Program holding ants at bay in wet tropics suffers from lack of government funding commitment
— Funding to keep a voracious invasive ant from establishing super colonies in Australia’s wet tropics world heritage area has less than six months of funding left, risking its future, Guardian Australia has been told.
The Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA), which manages the vast world heritage area in north Queensland, is asking state and federal governments for a $6m a year package for the next seven years – enough, the authority says, for it to finish the job of eradicating the yellow crazy ant.
Yellow crazy ants have long been considered one of the world’s worst invasive species. The ants, which spit formic acid, build super colonies that transform native habitats, overwhelming small species.
On Christmas Island, the ants have killed millions of the island’s unique red crabs, transforming areas of the forest floor.
The wet tropics are considered the world’s oldest continuing rainforest and a “living museum” of ancient plants and animals.
Scott Buchanan, the authority’s executive director, said: “If we were to see the sort of degradation that these ants have caused on Christmas Island, then that would have a significant impact not only on the world heritage values of the wet tropics, but also on the tourism industry and the quality of life of all the people who live here.
“We continue to talk to the state and commonwealth, but at this stage while we’ve had positive indications, there has been no commitment. It’s now cutting things fine.
“If we were forced to walk away from this, then we have some preliminary modelling that shows that within 20 years the ants would cover a significant part of this world heritage area.”
A 2017 review of the wet tropics by the United Nations world heritage committee said the ants posed “a real and significant threat to the world heritage values of the wet tropics over the longer term” with more effort and funding needed to be effective.
The authority’s program started in 2013 with a $2m federal government grant. In 2016, the authority’s ant program got $3.04m from the Queensland government and $7.5m from the federal government.
But that money will run out in June and with less than six months to go, the authority is making contingency plans if its funding requests are not met, or funding is delayed.
The authority is asking for $6m per year for the next seven years and hopes the Queensland and federal governments will agree to split the cost.
“With that, it would get us to the endgame which is the eradication of these ants in and near the world heritage area,” said Buchanan.
Twenty-eight field and support staff work on the program, together with contractors, including a five-strong Aboriginal ranger group helping with survey and treatment work.
“Those 28 people are on temporary rolling contracts so even before June, they’re going to need to look elsewhere as things become more uncertain.”
He said several of the field staff had come through the federal government’s “green army” program and had previously been long-term unemployed.
“They have become very competent field operators. They are able to work in very rough terrain and in quite extreme conditions. We’ve invested in those people and it would be a real shame to lose them.”
The program targets the ants with small doses of an insecticide – fipronil – mixed with fishmeal, which worker ants collect and feed to a queen, causing a colony to collapse.
The infestation of ants occurs in pockets south of Cairns and encroaching into the world heritage area, with another small area in the village of Kuranda to the north.
Larger ant areas away from waterways and homes are targeted with helicopter drops, but at other sites the fishmeal is placed by hand.
Peter Green of La Trobe University and has researched them ever since. He said: “Let’s not find out what these ants could do.”
While the impacts of the ants on an area such as the wet tropics were not well studied, “there’s enough in the scientific literature to say that while we might not know exactly what the impacts are, that this program [to eradicate the ants] should proceed”.
Lori Lach, an ecologist at James Cook University, provides scientific advice to the eradication program. She said: “What’s at stake here? Well, the wet tropics world heritage area has 56% of Australia’s butterfly species, 40% of birds, 42% freshwater fish, 30% of the mammal species … and the list goes on and on. This is a fight that we really don’t want to lose.”
In a statement, the Queensland’s environment minister, Leeanne Enoch said the Palaszczuk government recognised the work of the WTMA in eradicating yellow crazy ants.
Enoch met with the authority in December 2018 to “discuss their schedule of works and associated funding” and look[ed] forward to discussing again “in the near future”.
She added: “Any funding allocation will be determined as part of the normal government budget process.”
Guardian Australia also has requested comment from federal environment minister Melissa Price.
by Graham Readfearn | The Guardian