New control plan follows buffel grass outrage

p2310-buffel-1COMMENT by ERWIN CHLANDA

 

Eureka! After the prolonged campaign against buffel grass, Minister for Land Resource Management Gary Higgins early today announced a new statutory Weed Management Plan.

 

This follows a four week public consultation period and consideration by the Northern Territory Weed Advisory Committee and Regional Weed Reference Groups of how to “mitigate the significant economic and environmental impacts,” according to a media statement released on his behalf.

 

The Director of the Weed Management Branch, Geraldine Lee, chimed in by saying the plan “sets a strategic way forward to manage this invasive weed.

 

“It also initiates a proactive approach to control, monitoring and spread prevention to help protect our natural resources from the impacts of this weed,” she said according to the release.

 

“Following the four weeks of consultation, we assessed and considered all comments received and are extremely happy with the plan going forward.

 

“We are committed to protecting our natural ecosystems as well as the pastoral and agricultural industries from this invasive weed and the release of this plan is a step in the right direction” to protect “ecologically and economically important areas of the Northern Territory.”

 

Ms Lee is also quoted as saying that the weed “is very invasive and can out-compete native vegetation, leading to reductions in pastoral productivity and reduced biodiversity. It is often confused with a native desirable perennial species.”

 

p2239-Gary-Higgins-2And now for the bad news: Neither Mr Higgins (pictured) nor Ms Lee is talking about buffel grass but about grader grass which “is widespread throughout the Katherine region and presents significant management challenges on a range of land tenures. Preventing the spread of this weed into areas that are currently free of grader grass is a high priority.”

 

Mr Higgins and Ms Lee are not making the same commitment about buffel which is devastating much of Central Australia and has all the effects they are ascribing to grader grass.

 

Why are they not acting against buffel, which is a weed in South Australia and target of a extensive government campaign there?

 

Because in the NT buffel is not a declared weed, according to a spokesman for them.

 

Go figure.

 

UPDATE:

 

A spokesman  for Mr Higgins provided the following statement late today, in response to a request for comment from the Alice Springs News Online, making it clear that the NT Government will do nothing meaningful to control buffel. He is recommending a do-it-yourself approach for anyone who may care:

 

Buffel grass is a pasture grass that was introduced to Central Australia for improved pasture production, soil stabilisation and dust suppression around the 1960s.  As a pasture it remains highly valued by cattle producers for being drought tolerant, moderately nutritious and capable of withstanding heavy grazing.  The extensive root system of buffel grass enables it to bind soil particles, reducing erosion and suppressing dust, which can be a valuable asset in extremely arid environments.

 

Since its deliberate introduction buffel grass has become widely spread in the natural environment.  This is to the extent that eradication is not considered technically or economically feasible. Current activities administered by the Department of Land Resource Management focus on raising awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of buffel grass, encouraging appropriate management by land holders and preventing inadvertent spread.

 

Communities in Central Australia can voluntarily administer on-ground control of buffel grass in chosen areas of high environmental value and cultural significance.  The Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory has dedicated asset protection and buffel grass management programs in place.

 

All community and stakeholder concerns and feedback are taking into consideration when developing priority for weed management.

 

Grader grass was a declared weed prior to the introduction of the current Weeds Management Act which came into force in 2001.   A new statutory Weed Management Plan for Grader Grass (Themeda quadrivalvis) was released today.

 

 

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9 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Jimmy Cocking
    Posted July 20, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    @ Jason: You can you contact me at director@alec.org.au – we are keen to talk to interested and knowledgeable people about this caterpillar. Thanks, Jimmy.

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  2. Maths
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    So Janet, grazing and control is best practice?
    What control are you talking about – surely a biological agent is worth looking at.
    And it’s fairly obvious that grazing is not a control method. It doesn’t stop the spread of this weed.

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  3. Ian Sharp
    Posted July 19, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Thank you for your very informative post Alex Nelson, good of you to take the time.

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  4. Posted July 19, 2016 at 9:56 am

    @ Janet Brown (Posted July 18, 2016 at 4:20 pm): Biological control of pest plant and animal species is a widespread and ongoing practice in Australia and overseas. Critics and the ignorant invariably cite the introduction of cane toads as a reason why biological control shouldn’t be trusted but in fact Australia’s track record in this research field is world-leading and outstandingly successful.
    Currently biological control is being employed for the control of the waterweed Salvinia in Kakadu National Park (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-13/weevils-tackle-salvinia-in-kakadu/7588964) and Parkinsonia infestations on pastoral properties in the Gulf country of northwest Queensland (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-26/moths-released-in-war-on-weeds-in-the-burke-shire/7446376), the latter example using an introduced moth from Argentina – and there’s no argument from pastoralists about the desirability of this project!
    Another example is the control of Patterson’s Curse, an attractive flowering plant that has invaded a vast swathe of sheep-farming country across southern Australia. Not everyone supported the introduction of bio-controls for Patterson’s Curse; it’s highly favoured by apiarists for honey production, and for some this plant was known as Salvation Jane. Bee-keepers held up the biological control program for Patterson’s Curse with legal action for several years in the 1980s (http://www.ento.csiro.au/biocontrol/patcurse.html) but in the end – significantly – the interests of pastoral production won out.
    I’ve successfully engaged in biological control of mealybug in Alice Springs (see Nightmare in Renner Street http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/1707.html) through the introduction of Cryptolaemus ladybeetles. I acquired these insects via mail in January 2010 and released them into my garden. Six years later these insects continue to persist and recently turned up to destroy an outbreak of mealybug. This particular ladybeetle is an Australian species and is widely used in integrated pest management strategies that have become standard practice in the horticulture industry.
    Buffel grass seedhead caterpillar is also an Australian native species, prevalent in parts of Queensland – it has transferred across from its native host plant species. This insect can build up in sufficient numbers to significantly curtail seed production; it does not, however, destroy the plants.
    In Queensland and NSW it is regarded as a pest which, when well established, is uneconomical to control. This insect species appears to provide an option for slowing the rate of spread of buffel grass while not affecting the survival of existing stands used for pastoral production. It’s introduction into Central Australia should be given serious consideration.
    It’s perhaps symbolically appropriate that an Australian native species of caterpillar / moth offers a chance of retarding the advance of buffel grass in Caterpillar Dreaming country.

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  5. Ian Sharp
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    Well, very easy Janet: If you don’t care about biodiversity, and the effects buffel is having on it here in Central Australia. Obviously not a concern for you. Which makes you part of the problem, not the solution.

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  6. Janet Brown
    Posted July 18, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Wow. People still have not learnt from the cane toad in Queensland, have they? We do not require a new introduced species anywhere in Australia.
    We have to learn from past mistakes and set in place good effective management strategies.
    Not bring in new problems. Let’s deal in the best way possible with the buffel here and put in place best practice management. Best practice is not burning – it is grazing and control. Now how easy is that?

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  7. Jason
    Posted July 17, 2016 at 8:08 am

    Yes, Ian, it looks like an invitation to me.
    I’ve been researching the life cycle of the Buffel Seed-head Caterpillar and it looks like it would do well in terms of our local climate.
    It is not a local species but there are some native species in common in its home and Central Australia.
    Of course it has no shortage of food so it should thrive.
    In turn it is food for local birds which is good and the attrition from predation won’t slow it down a lot.
    Nor will Steve Brown who will probably be out there in the Buffel country spraying it by day and under torch light by night.
    Of course there are risks in releasing the caterpillar here but Buffel itself is such a massive risk to our environment that, on balance, it’s worthwhile in my opinion.
    It’s just a matter of getting hold of the caterpillar and breeding its numbers up in a protected environment and then turning it loose at the right time in its life cycle.
    Within a few years we could see our natural environment making a huge comeback and the Buffel invasion of new areas halted in its tracks.

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  8. Ian Sharp
    Posted July 16, 2016 at 11:47 pm

    “A spokesman for Mr Higgins provided the following statement late today, in response to a request for comment from the Alice Springs News Online, making it clear that the NT Government will do nothing meaningful to control buffel. He is recommending a do-it-yourself approach for anyone who may care.”
    Sounds like an invitation Jacob?

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  9. Posted July 16, 2016 at 5:18 pm

    The NT Government’s approach towards weed declarations and control is highly inconsistent and contradictory, both now and over time.
    Essentially the government’s reaction is a cop out when it comes to its various responses towards different problematic species.
    For example, grader grass poses no philosophical issue in terms of its status as a weed – it’s an accidental introduction to Australia of no positive economic value. Spreading widely across Australia’s subtropical north, grader grass is listed as a Weed of National Significance.
    There’s no argument here about the necessity to control this species.
    Another grass listed as a noxious weed in the NT is Mexican Feather grass – this species was added to the list in April 2009 by then Minister Alison Anderson. Here’s the twist – it’s never been recorded in the NT.
    The listing of this species is pre-emptive, in response to the accidental introduction of this weed (it had been misidentified from imported stock) sold in nurseries in Victoria, NSW and Queensland in 2008.
    Another three grass species are listed as noxious weeds in the NT – Mission Grass, Thatch Grass and Gamba Grass. All were introduced for pasture improvement in the Top End.
    All of them exhibit characteristics of being able to outcompete native plants, and of significantly increasing fuel loads for wildfires that alter the natural environment; and they’re all spreading across the country.
    Gamba grass is particularly interesting, as its systematic introduction and usefulness for grazing is almost synonymous to that of Buffel grass.
    In an edition of NT Rural News (Dec 1983-January 1984), published by the former NT Department of Primary Production, the two grasses happen to feature in adjoining articles promoting them for pasture production. Ironically the article “Gamba grass seed now available” states that: “Gamba grass can be very susceptible to weed invasion so it is recommended to grow companion species with it such as Pangola or Signal grass.
    “If weeds such as Sida or Hyptis [both noxious weeds] start to invade your new pasture, control them with 2,4-D and do this before the plants become tall and woody.”
    Gamba grass is now a Weed of National Significance.
    Minister Gary Higgins’ statement that Buffel grass “was introduced to Central Australia for improved pasture production, soil stabilisation and dust suppression around the 1960s” is historically misleading.
    The earliest trials of Buffel grass in the Centre of which I’m aware were pioneered on the adjoining properties of Murray Downs and Elkedra stations from about 1949 onwards.
    Buffel grass was already present at various sites across the Centre, established by cameleers to provide pasture for their beasts of burden.
    However, it was the case that the Agriculture Branch of the NT Administration conducted pasture establishment trials for Buffel grass over a wide area of the southern NT, with “53 introduction sites established on 31 station properties in the Alice Springs region” from 1961 to 1971 – and this was all before the work done in the 1970s and 80s by the Soil Conservation Unit of the Conservation Commission of the NT.
    The CSIRO’s role in the Centre was limited to an exotic pasture species evaluation trial conducted at AZRI from 1960 to 1967. All of this work was done with the best intentions in mind and no appreciation of the risk they were running.
    So how does Buffel grass rate compared to the Top End pasture species now declared weeds?
    Perhaps it’s best to refer to Tim Low, a renowned Australian biologist and an expert on the impact of feral species. In his ground-breaking 1999 book “Feral Future”, Low described “Buffel grass as one of Australia’s 18 worst environmental weeds” and that “it is one of many African pasture grasses that are ‘Africanising’ the world, invading grasslands wherever cattle are grazed”.
    Amongst the other species listed were Gamba grass and Mission grass. At the time Gamba grass (along with Buffel) was not officially listed as a weed (Low’s book galvanized the formation of the Invasive Species Council of Australia).
    In his most recent book “Where song began” (2015), Tim Low states: “In a 2008 report for the federal environment department, I nominated Gamba and Buffel as the invasive species posing the greatest threat to Australia in the face of climate change”. It was in November that year the NT Government bowed to public pressure, despite protests from graziers, to list Gamba grass as a noxious weed – but, nearly a decade later, Buffel grass remains unlisted.
    In the face of abundant evidence, the NT Government continues to bury its head in the sand when it comes to dealing with the massive threat that Buffel grass poses to Australia’s inland environment.
    The procrastination and delay is inexcusable, and the failure to act will in time be condemned just as severely as we do now for the introduction of rabbits, foxes and cane toads.

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