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Forest & Bird and the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation have agreed to pause legal proceedings over the way a herd of North American elk, an introduced browsing mammal, is managed within Fiordland National Park.

Forest & Bird magazine

A version of this story was first published in the Winter 2024 issue of Forest & Bird magazine.

The Fiordland Wapiti Foundation has a management agreement with the Department of Conservation (DOC) that allows it to control deer numbers, manage a wapiti herd, and carry out other pest-control and conservation work in Fiordland National Park. 

In March, Forest & Bird asked for a judicial review of the legality of this management agreement. The parties have now asked the High Court to temporarily adjourn the proceedings until a later date. 

The pause will allow time for DOC to review current arrangements and for all parties to meet and discuss a way forward for wapiti management in Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Area. The management agreement will remain in force during the adjournment. 

“Forest & Bird welcomes the opportunity to work with the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation and DOC on this critical issue,” said Forest & Bird chief executive Nicola Toki.

“There have been inaccurate suggestions that Forest & Bird’s legal action was aimed at exterminating wapiti, with some speculation the judicial review could even mean the end for all game animals. 

“I want to be clear these suggestions are incorrect. Forest & Bird initiated the legal action to clarify the legality of the wapiti management agreement. 

“Rather than going to court, we now want to discuss the issue with the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation and DOC to agree on a solution that protects our precious native biodiversity and maintains the integrity of Fiordland National Park.” 

The National Parks Act stipulates that “introduced plants and animals shall as far as possible be exterminated”.

“Forest & Bird does not see a future where wapiti could be eliminated,” added Nicola. “We expect the herd will continue to provide an important hunting opportunity, and the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation could continue its valuable conservation work.”

Both organisations agree the adjournment will also allow them to explore other solutions, including the possibility of designating the wapiti herd as a Herd of Special Interest, as defined under the Game Animal Council Act 2013. 

Fiordland Wapiti Foundation spokesman Roy Sloan also welcomed the pause in legal action. 

“The Wapiti Foundation stands for conservation and hunting, and it would be disappointing for two conservation groups to end up in court arguing over who has the best solution to protecting our precious environment,” said Mr Sloan. 

“The Foundation’s work is a great example of hunters giving back to conservation and the wider community. What we do in Fiordland has proven the most effective way of reducing and managing deer numbers, as well as trapping predators and maintaining tracks and huts for all park visitors. 

“We look forward to finding a solution that not only meets the needs of both organisations but, more importantly, safeguards our precious wildlife and flora.”

What's up with Wapiti?

What are wapiti and why is Forest & Bird worried about them? We’ve put together this Q&A to help answer these questions and more.

Wapiti are an exotic species of North American elk, the largest remaining type of deer brought to Aotearoa during European colonisation. Wapiti is the native American word for “white rump”, and they were given their name by Inuit. Purebred wapiti are valued as a trophy hunting animal for their impressive antlers and large size. Its meat is also popular with Americans, marketed as a close cousin to venison with “sweeter meat and larger cuts”, with one-fifth of the fat of beef. Outside North America, New Zealand is the only place that calls them wapiti. Elsewhere in the world, they are known as elk. In Fiordland, the original purebred wapiti have over time bred with local red deer, creating a hybrid wapiti-red deer species. These elk cause problems in the national park because of their voracious destruction of native plants, including rare alpine species, that have not had time to evolve defences to any of the browsing mammals introduced 120 years ago.

Purebred wapiti (Cervus elaphus nelson) from the United States’ Yellowstone National Park were gifted to New Zealand by President Theodore Roosevelt and released in George Sound, Fiordland, in 1905. They were introduced to Fiordland for the pleasure of game animal trophy hunting by early settlers through organisations known as Acclimatisation Societies. Around the same time, red deer (Cervus elaphus scoticus) were also introduced for sport and recreation. The early settlers did not realise the impact these browsing mammals would have on New Zealand’s Gondwana-era plant life. Other species they brought to their new country to be naturalised included small birds, such as blackbirds and sparrows, trout and salmon, rabbits, possums, pheasants, and quail. By 1903, the local acclimatization societies formed the New Zealand Acclimatisation Society, and its first President was a Mr JB Fisher.In 1990, they became regional fish and game councils.

Wapiti, deer, tahr, goats, and other browsing mammals have been wreaking havoc on indigenous ecosystems ever since they were introduced to Aotearoa. Wapiti, the largest of them all, are known as the “vacuum cleaners of vegetation”. They will feed on any plant they come across – grasses, small plants, fungi, and twigs, buds, leaves, and bark of trees and shrubs. They eat hundreds of species of plants – low, high, tender, tough – as far as they can reach. Fiordland National Park is nothing like the North America grasslands the wapiti came from. Fiordland’s steep forested slopes and fragile alpine areas lack the vast summer pastures that wapiti are dependent on in their homeland. Instead, they pivoted to eat what they could find – native plants of all shapes and sizes. This has allowed populations of wapiti and red deer to establish themselves throughout the national park, in a place they were not naturally present.

For more than 100 years, ever since it was established in 1923. Founder Val Sanderson was referring to deer when he wrote in 1926: “The remaining portion of our forests is sorely menaced. No one who has any interest whatever in this country can afford to stand idly by. They are yours and your business.” In 1930, the Society succeeded in drawing the government’s attention to the deer menace, leading to a conference in Christchurch on the impact of deer and other browsing mammals. Sanderson and the Society’s President Dr Leonard Cockayne, the renowned botanist, attended, along with interested parties from all over the country, including Forest & Bird’s Otago Branch. They convinced the government to start a programme of deer culling. Ministers removed regulations that had protected deer and instead allowed free year-round shooting of deer, chamois, and tahr to control the populations. It was an early win for the Society.

Population increases of red deer, as well as impacts from other browsing mammals such as wapiti, fallow deer, goat, chamois, and tahr, are identified as ongoing threats to Fiordland National Park. There are thousands of browsing mammals in the park. They eat their way through habitats and have caused severe damage in some parts, threatening the integrity of the forest and alpine ecosystems. Wapiti eat broadleaf, a tree that provides essential berries for native birds. Forest & Bird first advocated for national parks in the 1930s and played a leading role in establishing the National Parks Act 1952, introduced into law by Ernest Corbett, a Taranaki dairy farmer and Forest & Bird member. The Act provided for new “parks for the people” that would be properly managed and preserved in perpetuity, including exterminating exotic species “as far as possible”. The sprawling Fiordland national reserve was the first place in the country to become a national park under the 1952 legislation. Today, Fiordland National Park is the largest park in the country and forms a large part of Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Area.

Fiordland wapiti ballot blocks, Fiordland. Credit DOC

Forest & Bird worked with Ngāi Tahu and the Department of Conservation in drafting a detailed submission that resulted in the establishment of Te Wāhipounamu Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area. In 1987, we published a book called Forests, Fiords & Glaciers: the Case for a South-West New Zealand World Heritage Site, which showed how it was the world’s best intact modern representation of the ancient biota of Gondwana. A UNESCO World Heritage Area designation is internationally significant. It places the region of south-west New Zealand, including Fiordland National Park, in a world class category of sites alongside places like Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon National Park in the USA, Mount Kilimanjaro National Park in the United Republic of Tanzania, and Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park in Nepal. There is an obligation on the New Zealand government to protect the outstanding universal values that contribute to meeting the criteria for being a World Heritage Area. The status could be revoked if it was found the values were degraded by any threat, such as an uncontrolled population of wapiti or red deer. The process for that starts with a complaint to the World Heritage Committee, who would then carry out an investigation.

Wapiti in the national park are currently managed by the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation through a community management agreement with the Department of Conservation. The foundation culls red and hybrid deer and carries out conservation work, such as laying traps, in rugged country. This applies to a part of the park known as the “wapiti block”. The foundation commercially harvests the meat and sells it to restaurants. This management agreement is the only one in the country that we are aware of that deals with an introduced species in a National Park in this way. Our chief executive Nicola Toki said this was “akin to farming in the national park” in her letter to former Conservation Minister Willow-Jean Prime last year raising the Society’s concerns about the legality of the wapiti management agreement. 

To settle the matter, Forest & Bird lodged an application at the end of March for judicial review of the agreement between the Director-General of Conservation and the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation. This action was not taken lightly. Forest & Bird considers the current management agreement between DOC and the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation is unlawful. It is inconsistent with the National Parks Act 1980, the General Policy for National Parks, the Southland Conservation Management Strategy, and the Fiordland National Park Management Plan. In addition, the management agreement sets a precedent that could see management agreements for other browsing mammal species used in similar situations elsewhere, when they are not appropriate or lawful. In addition, the agreement is a private contract, excluding the public from involvement. This is not appropriate for such an important issue.

Forest & Bird, the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation, and DOC have agreed to pause the legal proceedings regarding the management agreement so they can investigate whether there is a way of managing wapiti that meets the parties’ interests. Forest & Bird welcomes the opportunity to work with the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation and DOC on this critical issue.

The precious indigenous biodiversity in this World Heritage Area needs to be protected. Forest & Bird is working with the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation and DOC to find a lawful way to manage the wapiti population that is consistent with protecting the biodiversity values in Te Wāhipounamu. We are aiming for an agreed solution that achieves these outcomes. Forest & Bird does not anticipate this will require that wapiti are eliminated, and we expect that they will continue to be an important hunting opportunity. The Fiordland Wapiti Foundation would also continue its valuable conservation work. Forest & Bird’s number one priority is an outcome that is lawful, protects the indigenous biodiversity vaues and integrity of the Natinoal Park, and doesn’t set a precedent that erodes the protection conservation legislation provides and that the World Heritage designation requires.

Forest & Bird is a strong supporter of a diverse range of conservation approaches. We welcome the mahi undertaken by the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation and other organisations who contribute to protecting New Zealand’s most precious places. Hunting is part of the toolbox in tackling the out-of-control numbers of browsing animals that are causing significant damage to New Zealand’s environment. Forest & Bird supports the role the hunting community can and does play in helping to stem the tide of deer, pig, and goat numbers. However, we are equally clear that recreational hunting of browsing pests alone is not enough to keep their numbers in check, reduce the large area that they have taken over, or allow native ecosystems to thrive. Hunting also needs to take place in a way that is consistent with the law. Forest & Bird feels it is essential that DOC supports the hunting community, in this instance the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation, by ensuring that any agreement it enters into is in keeping with the law.

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