Bounties are one of the most talked about but least understood issues associated with pest animal management. They are simple in concept: pay people for dispatch of a particular animal and thus put an economic incentive on reducing numbers. So why are bounties such a polarizing issue?
Don Thomas of Queensland, a sheep grower under attack from wild dogs, raised the issue again in the previous post on Feral Thoughts. Don blames those responsible for canceling the old dingo scalp bounty for the current spate of dog attacks.
Don's reaction is a common one, and it doesn't have to be just in relation to dogs. Calls for bounties are common for foxes, particularly in Tasmania at the moment where people see a financial incentive to get hunters out there and after a small number of foxes as an efficient way to manage the current incursion. A couple of years ago, it was reported that Australia's largest private hotel owner, Tom Hedley, was offering a beer-for-a-bag-of-toads bounty to reduce cane toad numbers (I don't think this went beyond a flurry of publicity).
The New Zealand Department of Conservation has observed the same interest in bounties and notes on their website the following argument "Give a bloke a few dollars per head and your possum (wasp, deer, pig, goat etc) problem will be over. Gotta be cheaper than spending millions on poisoning." Unfortunately, it doesn't work. It isn't a cheap option. It is an expensive and inefficient one. They go on to explain why: that the easy to access animals are harvested, with no targeting of where the problems lay.
The Australasian Wildlife Management Society has a clear position statement that bounties are flawed and don't represent best practice long-term pest animal control. This is not surprising in that it was back in the 1970’s that the national Vertebrate Pests Committee recommended the phasing out of bounties. Reports in 1990 by Smith and 1998 by Hassall and Associates confirmed that bounties had limited value for recommended the same thing. In 2002/2003 the Victorian Government offered a fox bounty and a subsequent review found that it had no effective impact on fox numbers, had a number of serious inherent problems and recommended that it not be continued.
In the days of the dingo/dog bounties in Australia, "dogging" was often used as a way of getting ahead. Doggers would travel to the outback and trade with Aborigines for dingo scalps, which they then cashed in with authorities at a good profit margin. It was hard, dirty work (presumably worse for the Aborigines who only got a fraction of the payment) but it could yield enough money to take a pastoral lease. R.M Williams, who went on to found a clothing dynasty, got his start as a dogger. But a general "war" on dogs doesn't mean it has an effect where the dogs are doing damage.
Bounties can influence the number of some animals in the environment, but less so for others. Reviewing the system of bounties from 1647 to 1975 in Finland, researchers concluded that predictable occurrence, visibility/audibility or low fecundity make species prone to persecution through bounties whereas the contrasting characteristics can help them escape persecution. Red foxes and corvids tend to be tolerant to persecution whereas the grey wold, brown bear, wolverine and lynx were highly affected by bounty schemes.
The advocates of bounties in Australia are asking for greater justification of the policies for why they won't work. Recently I got questioned hard by a journalist to justify my position, which is with the Vertebrate Pests Committee and the Australasian Wildlife Management Society. I admit to getting a bit tongue-tied under the barrage of questions, that went along the lines:
- "How can you say bounties don't work when they are implicated in the extinction of the thylacine? That's clear evidence that bounties can have an impact - even if in that case it went too far?"
- "Do you seriously believe hunters would select for non-breeding or older foxes? Come on, the hunter sees fox eye shine and shoots - he isn't selective at that moment"
- "You guys always bring up the 'seeding' issue but don't give evidence that it happens - you always refer to pig examples when I'm asking about foxes - have you got evidence of fox 'seeding' in response to a bounty?"
The New Zealand Department of Conservation's site is probably the easiest to understand the issues, because it is written to answer these type of questions. Other explanations tend to be a bit dryly written because they are intended to contribute to policy discussion, not known for highly accessible language. However, I still refer people to the wildlife management society's position statement, as they've thought long and hard about the issue.
Posted by Tony Peacock, founder of 'Feral Thoughts'