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Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy
13/02/2019
Inquiry into controlling the spread of cane toads

SAWYER, Mr Graeme, Private capacity

SCOTT-VIRTUE, Ms Eileen (Lee), President, Kimberley Toad Busters

TRAILL, Dr Barry, Director, Outback to Oceans Program, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Evidence from Mr Sawyer and Ms Scott-Virtue was taken via teleconference

[10:49]

ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Traill : I'm also presenting on our submission from Nyangumarta Karajarri Aboriginal Corporation.

Mr Sawyer : I work for Biodiversity Watch at the moment, but I'm representing myself in terms of background knowledge on this stuff.

Ms Scott-Virtue : I'm the founder of Kimberley Toad Busters, representing the Kimberley community.

ACTING CHAIR: Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as a proceeding of the House. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite each of you to make a very brief statement before we proceed to discussion. We'll start with Dr Traill.

Dr Traill : As already flagged by Professor Ben Phillips in the previous session, there is a significant opportunity to stop the further invasion of toads from the Kimberley from Northern Australia down into Western Australia. There's a natural geographical barrier there—I actually managed to forget the large map I bought but perhaps, for Hansard, I'll describe it verbally.

The toads, as I think you would've picked up already, are about half to two-thirds of their way through the invasion of the Kimberley. With existing technology, it's very clear they cannot be stopped because of widespread water throughout the Kimberley. Further south, on the other side of the Great Sandy Desert, is the Pilbara, which also has widespread water. Once they're there, they would also not be able to be stopped from continuing south to wherever might be the natural boundaries of climate down towards Perth.

Between the Kimberley and the Pilbara is the Great Sandy Desert—naturally very arid, very few water courses and a very small number of permanent waters. What Professor Phillips's research and the research of others very clearly shows is that toads are very prone, very susceptible, to dehydration. They cannot live much longer than 24 hours in the dry season in the north without access to water.

Professor Ben Phillips has looked at that quite closely, and that arid zone is the only potential way we can stop the invasion on that side of the continent—it's the only potential barrier. It's taking advantage of a natural barrier, but additional work is needed. Further inland the desert is the desert—it's a hard sand dune desert and the toads will not get through there. But along the coast it has slightly better rainfall, is slightly better century for cattle and there's a thin string of cattle stations between Broome and the Pilbara—and you can picture that country along the Eighty Mile Beach.

So, of course, it's stock country. They have water points from underground water from bores. Around those stock points, there are artificial damp spots through tanks leaking, troughs—troughs are often on the ground—and toads could survive there.

So, without further intervention, what will happen is that the toads will finish their invasion of the Kimberley. They will then, in the wet season, progress across that dry country. The wet will come; they'll be able to progress into that. Then the dry will hit and they will be able to survive at those artificial water points and then hopscotch in two or three years across the dry barrier. So what Professor Phillips has proposed, and I, as an advocacy conservation organisation, and the local Aboriginal organisations, is: we've looked very carefully at Professor Phillips's research and, with a specific but what we regard as not a huge investment—in the low millions—we could retrofit those water points, obviously working with the graziers, so that they work fine for cattle but they don't leak and they're raised off the ground. Every wet season the toads would push in; every dry season they will die and you would have that quarantine boundary.

I'm happy to go into more details in Professor Phillips's separate submission and reinforce the details in ours. Active Indigenous ranger groups are on the ground, willing and available to help. We'd certainly take a very active interest and would help promote and drive the issue. So, with a modest investment, we think we can stop the toads from extending down into Western Australia, across a huge tract of country.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Traill. I invite Ms Scott-Virtue to make an opening statement.

Ms Scott-Virtue : From the community perspective, and obviously looking at the results from a number of other community driven groups across the north of Australia, we really do emphasise the need for community action and the need for scientists who are coming up with various potential solutions to work with that community. We have a very large population—not so large, but large enough—throughout the Kimberley who have actively participated in trying to reduce the number of toads at the colonising front.

We have determined through our own research and work on the ground that that first arrival of toads has the greatest impact on our native biodiversity. They're prolific eaters, so the invertebrate system is attacked immediately, and if you have uncontrolled numbers of toads arriving, then they very quickly eat their way through that system. Research that has been done by a number of entomologists at a voluntary level here in the Kimberley has shown quite clearly that within three years of the arrival of toads into a new area we start to see a very substantial species decline in the invertebrate system, and then we begin to see species wipe-out. Without community action, without a group being prepared and organised before toads arrive, then we're really defeating the purpose, and I'm not sure that without community input we can go on achieving what we have achieved.

While it is impossible to stop the forward movement of toads, what Kimberley Toad Busters and other like-minded groups in the NT—FrogWatch et cetera—have proven is that we can slow the progress. We can slow the rate of breeding, and by reducing those numbers we not only have a positive impact on the invertebrates—that is, the very basis of our biodiversity platforms—we also take the pressure off large vertebrates and smaller vertebrates. Kununurra is a classic example where the community group Kimberley Toad Busters, along with some support from the Perth-based group and FrogWatch in the Northern Territory initially, showed that we did not have quite the biodiversity loss or impact on our large vertebrate animals that happened in Kakadu National Park. We have had probably a faster recovery rate of some of those larger vertebrates animals, and without community action I do not believe that this would have been possible.

I think that one of the most positive things about community action is how it embraces the Indigenous community: Indigenous people, and particularly the children, absolutely embrace this activity—they become involved at every level, not just for toad busting, but also in the various areas of research: they love recording the native biodiversity, and they love getting involved at every level. And we have proven through community action that it has an extremely positive impact on isolated communities who otherwise do not have a great deal to keep them occupied, and it has an extremely positive impact on our children at risk.

This volunteer toad-busting program is something that could be implemented in communities wherever toads are about to arrive. In a nutshell, I think that community groups absolutely do slow the rate and the number of colonising toads moving forward. Consistent, community toad-busting, which is happening in Kununurra, almost 10 years later, is still having a very positive impact on our invertebrate species and also on those vertebrates that did survive. Community action does take the pressure off large and small threatened vertebrate species, lessens the impact on native wildlife of invertebrate species, and reduces the impact on native wildlife burrows and ground-burrowing species, because toads do take over those habitat systems and they do have a massive impact.

Perhaps I'll close with the fact that community action isn't just about removing large toads. We have trialled most of the methods that have been put forward by various researchers; we are probably into our ninth year of using tadpole traps. So we use multiple methods. We also record wildlife, and that's quite critical when you have a very isolated area where the scientists can only cover small areas, whereas community can cover a much larger area. I'll just close by saying I would hate to see this negativity continue about community action, because I think it is and should continue to be involved at all levels, both the scientific and the actual field methods.

Mr Sawyer : From my point of view, the issue with this is the lack of coordination and overall strategy stuff that's come out of the last 15 years of toad stuff, up here in the Territory, and interfacing a lot with the federal government on that front. I think there's been some really big issues that have been around how the federal government completely dropped the ball on this. And there is an issue around why we have a harm minimisation strategy for virtually every other feral species in the country, but not for cane toads. Lee referred to some of the Kakadu stuff, and I've been doing quite a bit of work in Kakadu in recent times, in a different capacity, and the devastation on the wildlife out there is something you have to see to believe. I think one of the things that comes out of this is that really big issues like this show weaknesses in our systems, and there are some really clear lessons, I think, out of the cane toad stuff in north Australia that this thing has revealed. One of those—just referring back to Barry's thing—is really quite gratifying to hear, strategies like that being proposed, because I was the one who developed a strategy around exclusion fencing and attacking toads at water points back in 2007. And it's taken a long time for these things to filter through the network. But I think it's another example of where the coordination of these things has been let down severely by the fact that the federal government effectively withdrew any coordination function and funding out of the toad issue quite some time ago.

As an example, I think the research being referred to in some of that stuff was picked up by Professor Mike Letnic at a forum that was organised at the casino in Darwin some years ago. And then he went and did some field research on the methodology that we'd developed and proved that it worked. And then you move down the track and you've got Professor Phillips's proposal. Those sorts of things should have happened a lot faster and in a much more coordinated fashion, with some actual funding, because most of those things were done without any coordinated funding. So I think it comes back to that issue around how these things are coordinated, and I know from all the work I've done with community groups that there are major issues around that front that have severely limited the potential for us to understand a lot more about what's going on with toads and what we do now.

The other thing I'd point out is that toads are almost like different species in different habitats, and I suspect that, in New South Wales and places where you're getting some of the incursion now, some of the stuff we've developed up here and some of the learnings we've had up here will be different. Also, dealing with different life stages of cane toads is like dealing with different species as well, particularly the metamorph stage. So some really careful thinking needs to be done about how these things work and what the underlying mechanisms are.

The really big issue for me is the biomass stuff. We've done some research showing extraordinary biomasses of toads in northern Australia—three to four times bigger than any other documented populations in Australia, which are hundreds of times bigger than any other documented populations in the world. Whilst there is no funding to explore where that biomass stuff is coming from, it's pretty obvious it's coming from our native invertebrate structures and small vertebrates. When you look at country up here—like those places in Kakadu along the Jim Jim Creek in the areas where I've been doing my research, and just hanging out for the last 30 years around Mount Ringwood station—the impact of toads 15 to 20 years in is unbelievable. But it's very, very difficult to document that; our research was certainly cut off at the knees by the funding being withdrawn, so those biomass questions are sitting there unanswered at the moment.

There's a whole raft of issues ongoing about toads. I think one of the things that really needs to be done is to focus on a broad-based harm minimisation strategy for toads. I'm not sure what the actual solution to that is, but there are some really positive things in that, I think, that will emerge in the near future. I might just leave it at that. We're just reinforcing those issues around the need for some process around coordination of the stuff. And, certainly, that would, for me, include the way the funding mechanisms and stuff are managed and targeted. I think there has been a huge amount of distortion in the agenda around toads based around that, and no sort of body has been taking some responsibility for trying to target this stuff. But also, there's the ongoing devastation that's happening. Lee made mention earlier about the initial impact. The initial impact's pretty significant, but, looking at places now that have had toads for 15 to 20 years in the tropical north, where the densities are so different and you also have some ecological processes that toads stuff up around this refuge effect, I think we really do need to seriously consider where we're going with this stuff. I'll leave it at that for now.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Sawyer. I'm going to lead off, and then I'll open it up. Dr Traill, I want to pick up on the waterless barrier to the Pilbara. We obviously explored this with the academics earlier. I just want to focus on the cost for a second. We asked the academics and they gave us a figure of $100,000, whereas you're saying it's in the low millions. Now, in either case, it's pretty small amounts of funding compared to the scale of the problem avoided. But where has your figure come from for the cost of the infrastructure?

Dr Traill : I missed part of the academics' talks. I'm a bit puzzled that anyone said $100,000, because the figure that we base it on, which was around $5 million, was actually produced by Professor Phillips himself.

ACTING CHAIR: Okay.

Dr Traill : So I'm just not sure.

ACTING CHAIR: He might have got confused. He was referring to the ongoing maintenance cost, so he might have assumed we knew what the infrastructure cost was—and that's the ongoing maintenance. So it's $5 million.

Dr Traill : Yes, and I'll refer back to his submission because those are the figures he's based it on. It is split into two things. There is the initial infrastructure cost, so at the moment you've got some standard bore cattle troughs, a bit leaky, which absolutely do the job for cattle, which need to be changed, retrofitted, obviously working with the grazier. So there's an initial capital cost there, and then there's ongoing maintenance. My take is that it would be a low figure, in the hundreds of thousands.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Traill.

Dr GILLESPIE: Thanks for all your work that you've done thus far. If you have Indigenous groups, can they be mobilised in this battle? I gather from what the Kimberley Toad Busters said that half of their volunteers are Indigenous. Is there broad uptake in the wider remote community too?

Dr Traill : I've never met an Indigenous person or a whitefella, for that matter, in northern Australia that doesn't hate them. Indigenous people are very concerned and in many cases often more affected directly because for remote communities bush foods, particularly goannas, are still important. Often the people are very poor. It's directly impactful immediately because the big goannas go. Working with the Nyangumarta and Karajarri rangers—these are well-organised ranger groups which we've had previous dealings with on a whole range of other environmental issues. They're well-organised, sophisticated land management groups. So you have a core of professional rangers, and then of course they're embedded in their communities, so it's just the perfect entree.

Dr GILLESPIE: So we could roll this out predictively?

Dr Traill : That's why Professor Phillips has engaged with them and we've engaged with them. Their leadership has been emphatic and immediate: 'We would love to help.' That's in helping their country, but also they know what they'll be doing for people further to the south, in the Pilbara.

Dr GILLESPIE: I assume from your earlier comments that landholders have no problem with people turning up, putting barriers or tanks around troughs and things?

Dr Traill : That is just very, very initial conversations—again, led by Professor Phillips and the rangers, not ourselves—with some of the pastoralists, and I would not in any way take that for granted, because no landholder running a commercial stock operation necessarily likes additional humbug to their day-to-day business. Those initial conversations were positive, but of course it's their infrastructure that would have to be retrofitted—and ongoing relationships with Indigenous rangers, who they already work with. These are small local communities. People get on well. But that would need to be a formal arrangement with the pastoral holder.

Mr Sawyer : Could I just make a comment on that. We've done work with Aboriginal groups right across the NT on this stuff, and it's worked really, really well. The Milingimbi rangers would be an interesting case study in terms of the project that they undertook using exclusion fencing to try to wipe toads off Milingimbi.

Mr HOWARTH: Where are the Milingimbi rangers?

Dr Traill : In Arnhem Land. Milingimbi's in the Northern Territory.

Mr Sawyer : We've also had that with a whole range of smaller projects with Indigenous groups, ranging from youth projects with people coordinating stuff through to more serious programs based around ranger work. We've also done this stuff when we were first rolling it out from basically Timber Creek in the NT all the way across El Questro, in the Kimberley, and we never ran into issues with pastoralists that weren't solvable in terms of that.

But I think there are some really interesting elements to this. There's a desire from a lot of pastoralists as well to move towards replacing turkey nest dams with tanks. That's saving evaporation for other things. You've got the Beetaloo project in the Northern Territory, where they've looked at how you can use that to manage stock and rotate stock around properties and do all sorts of things. Those sorts of projects are being facilitated by funding or subsidies or tax write-offs for the infrastructure. I think not only is there probably some real scope for reducing and stopping toads on that narrow strip down the west coast, but in vast areas of the NT you could effectively wipe cane toads out.

Dr GILLESPIE: That's great. I have one last question. You mentioned withdrawal of government support and that the Commonwealth government's dropped the ball. The Commonwealth government often gets a bad rap for things that haven't been done by state governments. What's been the buy-in by the Northern Territory and by WA into this problem, which is in their states? They have equal, if not maybe more, responsibility for looking after their own environment.

Mr Sawyer : I couldn't agree with you more on that, but I think there are problems around the EPBC Act responsibilities and the federal government funding. I was specifically referring to the way that, midway through this process becoming a really big issue in terms of on-ground research and other support factors, you suddenly had things like NHT funding and stuff where, when the feral animal pop-open box on your application forms popped up, cane toads were no longer there. There was a decision taken somewhere in the bureaucracy to exclude cane toads from all that funding bucket, which I thought was absolutely amazing given that that was clear and away the biggest single threat to biodiversity across northern Australia at the time. I can remember some of the meetings we had with some of the—

Mr HOWARTH: I don't have a lot of time to waste on what happened in the past—

Mr Sawyer : No, I just think this is a really important point. If this continues—

Mr HOWARTH: We're doing an inquiry now.

Mr Sawyer : we're never going to fix this problem.

ACTING CHAIR: Just let Mr Sawyer finish his answer. I think that's respectful to him. I think Ms Scott-Virtue had something to add, then Mr Howarth's got a question.

Ms Scott-Virtue : Yes, I do. I would have to say that state governments do have a very strong responsibility in this area, and from our Western Australian state government in recent years that support, while good in the past, has completely gone. I think that perhaps a moot point is when our WA government changed the classification of the cane toad from a 'feral pest' to just an 'animal'. That basically covered the zone from the Tropic of Capricorn, which is just below Exmouth, to the Northern Territory-Western Australian border. It took a great deal of effort to have that revised. While it has not been reclassified under the No. 1 category—it is now No. 3—it has gone back to being a 'feral pest'. But it is extraordinary that our state government should have taken that particular tack just as toads are ready to start descending into the Pilbara.

I'd like to just add one more point, and that is that the Kimberley Toad Busters' work on Nicholson Station, which is just on the edge of the Tanami, over four years has seen an incredible adaptation of toads to an unbelievably dry landscape. We were finding toads quite successfully using cattle pads, cow dung, to rehydrate and emerging out of very deep tunnels made by our digging creatures. In fact, also on a couple of occasions we were able to remove toads from termite mounds where they had been encapsulated, living in a moist area—and this is in the middle of the dry—and quite successfully eating the food resource that was there. So I think that we should never underestimate the toad.

One final point is that the work that we have done has been tracking toads towards the Lake Gregory system, so they are now in Billiluna—some of those isolated desert communities. So toads will come into the Pilbara through the Lake Gregory system and in that direction.

Dr Traill : That's not true.

Ms Scott-Virtue : So, for barrier fencing, I think it's really critical that we probably look much further afield than just that western coastal zone.

Mr HOWARTH: That last point—can I say Lee or Ms Scott-Virtue?

Ms Scott-Virtue : Lee is fine.

Mr HOWARTH: Thanks, Lee. In that last point, Barry here was nodding his head in disagreement on that one. I was really interested in what Barry had to say about the fencing. But can I just confirm: you're based in Kununurra; is that right?

Ms Scott-Virtue : That's correct.

Mr HOWARTH: How far have the toads spread? Are they over in Derby and Broome?

Ms Scott-Virtue : No, they're about to descend into Derby, but they have reached Willare roadhouse—that general area. To the north, they actually reached the coastal zone around Faraway Bay, the Kimberley Coastal Camp and Honeymoon Bay last wet season. This wet season, though it hasn't been a great wet season, they have already reached some of those catchment areas of those big river systems, so we're estimating that toads will probably reach that north-western coastline, where we're trying to keep them away from a number of islands—

Mr HOWARTH: You're talking east of Broome still?

Ms Scott-Virtue : And of course that colonising front that's going down Sturt Creek into Lake Gregory is also a worry. It's very difficult at the moment, because we too have had funding cut. Initially, we used to be able to follow—

Mr HOWARTH: Could I just ask one other thing? I don't mean to be rude, but I want to get to some questions. I hear where you've got them. Did you hear what Dr Traill was saying earlier about the plan to keep them east of the Pilbara and so forth?

Ms Scott-Virtue : I did, and Kimberley Toad Busters would support that. I'm not entirely sure that I'm as optimistic about that. I do know that we're not just restricted to the known watercourses. What we have problems with is what we don't know. Having seen how quickly toads can move when we have a fairly big wet, and seeing what happened on Nicholson Station—engorged systems that are very similar to what they have in the Pilbara—it's difficult to see it being a huge success. But I do think that it needs to be done. It needs to be trialled. At the moment we have nothing else in place.

Mr HOWARTH: Thanks, Lee. Dr Traill, I was really interested in what you had to say. I think it's something that we should be pushing to get funded as soon as possible. But I think Lee was right when she talked about how the cane toad adapts—using cow dung to rehydrate and getting into termite mounds. That's interesting.

Dr Traill : This is absolutely a key point: where will they go? As a wildlife ecologist myself, I always go back to the research. Professor Phillips and others have radio-tracked toads in the dry season in a range of places. The ones that did use boroughs, the ones that did try to hide under moist cow turds, didn't survive. There was a 100 per cent death rate. And that's consistent with Queensland, country I know very personally as I'm a Queenslander myself, from South-East Queensland. Where they've invaded the Channel Country, where you've got these massive river systems coming down western Queensland with permanent waterholes, the toads have invaded down the river systems; they go out from there in the wet times and then they all die out and stay restricted to the river systems, where they're not eradicable. Respectfully, with these comments that they could invade through further east of the coastal line, south of Lake Gregory—again, I'm happy to go through it with a map later—they absolutely will invade the Lake Gregory system. But that's a terminal system that does not go further south. Further south of that is one of the world's largest sand dune deserts. From the information we have, no toads have ever invaded such a landscape.

Mr HOWARTH: I think what you're saying is good. If you were to provide a quote and we were to get the federal Treasurer to put it in this year's budget, how quickly could it be rolled out and who would do it? Given the good work Lee and the toad-busting people have done up there in Western Australia and also what Graeme was saying about a lack of coordination, how do you think that would work? How could we successfully pull it all together to stop them getting further west?

Dr Traill : I'll tease it out here. I'm certainly not disrespecting the toad-buster work. To me, it's different from a landscape such as I live in South-East Queensland or in the Northern Territory or the Kimberley, where it's about reducing the impacts of toads where they are, because you can't eradicate them. Stopping them invading is the goal, because only that will stop the big effects. We want to stop them going further south. We can't do that in the Kimberley with any known technology, but we can do that at the Great Sandy Desert choke point, at the toad line there.

As for delivering on the ground, its informal at this stage, but it's very active with people that we have worked with closely before—the Karajarri and Nyangumarta rangers. Professor Phillips has been impressively persistent and thoughtful, for over nearly a decade now, about pursuing this idea, proving it up and testing it. It's not just a theoretical idea. He's been on the ground. He's put toads on the ground and radio-tracked them to see what happens to them. So it would be something like a consortium of local people working with state and/or federal governments and, of course, the local graziers to take in funding and deliver it on the ground. The first step for that would be working up a more detailed budget and making sure that the local graziers are informed and signed on for the work.

ACTING CHAIR: I think we'll finish up there. Thank you for your attendance today, either physically or via phone. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, could you please forward it to the secretariat. The committee may have additional questions for you to respond to on notice. They will be sent to you by the secretariat. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and you will have an opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors. I thank all three of you for participating and for your efforts, both in paid and unpaid capacities, to stop the spread of cane toads and to maintain the beautiful biodiversity that makes this country so unique. Thank you on behalf of the committee for all the efforts you make.

Committ ee adjourned at 11 : 26