Kia Whārite restoring the balance for whio

Horizons Regional Councillors joined the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) deputy director general operations, Mike Slater, and iwi representatives for the release of 14 whio at Blue Duck Station early last week.

The whio release provided a hands-on opportunity to show how Kia Whārite, a collaborative biodiversity project in the Whanganui/Ruapehu districts, is directly contributing to the survival of native species.

Since 2008, Horizons, DOC, Whanganui iwi and private landowners have been working in the private lands and remote forests around Whanganui National Park to improve land, water and biodiversity health, while enhancing community and economic wellbeing. Kia Whārite is one of the largest projects of its kind in New Zealand in terms of scale and scope.

The Kia Whārite project spans over 180,000 hectares and includes a mixture of private land and parts of the Whanganui National Park, the second largest lowland forest in the North Island. This remote area is home to the largest population of Western North Island brown kiwi and plays host to a number of native bird and plant species.
The introduction of possums, goats, stoats and other predators has threatened the health of the forest and put the long-term future of its inhabitants in jeopardy.

Horizons Councillor Bruce Rollinson says as part of the project extensive possum control operations have been undertaken by Horizons and OSPRI on rated land , and DOC on crown land.  OSPRI have signalled a phased withdrawal from areas inside the project area over the coming years, as these areas are declared TB free. Currently approximately 150,000 hectares of land has regular possum control work undertaken in the project area.

“This work, alongside pest and weed control, protecting bush and wetlands and monitoring threatened native species, is also why it was possible for us to release 14 whio into the Kaiwhakauka Stream. Here, whio are protected on the river through a network of traps managed by Blue Duck Station volunteers to target stoats,” says Cr Rollinson.

Predator control is carried out in the wider whio security site by Horizons and DOC; over 85 km of trap lines are in place along the Retaruke and Manganui o te Ao rivers, providing necessary protection for whio.
Department of Conservation deputy director general operations Mike Slater says with a population of fewer than 3,000, this national whio security site is one of eight locations identified across the country as being essential for whio recovery.

“With the support of Genesis Energy, DOC has been enabled to double the number of fully secure whio breeding sites, boost pest control efforts and enhance productivity and survival of these rare native ducks. The ultimate goal of this security site is to achieve protection to 50 breeding pairs,” says Mr Slater.

“Whio are adapted to live on fast-flowing rivers so finding them means you have also found clean, fast-flowing water with a good supply of insects. This makes whio important indicators of ecosystem health, they only exist where there is high quality, clean and healthy waterways.”

It’s not just whio and the environment that’s benefiting from the project though. Horizons and DOC believe there are positive economic returns to be had from the project as well. Blue Duck Station is the most obvious example.
The sheep and beef cattle farm, located 55km south-west of Taumarunui, is set on 2,915 hectares of medium to steep hill country. Blue Duck Station owner and manager Dan Steele says grazing areas have been deliberately offset by native bush and manuka.

“Through the Kia Whārite project, we have worked closely with Horizons and DOC to develop a sustainable land plan, and fence off selected farm areas to protect native fauna and flora,” says Mr Steele.

“The Station has approximately 450 traps for stoats, mustelids, feral cats, rats, mice and hedgehogs; all enemies of the blue duck as well as other native species. In partnership with Kia Whārite, we maintain and reset the traps approximately every two weeks; this is undertaken mainly by our volunteers or ‘eco-warriors’ as we call them.

“Embracing the environment in this way provided the perfect place to set up a lodge and tourism operation. In a relatively short time we have grown to approximately 8,000 visitors a year, many of whom become eco-warriors during their stay.”

Cr Rollinson says Kia Whārite is proving to be a successful approach, with the project already exceeding some of its goals. “Kia Whārite shows what can be accomplished when organisations join forces and work collaboratively."