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Research To Change Nature Conservation

News Release
2 May 2005

Major research initiative will radically change nature conservation

A major new research initiative that will dramatically change the way New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna are conserved will commence in July.

Landcare Research will receive around $2.5 million per year for up to 12 years for this initiative, with the funding coming from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, as part of its reinvestment in natural ecosystems research. Scientists from Lincoln University, University of Otago, University of Canterbury, Tuhoe Tuawhenua Trust, Forest Research, the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, the Department of Conservation and the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research in Australia will also be involved in the research.

The research will lead to broader understanding and protection of natural ecosystems as an essential part of nature conservation. Conservation managers often need to take a short-term species-specific approach to conservation management, such as pest control to protect kiwi or kokako from extinction. However, scientists are beginning to understand that while these approaches can achieve short-term protection of endangered species, conservation management also needs to ensure the longer-term viability of the ecosystems in which these species make their home. The shift in focus to include the entire ecosystems that support threatened species is a radical expansion of conservation management.

Research will be undertaken on land managed by both the Department of Conservation and private land managers. A major thrust of the programme will see scientists work with the Tuhoe Tuawhenua Trust to improve the management of Tuhoe forests in the central North Island. The Tuhoe people who live within their forests want to understand why the dominant podocarp trees have not recovered from logging earlier this century, and the role that other tree species, introduced mammals and climate change have played in this lack of regeneration. “A key goal of the Tuawhenua Trust is to restore podocarps in their forests to levels found before the forests were logged,” says Jim Doherty, the Chairman of the Tuhoe Tuawhenua Trust.

Animals, weeds and climate
The research team will learn more about the dynamic changes that occur in these forests as a basis for reducing the long-term decline in iconic forest biodiversity caused by introduced herbivores. Biodiversity responses to herbivore control (culling of deer, possums, goats and rodent control) are often unpredictable, in part because the effects of these herbivores are overridden or modified by other processes. “A more complete understanding of the factors that drive the dynamic changes which determine the structure of native forests is required,” says Dr Rob Allen who is leading the team for Landcare Research.

Another facet of the research will identify which weeds have the most profound effect on natural ecosystems, and the ecosystems that are most susceptible to invasion by weeds. More than 240 weed species are currently invading conservation lands in New Zealand. A focus of this work will be to identify which conservation impacts can be reversed by removing weeds. By linking the most damaging weeds to the most susceptible ecosystems, conservation and other land managers will be able to prioritise and target weeds that have the greatest potential to damage natural ecosystems.

Research will also develop models that predict how climate change will impact on New Zealand’s natural ecosystems. “In the past, we have viewed the influence of global warming on our ecosystems purely in terms of the effect that climate changes might have on the distribution of different species”, says Dr Matt McGlone of Landcare Research. “However, we now suspect that the influence global warming has on physical processes like fire may be of more importance.” Dr McGlone says if we know how ecosystems are likely to be affected by global change, conservation agencies can take account of future as well as current conditions when developing management strategies.

The research initiative will also develop the National Vegetation Survey Databank, a state-of-the-art repository of information on New Zealand’s vegetation. The databank contains information from more than 14,000 permanent and 50,000 temporary vegetation survey plots located throughout the country. “The databank provides a baseline for demonstrating the conservation benefits of management aimed at conserving entire ecosystems,” says Dr Allen. “However, it will also play a critical role in helping New Zealand meet its commitments to the greenhouse gas emission targets specified in the Kyoto Protocol by allowing the amount of carbon stored in native vegetation to be estimated”.

The Department of Conservation, which was closely involved in the development of the research programme, is enthusiastic about its potential to expand the scope of conservation management. “After years of exhaustive recovery planning for individual threatened species, it has become clear that the most effective approach to conservation is to secure the habitats where these species exist,” says Dr Geoff Hicks, DOC’s Chief Scientist. “By gaining a more thorough understanding of how habitats and ecosystems function, we will be better able to manage the collective fate of these species”.

Dr Hicks also applauded the aim of the research initiative to bring scientists from a range of agencies together with conservation managers. “This new way of working signals a new and exciting partnership in science and practical conservation”.

ENDS

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