Stating the Obvious

So, you go shopping for an island for conservation purposes and buy one. Why? Then what?

To answer the why,

I suppose we had gained some experience of how species and restoration projects went, and figured that we were capable of taking one on for ourselves.

As funders, we had been happy with the way DOC-led species projects on the public estate had gone, and we were learning something from the people who ran the projects. There were a few outstanding successes. Applications began to dry up though, perhaps because we had taken care of the ready-to-go projects and those remaining were too nebulous or expensive, or both, that they didn’t suit us. I tend to conclude though that DOC had had the stuffing knocked out of it by endless restructuring, and people were too busy polishing their resumes or reapplying for their own jobs to do anything. Whatever the reason, the money we had earmarked for conservation was going unspent.

We were also learning about ecological restoration projects, especially through our involvement as volunteers on publicly-owned Mana Island. The model of a community group working with the government did not suit me though. The volunteer workforce was looked on by some DOC staff as a group which could be used to tick the required community engagement box, but was otherwise just a nuisance to be kept at arm’s length. Conversely the volunteers ranged from brilliant to useless, and those who thought the project was a holiday and the DOC rangers were there to entertain them, annoyed the heck out of me.

Having established that I was too difficult and demanding to fit in anywhere else, and also for positive reasons, we started thinking about our own project. Although I am well qualified in one scientific field, it would be a mistake to think that I could branch out and offer anything in the threatened species area as, say, a captive-breeder, researcher or research manager. However, there were templates available for ecological restorations and we figured it was realistic to attempt one with the right team in place.

A mainland sanctuary project was considered and rejected pretty much straight away. Simple preservation of an area of forest through purchase and covenanting did not cut it. In the presence of predators, even mainland ecosystems covered in natural vegetation are little more than biodiversity deserts, despite looking pretty and attracting public attention such as the recent crowd-funded purchase of a beach in the upper South Island, laudable as a statement about land alienation but achieving little for conservation.

The next step up, the predator-reduced, enclosed sanctuaries, have costly chemical or wire fences. Expenses are quite often shifted onto the unsuspecting taxpayer or ratepayer without proper analysis of the value of the spend. In the absence of mainland New Zealand becoming pest-free, fenced sanctuaries will require centuries of commitment so that the gains will not be lost the minute interest wanes, funding dries up and the fence is breached. Any conservation project can also have its detractors, and I didn’t fancy dealing with sanctuary neighbours who might be unhelpful or hostile either. An island project was therefore top of my mind.

To state the obvious, islands far enough from the nearest pest-infested area already have a fence. It’s not impermeable, but we figured that provided a pest-free island’s tenure was impermeable, it would cost little to ensure that traplines, bait stations, tracking tunnels were monitored in perpetuity. The same thinking has many islands in State ownership at the forefront of conservation efforts as arks for threatened species, pending the mythical breakthrough on the mainland.

Having figured an island project might be the one for us, we knew there was a dearth of choice. Many worthwhile islands are already in public ownership, and many are in multiple undivided title based on traditional tenure but stymied from contributing economically or conservation-wise through the paralysis brought by having many owners. Most or all of the easily accessible, fee-simple private islands have become the playthings of the rich (local and foreign), with little or no conservation benefit being contemplated or implemented. The larger ones have usually been subdivided and therefore would be difficult to bring under effective management for conservation purposes.

I was aware of Puangiangi when Ross Webber put it on the market in 2004. It was still in play simply because Ross had kept hold of it for 47 years through waves of island-buying fever, and because the more intelligent well-heeled could see it was a nightmare to get to and build their mansion on. 2004 was not the right time for us though and it didn’t compete for dinnertime discussion on top of everything else in our lives. The government’s Nature Heritage Fund was interested and put up a proposal to buy it, which was ultimately rejected by the then Labour conservation minister. It therefore went the way of the others, in to the hands of a property-developer type who had no interest in conservation, largely  financed by Ross leaving money in (I can only hope without the benefit of professional advice).

AirNZ
Photo taken for 2004 sale finds it way into Air New Zealand’s in-flight magazine, in an article about Rangitoto near Auckland. Perhaps the backdrop of D’Urville rather than the Sky Tower might have assisted in getting it right.

Conservation got a second chance though when the interim owner fell over and Ross got the island back for resale. Ross just wanted the mortgagee-in-possession headache to go away, but still preferred the island to go to someone who would make good use of it. After there had been some shenanigans with another local property, he wanted to know we weren’t just a front for offshore buyers, and interestingly he did not think the Government would make the best possible custodian either. Peter knew Ross and gave us a good reference. Our 2012 tender was accepted and Ross was finally free of an island he had left 8 years previously at age 74.

This link http://www.cnbc.com/id/48300484 contains a CNBC video (scroll down a fair way) which evidently passes for news, and says much about the mind-set around islands that we did not want to see continue for Puangiangi. (The numbers in the video are laughably wrong by the way.) It took plenty of effort but the island is now safely held by our Charitable Trust. It must be used for public benefit (conservation) according to the law and to our Trust Deed. Although we take plenty of selfish pride in having got it this far, the asset is strictly alienated from us and is not our personal property. Our intention is that our Trust will become a perpetual one, and we have also been obtaining advice from DOC’s legal people about the best overlying structure to put on the island to further ensure protection. Interestingly they are not currently recommending any of the Wildlife Sanctuary options and the like available under the Wildlife Act, but lean more to the flexible Protected Private Land agreement offered under the Reserves Act. Extending the existing QEII covenant is also an option.

Then what?

Well, apart from stating the obvious that we had managed to secure Peter’s services and thereby make the project viable, we wanted to get some other experts out for an ecological survey, and to write a management plan. My previous article talks about the botanical survey, you will find one about seabirds and future articles will cover land birds, lizards, and invertebrates. Having got some basic survey information, and with reference to the late Tony Whitaker’s 2002 plan for restoration of the adjacent Wakaterepapanui, from which we liberally stole (the plan, not the island), we got to preparing the plan.

CookStraitDistrict

The island is part of the Cook Strait Ecological District- think wind and salt. Islands include: Takapouwera/ Stephens; the Rangitotos- Wakaterepapanui, Puangiangi, Tinui; Nga Kiore/ Jags; Kuru Pongi/ Trios; Nukuwaiata and Te Kakaho/ Chetwodes; Titi; Mana; and Kapiti. Add the northern tip of Rangitoto Ki Te Tonga/ D’Urville, Capes Lambert and Jackson, the exposed headlands of Arapawa and the Port Underwood coast, and the coastline from Wellington to Kapiti. The mainland areas and D’Urville and Arapawa carry pest mammals, but all of the other islands have either always been pest-free or have had pests eradicated. Occasional incursions have been reported on many of them. Puangiangi is important to the ecological restoration of the other Rangitoto Islands, and vice versa given how close they are to one another. Puangiangi’s nearest other neighbours are Takapouwera and Kuru Pongi, which to a greater or lesser extent are seabird islands. I’ve previously discussed the place of seabirds as keystone species and to state the obvious we were always going to see Puangiangi as a seabird island. What level of intervention to achieve this is desirable?

Level 1: doing nothing apart from keeping pests away

kohekoheeaten

The island would be likely to re-vegetate rapidly, but forest development and health would be limited by grazing. Weed species such as pines and macrocarpas would spread out and might dominate except in those areas already with mature forest. New weeds might arrive and establish. The weka would probably prevent seabird establishment and they would limit growth of the reptile population. To state the obvious, we would have only the limited range of birds, lizards and invertebrates that were already there, plus one or two self-introductions. The outcome would be a modified Cook Strait ecosystem.

Level 2: Level 1 plus removing sheep, weka and weeds and keeping it that way

Sooty1aThis option would allow seabirds to establish, and the forest would over time regenerate to what it would have been, minus any lost taxa. The populations of the existing animals plus any that could get themselves there would increase as habitat improved. The outcome would be a fully functional seabird island typical of Cook Strait.

Level 3: Level 2 plus restoration and translocation

robinThe reintroduction of species not on the island but which should be, gives an ecosystem rather close to what it would have been before humans and pests came along. If threatened species were included in translocations, it would help their security by giving them an additional site.

Level 4: A refuge

IMG_0284_1xThe island could be made available to house acutely threatened species, possibly at some detriment to an ecological restoration intended to provide a typical assemblage of plants and animals.

Preferred Intervention

The island’s size, location, security of tenure and good likelihood of being able to stop it filling up with pests again, convinced us that the highest-cost option, Level 3, was too good an opportunity to miss. We were able to formulate our goal pretty easily and to state the obvious, we propose “to return Puangiangi to a state that most closely resembles a fully functioning, Cook Strait seabird-island ecosystem in pre-human times”.

An earlier article talked about our approach to restoration of the forests and shrublands, and to support this our plan includes how to reduce the risk of a fire, which would be the single biggest threat. Realistically we can’t fight a fire except perhaps around the house, but we have a total ban on open fires and smoking.

Also integral to the goal is having  a proper biosecurity plan and all visits involve bag and equipment checks to reduce the chance of assisting pests to arrive. Unfriendly signs discourage trespassers and mitigate the attendant risk of bringing pests ashore. The island’s title extends to the waterline and there is no foreshore reserve or Queen’s Chain, so landing is able to be prohibited.

As for species reintroductions, we have made lists of birds, lizards and invertebrates based on what is found or should be found on the other relatively unmodified islands in the area. Our thinking about seabirds is described in a separate article. Land bird species that were missing in 2012 and might have been expected to be there include tui, bellbird, brown creeper, tit, robin, kakariki, fernbird, kaka and saddleback, not all of which might be a good idea to reintroduce. Lizards initially identified as candidates included spotted skink, speckled skink, Duvaucel’s gecko, striped gecko, and Marborough green gecko. Tuatara and frogs might also be expected to have occurred there. Missing invertebrates could include Cook Strait giant weta and ngaio weevil.

I hope that doesn’t read like a shopping list to establish yet another zoo masquerading as an ecological restoration. The emphasis is on commoner species which would have been present on the island, not some hodge-podge of threatened species based on the “I want” attitude, to which DOC appears to acquiesce all too often.

It’s worth noting that our goal is also consistent with DOC’s objectives for the region, as expressed in their Nelson-Marlborough and Island management strategies. It also fits in with the Department’s aims for management of individual species.

Although we did not look seriously at Level 4, a refuge for acutely threatened species, the island would probably be able to support small numbers of, say, kiwi, takahe or orange-fronted parakeet. We figured however that there were better opportunities to provide a long-term secure site for such animals. For example, although several pairs of takahe would thrive on the pasture lands, we see the grass reverting to forest over the next few decades, thereby displacing takahe. We did see a role for Puangiangi as emergency accommodation though. We made DOC aware of this and indeed the recent discovery of mice on Maud/Te Hoiere meant the island hosted some refugees from there.

We think we can get rid of the weeds and do all of the species translocations in ten years. The other tasks, not requiring large one-off efforts but more steady background work like maintaining the predator-free state, attracting seabirds, catching weka, keeping up biosecurity and fire measures, engaging with the owners and administrators of the other islands in the group, maintaining the infrastructure on the island, reviewing the management plan and keeping records of progress, will carry on, to state the obvious.