The more I delve into the science of predator management, the more I realise that the science itself takes a distant back seat to the politics. It would be naïve to think that the management of dingoes in Australia is any more politically charged than elsewhere, but once you start scratching beneath the surface, you quickly realise that there’s something rotten in Dubbo.
My latest contribution to this saga is a co-authored paper led by Dale Nimmo of Deakin University (along with Simon Watson of La Trobe and Dave Forsyth of Arthur Rylah) that came out just the other day. It was a response to a rather dismissive paper by Matt Hayward and Nicky Marlow claiming that all the accumulated evidence demonstrating that dingoes benefit native biodiversity was somehow incorrect.
Their two arguments were that: (1) dingoes don’t eradicate the main culprits of biodiversity decline in Australia (cats & foxes), so they cannot benefit native species; (2) proxy indices of relative dingo abundance are flawed and not related to actual abundance, so all the previous experiments and surveys are wrong.
Some strong accusations, for sure. Unfortunately, they hold no water at all.
First, the first contention is entirely a straw man of their own making. Just because dingoes do not eradicate foxes or cats from any particular area does not preclude positive effects. The mere presence of dingoes results nearly always in a suppression of cat and fox density, which means there are fewer depredations on native wildlife. As a population modeller, I can confirm that often it takes only a small reduction in mortality for a declining population to turn into a stable or increasing one, so any benefit dingoes can impart is a good thing. It is a strange argument to make that eradication must be a prerequisite for benefit.
In response to their second argument, it turns out that their chosen evidence that proxy indicators of relative dingo density (e.g., scat or track counts) was entirely cherry-picked; they in fact ignored a much broader literature demonstrating that real and proxy abundance indicators are tightly correlated for large predators globally. The argument is another form of a straw man as well because it would be nigh impossible to survey dingo density effectively and robustly over their vast ranges if we were required to rely on direct sightings or mark-recapture methods.
As CB.com readers will appreciate, I’m all for good scientific debate, but there’s an insidious underbelly to this dingo story that goes well beyond civilised scientific thrust and parry.
As some of you might well remember, we recently published a paper demonstrating the economic benefits of dingoes in semi-arid cattle ventures. The models were complex, but the ecological cascade is rather simple. More dingoes = more predation on (mainly) kangaroos = more grass = faster cattle growth rates & calf survival. Thus, it’s generally more profitable to have a healthy dingo population, even after accounting for the minor losses due to some dingo predation.
As was expected, some people didn’t like our results, and I received the consequent hate mail of which the following by a certain David McKenzie is a prime example:
What a wonderful contribution of intellectual engagement and decorum! (you can listen to my offending radio interview here).
I digress. Part of the problem is that such wild and unsubstantiated claims are thrown about with gay abandon to the extent that politicians, managers and certainly the average punter have no idea what’s going on. In other words, the science becomes irrelevant, and we get the spittle-flecked, vein-pulsing responses like the one from our erudite Mr McKenzie driving the agenda.
It’s not just the horrible welfare issues that poisoning and thousands of kilometres of fences have on our native wildlife, or the vast and growing body of real evidence showing that wildlife and pastoralism have something large to gain by having dingoes around, it’s the language and vested interests of outback ‘management’ that really gets me.
You’ll notice in almost any pastoral-friendly comment out there that the word ‘dingo’ almost never gets uttered. They are instead nearly always referred to as ‘wild dogs’. Now, that might not sound like such an important thing, but in fact, it is the heart and soul of the increasingly adversarial interaction between scientists, pastoralists and land managers. By referring to dingoes as ‘wild dogs’, there are strongly associated emotions of aversion and abomination. By using ‘dog’, the dingo is demeaned to a mere mongrel let loose by irresponsible humans, and by ‘wild’, we are meant to feel threatened by these raving carnivores roaming the country searching for their next bloody meal. Please.
It gets worse. Even some of our own government-funded research institutions refer to them almost exclusively as ‘wild dogs‘, with the inevitable corollary that their extensive commercial investments in poison baits and delivery systems are – wait for it – the only answers proffered to the vexing problem of all these horrid, nasty beasties destroying rural Australian lifestyles. Conflict of interest? I’ll let you decide.