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Fiordland’s Wapiti Herd

Forest and Bird’s recent shrill strident alarmist call criticising wapiti (elk) in the Fiordland National Park shows a lack of understanding, a lack of reality and a lack of awareness of past research into the role of wapiti and red deer, in this case, in Fiordland.

Forest and Bird’s Chief executive Nicola Toki wrote to then Conservation Minister Willow-Jean Prime last August, questioning the legality of wapiti management in Fiordland, and stating it was “considering its legal options”.

Toki rails against browsing animals alleging they “cause severe damage, threatening the integrity of the forest and alpine ecosystems.”

Firstly Toki apparently isn’t aware New Zealand’s vegetation evolved over millions of years under strong browsing pressure by moas and other vegetarian birds such as kereru (pigeon), kokako, takahe and others.

Eminent ecologist the late Dr Graeme Caughley estimated the moa population was probably six million. The various moa subspecies inhabited lowlands, forests and alpine tussock areas. In contrast Landcare Research estimated wild deer numbers in NZ at 250,000. Since then concede an increase to perhaps 300,000. How does that compare to 6 million moa?

Would Forest and Bird be railing against the presence of moa, if they existed today?

The defence mechanisms that plants evolved against the browsing pressure shows in divarification of shrubs(e.g. Muehlenbeckia) thorns (e.g. Bush lawyer, matagouri), bitterness (e.g horipito) and even toxins (e.g. tutu) in foliage.

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Scientists at a “Moas, Mammals and Climate Change” seminar in the late 1980s, likened the browsing of moa to that of deer.

It’s interesting to note by its absence in Toki’s argument that there’s no mention of the 1949 New Zealand-American Fiordland expedition comprising top US and NZ scientists. The scientists concluded “no changes of economic (and environmental) consequence (through the continued presence of deer and wapiti) can result. Large areas of forest will remain in pristine condition —despite the continued presence of deer ---numbers of animals—is rigorously controlled by limited areas of good browsing range available.”

That is 1949 - seven decades ago - however the late 1940s is generally regarded as when NZ deer herds had reached their peak.

Similarly there was no mention of a classic study of deer done by highly regarded scientist Thane Riney in 1957 at Lake Monk, Fiordland where an “un-hunted” red deer population was found to be low, following an earlier a population peak.

Nature had achieved carrying capacity equilibrium on her own.

Yet Toki in her haste, accused deer of damaging native plants. Forest and Bird has become well known - arguably notorious - for it’s unrealistic ideological view that descends to being an “anti exotic wild animal phobia” as once a visiting US scientist Dr. William Graf, described government departments and extreme green groups with.

Forest and Bird don’t have a legal case against wapiti in Fiordland as Toki is threatening to take. The National Parks Act says “introduced plants and animals shall as far as possible be exterminated”.

The Act does not require full extermination, only extermination “as far as possible.”

The Wapiti Foundation's culling programme meets the goal of “as far as possible”, given DoC’s logistic and budgetary constraints, and the fact that there are many other introduced species of plants and animals (e.g. blackbirds, sparrows, wasps, gorse) in Fiordland which DoC does nothing about.

Again railing against “introduced” wildlife is both pointless, unrealistic and ideological idiocy.

After all all humans are introduced by way of migration and brought with them introduced life. The first wave of migrants brought dogs and rats (kiore) while the second wave brought all manner of life from sheep to cattle, potatoes to petunias, bumblebees to blackbirds and many others.

I belonged to Forest and Bird many decades ago but left over the increasing unrealistic, ideological based stances it was taking.


Tony Orman has spent a lifetime in the outdoors often mountain areas, observing and learning about the wilderness ecosystems and relative to deer.

He has had over two dozen books published on trout and sea fishing, conservation and is the author of a researched volume, “About Deer and Deerstalking”.

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