New Zealand aims to eradicate invasive predators, but winning public support may be big challenge

April Reese July 10, 2017

A year ago, the national government here announced a bold plan to rid the country of a trio of invasive predators that threatens  native birds. Experts say the task will require new technologies—such as  deadlier toxins and possibly even the release of genetically modified  organisms—that have yet to be invented. But winning public support for  using these new methods could be an even bigger task, scientists say.

Moving any new control measures from the lab to the landscape will be  “as much of a social challenge as it is a biological challenge,” says  conservation biologist James Russell of the University of Auckland in  New Zealand.

With that in mind, scientists are eyeing a social experiment to rival  the biological one: finding ways to include the public early and often  in discussing predator control plans, and allowing people to have a say  in which methods are deployed.

To learn more about how New Zealanders think about such issues, a  group led by Edy MacDonald, who heads the Department of Conservation's  social science team in Wellington, is finalizing a national survey. The  goal is to uncover not just what concerns people, but why. “Whatever  their response is, we need to work with that and have that  conversation,” she says. “‘So you’re not comfortable with that  technology? Why? Tell me more.’”

The survey is specifically designed to reveal the values underlying  people's opinions. Research suggests that presenting people “with the  facts has rarely swayed minds,” MacDonald says. “You have to talk to  them based on their value system, and understand their value systems.”

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