Concern predator free 2050 goal lost as 'reinvasion' fears sparked

By Eugene Bingham for RNZ

Most people love the idea of a predator-free nation, with native flora and fauna flourishing. But progress towards the 2050 goal is patchy and the agencies in charge are struggling with funding and governance concerns.

It might be the most feted plan for mass culling there ever was.

In 2016, then-Prime Minister John Key announced the goal of eliminating introduced predators by 2050.

Getting rid of possums, stoats, rats and ferrets was a popular and noble ambition. It's a vital step to preserve Aotearoa's native flora and fauna.

Introduced predators kill about 25 million native birds each year, and there are about 4000 native species threatened or at risk of extinction.

So Key's announcement was met with acclaim - volunteer and iwi-run trapping projects sprang up around the country, some companies already involved in predator control stepped up their efforts, and research and development was boosted.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) had a role. But a whole new, government-owned charitable company was also created to drive big chunks of the work.

Since it was started, Predator Free 2050 Ltd (PF2050) has co-funded 18 large-scale eradication projects, 47 science and research programmes, and 13 new tools in use such as AI cameras and innovative traps. But the company - and the work it supports - has issues. It is surviving on a financial lifeline, it has battled its way through a range of governance problems and it has had a bad relationship with DOC.

The company is so worried about its long-term future that it has warned the new Minister of Conservation Tama Potaka that the strides made towards the predator free goal could be lost.

"Many landscape projects will surrender the gains made, and there will be predator reinvasion with potential loss of social licence for the goal," warns a briefing it sent to Potaka.

The money problem

More than $300m in taxpayer money has been spent pursuing the predator free goal since 2016, with DOC as the lead agency.

But beneath it is a diverse range of entities which all have a part to play, including local government, iwi and hapū, community groups - and PF2050 Ltd.

The company was set up to help with large-scale predator projects, to fund breakthrough science, and also to find and facilitate other funding. This year, the company's money to support this work came from Jobs for Nature ($23.6m), the Provincial Growth Fund ($2.7m), as well as DOC ($5.9m).

While the projects and research aspects have found some success - or at least promise - the funding task has become a headache.

There were initially great hopes that philanthropic money would flow into PF2050 Ltd to distribute to projects, but over time it has discovered charities prefer to directly contribute to the projects themselves.

The company has seed-funded projects to help encourage others to step in, a model which the company says has generated $120m in non-government money going towards the goal.

But even then, the company has told the government that maybe philanthropy is not the silver bullet once envisioned.

"We are of the view there is limited scope for expanding this fundraising within Aotearoa, and other funds will need to be sourced offshore," says the company's briefing to Potaka.

The company got $32m public funding in the financial year 2023/24, but about 80% of that came via the Jobs for Nature scheme and Provincial Growth Fund money, which were due to run out in June.

Only recently, the timeframe for spending remaining Jobs for Nature money has recently been extended by two years, and an extra $5m per year from a Budget 2022 allocation to the Department of Conservation (DOC) has been directed to the company to focus on "existing priority eradication projects".

Alongside some "operational savings" the funding extension means the company can "support a credible predator elimination programme" in the "short to medium term," says a spokesperson for the company.

But after July 2025, it's less certain.

"If additional Crown funding is not secured, then we will need to carefully manage a retrenchment in progress towards the Predator Free 2050 goal," says the briefing to Potaka.

Governance, management problems

Even if it can secure sustainable funding, the company still has to overcome major issues with its management, and governance.

In early 2021, the company told the government it could not be precise about the jobs created via the Jobs for Nature funding. This was because it was contracting out the projects it was funding, rather than being the direct employer, and did not have "relevant and appropriate processes and controls" to trace what roles the money had created.

Consultants from Deloitte and MartinJenkins were brought in, and changes were made, including the development of a new data management system by the company.

Between 2020 and 2022, there were four CEOs, and the board has gone through "a period of disruption". Initially, there were eight board members, but that has shrunk over the years and now there are five, with one, the longest-standing member, Devon McLean, due to finish his term in May.

These days, the company has 17 staff, headed by chief executive Rob Forlong, with the board chaired by former Ministry for the Environment boss Denise Church.

Church took over from David MacLeod, who resigned in late 2022 after winning selection as National's New Plymouth candidate.

Before he left, a letter to MacLeod from then Conservation Minister Poto Williams put PF2050 Ltd on notice, telling him the company's plans "do not fully align with Cabinet or Ministerial expectations" and that there was uncertainty about the company's future.

"Until a decision about the company's future is finalised, I consider it would be prudent for the board to factor the current uncertainty into its decision-making, particularly with regards to any new long-term commitments," said Williams in the September 2022 letter.

The uncertainty remained when Williams wrote to Church confirming her appointment as the new chair - her term was for a standard three years (until November 2025), but Williams told Church the outcome of work on the future of the company, "could potentially alter the length of your term".

Asked if Church had since received assurances about her term, a company spokesperson said no.

Partnership problems

The Predator Free 2050 goal relies on an array of partnerships from the smallest voluntary initiative all the way up to PF2050 and DOC. On its website, DOC says there are "achievable solutions" and that with government, iwi, businesses, NGOs and communities working alongside each other, "together we can achieve a predator free New Zealand".

But the relationship between PF2050 and DOC has been poor. Conflict and confusion over who was doing what appears to have been at the heart of it.

In late 2022, the company told the minister the relationship with the department's governance unit needed a "reset" and that: "At this time there is not a relationship of trust between the two parties."

Consultants MartinJenkins also found the relationship was "poor" and that the organisations' roles were sometimes seen "as in conflict or competition".

Between March 2022 and July 2023, the company was only allowed to draw down money from DOC on a monthly basis, rather than the usual quarterly payments, as concerns around reporting capabilities were dealt with.

DOC's deputy director-general of biodiversity heritage and visitors, Stephanie Rowe, says the two organisations are now transitioning into new roles which will "avoid duplication of effort(s)".

"This will see the company focusing in rural and urban areas and continuing its important role in facilitating research and development into breakthrough predator eradication tools and technology."

DOC will continue to lead the overall strategy and programme, as well as eradication efforts on conservation land.

A spokesperson for PF2050 strikes a similar note.

"From our perspective, the relationship with DOC has improved significantly over the past 18 months.

"DOC and PF2050 Ltd are actively collaborating and engaging on a regular basis at many levels of both organisations, to ensure our collective goals are progressed."

Now what?

The goal to rid the entire country of possums, rats and mustelids (such as stoats) by 2050 has been lauded internationally since it was announced. There are some detractors - conservation scientists John Leathwick and Andrea Byrom have asked if the predator-free goal is the right target. They worry that focusing on a narrow clutch of predators meant others - such as deer, goats and pigs - are being let off the hook, and that other biodiversity work could be suffering.

DOC has acknowledged those concerns and is embarking on a review of the 2050 strategy this year, which Rowe says will "check we've got the right strategy … and to develop a new set of interim goals to focus New Zealand's efforts".

"The review will include the target predators for Predator Free 2050 and will address the question of whether feral cats or other introduced predators should be included," she says.

Significant progress has already been made in pockets around the country, such as in Wellington where dedicated volunteers and taxpayer-funded work has enabled the city to make great strides towards its aim of being the first predator-free capital in the world.

Across the mainland, 84,000 hectares have been declared pest-free through a combination of cutting-edge technology and innovation - backed by state-funded research - and boots on the ground.

With 26 years left until deadline, there is still a lot more to be done.

In its briefing to Potaka, PF2050 set out what would happen if more money could not be found and the risks to work already underway - even for volunteer-run programmes.

"Community-led projects may lose their commitment to and confidence in achieving the goal," it said. "The underpinning science and technical advances will also falter."

It set out three scenarios, albeit acknowledging the government was facing "fiscal challenges" and it would "work with whatever resources are available".

Under the first, with extra funding found, "strong progress" towards the goal would continue.

Under scenario two, high priority projects would continue but others would be "on life support", with a hope they could be scaled up again later.

Without further input, scenario three, only existing contracts would be completed and "predator elimination would not be achieved by 2050".

The amount of money sought under each scenario was redacted.

The company said none of the scenarios had been adopted, and they did not expect a decision until next year.