed to reveal the values underlying people's opinions. Research suggests that presenting people “with the facts has rarely swayed minds,” MacDonald says. “You have to talk to them based on their value system, and understand their value systems.”

The survey’s findings will be included in a report that the bioethics panel plans to release next year on incorporating ethical and social concerns into the Predator Free New Zealand program. “We’re really hoping the report will be internationally useful as well,” says Russell, by offering guidance to other island governments—such as those in Hawaii and the Galápagos—looking to eradicate invasive predators.