Cat Management: There is nothing to fear but fear itself

Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1

Cats are a continual cause of controversy in New Zealand, and Auckland is no different. We know cats kill wildlife, but also that people value the companionship of pet cats. The current controversy in Auckland concerns the proposed Regional Pest Management Plan (RPMP), which includes cats.

The current Regional Pest Management Strategy (which has been operating since 2007) includes feral cat management, but the main issue for biodiversity and biosecurity managers is the lack of a clear demarcation of what is a ‘pest cat’ and what is someone’s ‘pet cat’. What happens when they get a cat in a live trap in a significant ecological area? Is it someone’s pet or a stray or feral cat? Any cat caught in a live trap no doubt acts pretty feral out of fear, so it’s important to get the definition right. The proposed Regional Pest Management Plan puts forward a logical way of doing this, that not only keeps wildlife safe, but should also improve the safety of pet cats.


Proposed Regional Pest Management Plan 2018 – Have your say by 8pm Wednesday 28th March 2018

What does the Council want to do to cats?

The RPMP  proposes to continue managing cats in areas of high biodiversity value (e.g. Whatipu) along with rats, stoats and other predators. However, under the proposed plan, cats will be defined as pests if they are not able to be identified as being owned via microchip and accompanying registration on the NZ Companion Animal register. So, if your cat is found within one of these conservation areas – and it’s microchipped and registered – it will be identified as owned and returned to the owner. If you are worried about the unlikely event of the microchip failing, then you can rest easy. A detailed communication plan would be put in place for any new high biodiversity sites where cats are intended to be managed as part of predator control. The communication (e.g. mailbox drops) will ensure owners are aware of the risks of having unidentifiable cats in these areas, and can keep their cats indoors while the control is underway if they are concerned about microchips failing.

Other cat management that the Council is formalising in their proposed RPMP is that:

  • feeding of cats is prohibited on parkland containing Significant Ecological Areas;
  • Cat owners to prevent cats from entering sites managed as threatened species refuges, indicatively including open sanctuaries (Tawharanui, Shakespear), kokako/kiwi management area in the Hunua Ranges, and Ark in the Park.
  • Cats being moved to or among islands must be micro-chipped and registered on the NZ Companion Animal register, and no cats to be brought within 200m of cat-free islands.

Better outcomes for pet cats

So no one is targeting your pet cat, or trying to kill it. In fact, by microchipping your cat and keeping it indoors you are improving the health outcomes for your cat. Currently, few Aucklanders keep their cats indoors. But indoor cats can’t get run over, injured by strays, and are less likely to pick up diseases. The fear of this proposed RPMP for cats is misplaced.

Better outcomes for wildlife


Just some of the many cats seen on camera traps in Auckland urban bush reserves. (Lincoln 2016).

We know feral cats have been responsible for the extinction of birds in NZ (and globally), but what about urban cats? Our research using camera traps in Auckland urban bush patches showed ~53 individual cats (conservatively identified by pelt patterns) detected at 8 sites over 5 nights. These numbers are conservative (our cameras wouldn’t detect all cats) and astounding. Plenty of pet cats are wondering around Auckland’s parks and significant ecological areas. This is not unusual: plenty of research has shown that cats wander from suburban homes, frequently use local bush areas and kill wildlife. Ultimately, we need people to keep their cats in their property and out of ecological areas, so in some ways this proposed RPMPdoesn’t go far enough for many people.

Many people in our community (including cat owners) understand that cats impact wildlife, from weta to lizards to birds. However, the proposed RPMP ensures that biodiversity managers can do their job in keeping our wildlife safe and protecting Auckland Council’s (and the community’s) investment in our special ecological places, while at the same time protecting pet cats by clarifying ownership and improving welfare of the cats themselves.

Will you support or oppose?

I’ll be having my say on the proposed Regional Pest Management Plan.

Technically, the RPMP is excellent, and its pest management strategies will deliver enormous outcomes for biodiversity, mana whenua, human health and Auckland’s economy. Don’t let it be derailed through fear that the Council wants to kill your pet cat. It’s simply not true.

You can have your say on the Regional Pest Management Plan here.

Submissions close 8pm Wednesday 28th March 2018

IMG_9315 (2)Dr Margaret Stanley is an Associate Professor in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is the programme director of the Masters in Biosecurity and Conservation. Her interests in terrestrial community ecology are diverse, but can be grouped into three main research strands: urban ecology; invasion ecology; and plant-animal interactions.


Is having biodiversity just a ‘nice to have’ optional extra?

Posted by Margaret Stanley @mc_stanley1

Auckland Council is currently consulting on their budget for the next 10 years. If I put this in a personal context, my youngest child, currently 8 years old, will finish both primary school and high school during that period. What kind of Auckland do I want her to grow up in?

As an ecologist, it’s no secret that I’d want her to grow up in an Auckland with better environmental outcomes – both on land and in our marine environment. But I also have access to scientific literature and evidence that says a healthy environment equals healthy people.


My 8 year old collecting seeds from kaihua-native jasmine in our urban backyard (Parsonsia heterophylla)

Healthy Environment = Healthy People

There’s plenty of evidence out there that connecting people to nature improves physical and mental wellbeing. Studies have shown that walking in natural environments, rather than urban jungles, can reduce stress, anxiety and blood pressure. Connecting with nature is particularly important for children. We also know that tourists come to New Zealand for our biodiversity and landscapes, and that NZ’s economy is based on its natural capital. So biodiversity in Auckland is not a ‘nice to have’ – it’s essential.


Walking in nature can help improve mental and physical health outcomes

Our biodiversity is unique – we must protect it

If you’re like me, biodiversity has its own intrinsic worth – it’s not just useful to humans. We have lost so much already in Auckland: many of our ecosystems are endangered, as well as our species. Why shouldn’t Aucklanders be able to connect with species and ecosystems unique to NZ? Do we all need to visit National Parks in the South Island*? Instead of giving the litany of grave statistics of declining species and ecosystems, let’s focus on the things we still have in Auckland and need to protect.

Auckland has vestiges of amazing threatened ecosystems and species. However, they need our protection. There is no middle ground here – we need a Targeted Environmental Rate that cannot be diverted to other projects, and we need to have a targeted rate that actually delivers for our threatened habitats and species. When weeds outnumber native plants by 5:1 and two thirds of our shorebirds and seabirds are at risk of extinction, a feeble targeted rate just won’t do.



Left: ‘Critically Endangered’ coastal turf ecosystem at Piha Beach (Photo credit: Ben Paris); top right ‘Nationally Critical’ long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus) (Photo credit: Ben Paris); ‘Nationally Threatened’ northern NZ dotterel  (Charadrius obscurus) family.

What’s the Regional Pest Management Plan (RPMP)?

Auckland Council is also consulting on its new proposed Regional Pest Management Plan (RPMP). The Biosecurity Act enables local government to produce an RPMP for their region to provide effective pest management. The proposed Regional Pest Management Plan (RPMP) produced by Auckland Council staff (after consultation via their 2015 discussion document), is technically very sound. In fact, I think it’s an exciting strategy document that will put Auckland firmly back in place as biosecurity and biodiversity leaders. However, it needs a realistic Targeted Environmental Rate to make sure it can be implemented. Since the ‘supercity’ came into being, and the Biosecurity Targeted Rate was lost from Auckland Regional Council, funding for pest management has been rapidly declining as funds have been diverted to other projects. Other councils, like Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, have been leading the way in implementing evidenced-based pest management for people, economy and biodiversity outcomes.

What will happen if the full RPMP isn’t implemented?

It’s clear that if Auckland Council don’t fund the full RPMP, then at best (Option B in the Long-term Plan consultation) they’ll only be able to do 50% of possum control and will only be able to protect ~66% of our high value ecological areas on regional and local parks. This will have major impacts on our biodiversity – Auckland Council and Aucklanders will have to sit back and watch while our parks become even more overrun with weeds and pests. We’ll have to wait another 10 years for another funding opportunity.



Climbing asparagus (Asparagus scandens) (Left) and wild ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum) (Right) in  Auckland’s local parks

What do we need to do?

This is an unprecedented opportunity to invest in Auckland conservation. Do you really want to be ‘doing your thing’ over the next 10 years in an Auckland with further declining environmental and health outcomes? Having biodiversity isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ – it’s essential for healthy, happy Aucklanders.

I’ll be asking for a targeted environmental rate that will halt the decline of our biodiversity – Option B ($47p.a.) won’t cut it – we need to fully fund the Regional Pest Management Strategy at ~$60 per residential ratepayer per year. This hasn’t been put forward as an option – but you can still ask for it by ticking ‘other’ and specifying $60 or full RPMP in the comments section

Come and ask me questions about the environmental aspects of the 10-year Budget at the Auckland Conversations Panel Q&A – Margaret Stanley, Rod Oram, Nicola Toki, Hayden Smith – facilitated by Bernard Hickey. This Thursday 22nd March, Lower NZI, Aotea Centre, doors open 5pm.

Have your say before the 28th March by submitting here.

You can also have your say on the Regional Pest Management Plan.

*Disclaimer: As a South Islander who has lived in Auckland for 17 years, I’m not adverse to visiting South Island National Parks with great frequency!

IMG_9315 (2)

Dr Margaret Stanley is an Associate Professor in Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is the programme director of the Masters in Biosecurity and Conservation. Her interests in terrestrial community ecology are diverse, but can be grouped into three main research strands: urban ecology; invasion ecology; and plant-animal interactions.

Fighting extinction: should we make battle plans or not?

An estimated 150-200 species go extinct every 24 hours. Making plans to save them seems like a good idea, but no-one can tell us for sure.

In the midst of the sixth mass extinction event we are becoming adept at assessing the risk of accidentally extinguishing species as we go about our daily business. By the close of 2017 we had formally assessed the extinction risk of more than 90,000 species finding more than 25,000 to be under threat.

Nations have an obligation to protect species and they do so in a number of ways: setting aside nature reserves; enacting and enforcing protective laws; promoting environmentally-friendly practice, and helping communities become effective stewards of their wildlife. If they were applied well, these measures would keep most species off the threatened list. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, many species need us to take more direct and more urgent action.

“You’ll never plough a field just by turning it over in your mind” – Irish Proverb

Before working in conservation I’d imagined that knowing why a species is threatened, and doing something about it, were similar things. In reality the gap between knowing and doing is large (Knight et al. 2008). We will need to bridge this gap for there to be better outcomes for threatened species.  The discipline of species conservation planning can provide a valuable transition between the clean and tidy zone of objective, transparent risk assessment and the murky, swampy area in which people attempt action with incomplete information and (often) inadequate resources.

Assessing – planning – acting – is a cycle

Planning in the right way, with the right tools, can give us the space to think aspirationally about what it means to save a species (Redford et al., 2011). It helps us to turn these aspirations into clear goals, to understand the challenges to achieving those goals, and to identify, evaluate and decide the most appropriate strategies with which to attack them. Planning requires us to think about who will take on the work, how they will be supported, and how progress will be tracked and evaluated.

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Photo: Planning for Western Ground Parrots, Australia

Many have found this to be useful work, citing moving examples of improved trajectories for species post-planning. Others remain skeptical. Published reviews of the extent to which species-focused planning has contributed to conservation success are rare, despite the thousands of plans written worldwide. By those who have attempted it, objectively demonstrating the effectiveness of species-focused plans has been described as everything from not easy (Gimenez-Dixon and Stuart, 1993), to impossible (Fuller et al., 2003). Further, while some multi-plan reviews conclude success (e.g. Schultz & Gerber 2002; Taylor et al., 2005), in others apparent success disappears once biases are accounted for (e.g. Bottrill et al. 2009).  Despite this ambiguity, species conservation donors increasingly require evidence of clear and comprehensive species conservation plans before committing to fund action.


Hard data on the value of formal planning and on the comparative value of different planning approaches, would provide clearer direction and support to those struggling to move more species from assessment to action.

My research

For the past 30 years, the IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group has been working with partners to convene large, science-based, stakeholder-inclusive planning workshops around the world, for threatened species. I am interested in mining the information collected by the organisation over this time, to see what light it can shed on this complex topic.

Caroline Lees is a PhD student at the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs and Anna Santure, from the University of Auckland,

The Effect of the Allee Effect

Posted by Hester Williams @HesterW123

When a population is small, or at low density, the classical view of population dynamics used to be that the major ecological force at work is the release from intraspecific competition – the fewer we are, the more we all have, and the better each will fare…

Gold fishBut in the 1930s, an ecologist named Warder Clyde Allee used goldfish in tanks to demonstrate experimentally that conspecifics had a beneficial influence on each other and survived better in larger groups. This led him to conclude that a certain degree of aggregation (and consequently higher population density/size) can improve the survival rate of individuals, and that cooperation may be crucial in the overall survival of the population. This is basically because larger group sizes provide individuals with more opportunities to mate, defend themselves, feed themselves, and/or can work together to alter their environment in a beneficial manner to the whole group – too few and we might not fare so well!

Allee’s idea on the unsustainability of small populations is today known as the Allee effect and is formally defined as: ‘an increase in individual fitness and/or per capita growth rate, caused by an increase in population size or density’.

The Allee effect can be generated through several mechanisms in small populations including: difficulty in finding a mate, pollen limitation, inability to satiate predators, cooperative anti-predator behaviour, cooperative breeding, foraging efficiency, habitat fragmentation and habitat loss.


Cooperative living: The Southern African meerkat (Suricata suricatta) lives in groups of up to 40 individuals and is a prime example of how cooperation can improve survival. Responsibilities such as baby-sitting and raising the young, foraging, burrow maintenance and standing guard are shared. They also huddle together for warmth, and band together against rivals and predators. If group sizes fall too low, local population crashes can ensue.


ringlet butterflyHabitat fragmentation and loss: Small and more fragmented patches of woodland habitat decreased the resilience and survival of populations of the ringlet butterfly Aphantopus hyperantus by reducing successful dispersal between patches and build-up of sufficient population sizes.


Why does the Allee Effect matter?

The implications of the Allee effect are potentially very important in many areas of ecology and the practical management of population numbers, whether aiming to increase or reduce them, is strongly affected by this effect.

In Conservation the prevention of population collapses is a priority, and it is widely acknowledged that populations of small size are often at greater risk of extinction.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith only around 100 individuals scattered in the wild (some experts believe only 30!), the Sumatran rhino, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, is on the verge of extinction. This species is clearly in the grips of an extreme Allee effect – as numbers of individuals decline, factors associated with low numbers (e.g. narrow genetic base, skewed sex ratio, mate-finding, reproductive pathology associated with long non-reproductive periods) combine to drive numbers ever lower, even with adequate habitat and zero poaching. In a 2017 WWF Report experts urge that the days of “conserving” Sumatran rhinos are gone and that efforts to save this species should be in advanced crisis mode to prevent extinction.

Another area of ecological studies where the Allee effect plays an important role is in Invasion Biology. It can inhibit the establishment of newly arrived species or in other cases delay or prevent range expansion of established pest species. This is the case for the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) where some of the isolated low-density colonies founded by long-distance dispersal go extinct without any management interventions, simply because of the Allee effect.

The Allee effect also plays a critical role in Biological Control programmes (the introduction of a natural enemy species to control a pest species) where success often depends on releasing sufficient numbers of individuals to ensure establishment of the natural enemy species.


My Research:

The Allee effect is a key focus in my PhD studies. I am studying the establishment success of small, isolated populations of Neolema ogloblini, a beetle introduced as a biocontrol agent for Tradescantia fluminensis in NZ. The aim is to determine whether an Allee effect plays a role in the population dynamics of this beetle and to identify the mechanism driving the Allee effect. This project will generate a better understanding of the key factors that affect biocontrol agent establishment and also invasion success of pest species.

hester.jpgHester Williams is a PhD candidate in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and is stationed with the Landcare Research Biocontrol team in Lincoln, Canterbury. She is interested in invasion processes of both insect and plant species. Hester is supervised by Darren Ward (Landcare Research/University of Auckland) and Eckehard Brockerhoff (Scion), with Mandy Barron (Landcare Research) as advisor. Her studies are supported by a joint Ministry for Primary Industries – University of Auckland scholarship. The project is an integral part of an MBIE program “A Toolkit for the Urban Battlefield” led by Scion.



What’s the point? Ethics and extinction

Posted by: Jessica Devitt @Colette_Keeha


Figure 1. We must protect endangered species (Yadav, 2016).

Robert Alexander Pyron’s Washington Post article (Pyron, 2017) titled: ‘We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution’, caused somewhat of a stir in the natural sciences community. It was met with pushback and understandable outrage, especially from those who work to save endangered species and ecosystems. At first glance, I balked at what he was promoting too; my thoughts were that he is encouraging an anthropocentric world view, that the ability for humans to prosper is the only thing of real importance in this world, regardless of what they destroy in the process; and that it is not our moral obligation to save endangered species unless they provide something of practical importance for humanity.

All of that sounds pretty grim to me, yet I also think he has raised an interesting argument, and that he is probably not the only person that thinks this way: it should be noted that he later published a follow-up piece where he further clarifies his reasoning and thoughts with regard to what he wrote.


the end is nigh

Figure 2. Dinosaur extinction (Boblog, 2010).

Based on Pyron’s original article, I felt that the following were some of his main points:

  1. Extinction events are an evolutionary norm, and we should accept them.
  2. Humans are part of the natural world, therefore even if extinction is human-caused, it is no more inimical than ‘natural’ extinction events.
  3. Saving endangered species is a waste of time unless that species is of practical importance to humanity.
  4. Species extinction is not a moral issue for humanity if its loss does not negatively impact humanity.
  5. The animal kingdom is best left alone. For instance invasive species will naturally out compete less hardy native species, which could lead to native species extinction, which is just evolution at work.

Figure 3. Invasives must go (McMillan, 2012).

Like the Nature article by Antonelli and Perrigo (2018) in response Pyron’s piece, I too did not know whether to discuss my thoughts around his article from a scientific perspective or from an ethical perspective. The article also goes further with this issue asking if scientists should even enter into ethical arguments – is it not our job to merely present the facts? Antonelli and Perrigo (2018) note that half of their contingent felt that the rebuttal should be a purely scientific one, and half felt that it was most definitely an ethical argument. They conceded that it is most likely both, and urge fellow natural scientists to weigh in on topics such as this from both an ethical, and evidentiary standpoint.


Figure 4. The trolley problem (McGeddon, 2016).

For myself, I am more interested in exploring the ethical issues that Pyron’s article brings up, as not only am I not learned enough in the scientific mechanisms around his points, but I also think that one could probably find enough evidence to make a compelling argument either way, well at least to relative layperson such as myself. Pyron’s article made me think though, why is it important for me as an individual to conserve natural environments, and species? What’s the actual point in all this?


Figure 5.  Lepidoptera (Landcare Research, n.d.).

The point for me is that I personally think that the natural world, and the species within it, have intrinsic value in their own right.  Hence, that in and of itself is enough for me to try and protect it.  It brings me joy to know that, for instance, the Lord Howe Island stick insect (Dryococelus australis) exists, even though I will likely never see it in person. Further, this stick insect may not have any ‘practical’ benefit for humanity in existing, but I know I would be sad if it were to become extinct. Following this, how would we all reach agreement on what is an important species and what isn’t? Does an ‘impractical’ yet culturally important species get to be saved?


Figure 6. Lord Howe Island phasmid (Granitethighs, 2011).

Rightly or wrongly I also fall into a slippery slope argument where if humanity collectively is not willing to protect endangered species, if we are only interested in preserving what directly serves us, then where does that end? Does that then eventually extend to other humans? Would we later decide that some people are not worth helping because they are not ‘useful’? This reminds me of the medieval christian Great Chain of Being, where all living and non-living things are divided up hierarchically by importance or closeness to god, if you were lower on the chain then you were of less importance (Nee, 2005).  If you were a commoner for instance then you had less rights than say a noble person.


Figure 7. Great Chain of Being (Valdes, 1579).

I realise that this might be somewhat of a stretch to say that not saving endangered species will end up with humanity disregarding those people that are deemed not useful or of ‘less importance’. However, it seems to me that we have been, for the most part, progressively moving away from categorising beings on importance and usefulness, and instead moving in a direction that identifies all living things as important in their own right. Whether I am wasting my time or not I want to stay on this path of protecting what cannot protect itself, because I think at the very least this is a mind-set that will benefit all humanity in the long run.

jessJessica Devitt is a PhD student at the Centre for Biodiversity & Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland and Plant and Food Research. She is researching the respiratory responses of the golden-haired bark beetle to advance fumigation techniques. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs from the University of Auckland, Adriana Najar-Rodriguez and Matthew Hall from Plant and Food Research.


Antonelli, A., & Perrigo, A. (2018). The science and ethics of extinction. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1.

Boblog. (2010) Dinosaur extinction.  Retrieved from

Granitethighs. (2011). Lord Howe Island phasmid.  Retrieved from

Landcare Research (n.d.) Lepidoptera. Retrieved from

McGeddon. (2016). The trolley problem: should you pull the lever to divert the runaway trolley onto the side track? Retrieved from

McMillan, S. (2012). Invasives must go.  Retrieved from

Nee, S. (2005). The great chain of being. Nature435(7041), 429.

Yadav, P. (2015). We must protect endangered species. Retrieved from

Pyron, R. A. (2017). We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution. The Washington Post (22 November 2017).

Valdes, D. (1579). Great Chain of Being.  Retrieved from