Writings: Crunch time for Biosecurity Queensland's failed fire ant program

The Australian Agriculture Ministers will meet soon to decide the future of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program. Over fifteen years, Biosecurity Queensland has spent $400m of public money on a failed chase after the last fire ant. Fire ants now infest an area ten times bigger than when they were first detected in south-east Queensland in 2001. In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the only chance we have of eradicating fire ants is to bait the whole infested area to make sure no ants can escape and to have teams of biosecurity inspectors to make sure residents and businesses do not accidentally move fire ants in truck-loads of fire ant friendly materials like soil, mulch, hay and potted plants. US fire ant experts said the same thing again in 2002 and 2006. In 2010, US fire ant experts said Biosecurity Queensland had not been eradicating fire ants since 2004. We have to hope that the Agriculture Ministers continue to fund a program a get rid of this super pest that threatens Australia’s unique environment, economy and out-door life-style. But we also have to hope the Ministers give the money to an agency and managers well qualified and competent to do the job. Otherwise the Agriculture Ministers will be throwing more good public money after the millions already wasted by Biosecurity Queensland. 7 April 2017

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The Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum will meet soon to decide the future of the fire ant eradication program. Biosecurity Queensland has spent $400m of public money over fifteen years and fire ants now infest an area that stretches from Redlands on the Bay, through the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Ipswich and Logan cities and westward into the Lockyer Valley and the Scenic Rim: an area twice the size of the Australian Capital Territory;

Biosecurity Queensland has persistently ignored sound scientific advice. In 2001, when fire ants were first detected, fire ant experts from the USA said the infestation was as bad as, or worse, than anything they had ever seen in the USA. They called south-east Queensland ‘fire ant heaven’. They said Australia had a very small chance of eradicating fire ants if we went after them hard and fast with an intensive baiting program. If not, we would end up like Texas USA is now.

An intensive baiting program

Because young fire ant nests can remain underground for months before they break the surface, they are very hard to find. So, US fire ant experts recommend putting down a complete blanket of fire ant bait over the whole infested area and let foraging ants come to the bait. The ants feed the bait to their queen which make her infertile. Within a couple of weeks, the nest collapses. Fire ant baits are totally safe for humans, pets and livestock: only affecting insects. They contain the same chemicals we use for mosquito control around south-east Queensland and in dog flea collars. One application of fire ant bait means a light sprinkling of crushed corn (about ½ teaspoon per square metre) that quickly breaks down in sunlight. To be really effective, the whole area of infestation needs to be treated three or four times each year for two-three years. The cheapest, quickest and most effective method of getting down three applications of bait between September and May, when ants are foraging, the US experts said, is with aerial baiting by helicopter or fixed wing aircraft.

Instead, Biosecurity Queensland chose to use a slow, cumbersome and expensive ground force of four hundred field staff and a few ATVs to spread bait.  Consequently, Biosecurity Queensland can treat only a fraction of the whole infestation each year and then, with only two applications each year. Biosecurity Queensland has increased its use of aerial baiting, but only a small fraction of the infestation is treated by air. So, fire ants continue to spread.

An aggressive containment program

US fire ant experts also said we had no chance of eradicating fire ants if we could not stop them spreading. While fire ants can spread by flying, they spread much further and faster if residents and business owners accidentally or carelessly move fire ants very long distances in truck-loads of fire-ant infested soil or mulch or hay or potted-plants. This is called ‘human assisted movement.’

US fire ant experts said it was crucial we have a program of ‘aggressive containment’ to stop people spreading fire ants. This means, having legislation that makes it illegal to move fire ants.  It also means having a large community engagement team to educate the public, industry groups and business owners about the dangers of fire ants, how to keep their properties fire ant free and how to avoid spreading fire ants. It also means having a large team of biosecurity inspectors to identify all the enterprises operating in the fire ant infested area whose activities are likely to be attractive to fire ants: that is developers, nursery and landscaper suppliers, earth movers, turf, hay and mulch producers. Biosecurity inspectors need to help those enterprises develop fire ant risk management plans, audit those plans regularly and prepare prosecutions for those who breach fire ant movement control legislation.

Instead, Biosecurity Queensland caved into industry pressure to self-manage their risk of spreading fire ants. Industry groups said that businesses owners might not report finding fire ants if it was going to be expensive to control for them. With only a few road signs saying ‘Don’t spread fire ants’, Biosecurity Queensland has almost no fire ant containment program.  Biosecurity Queensland has no idea how many high-risk enterprises are operating in fire ant infested areas or how they are managing their risk of spreading fire ants. And while it has been illegal to move fire ants since 2002,  Biosecurity Queensland has only ever prosecuted one business for illegally moving fire ant friendly materials. That was in 2011.  Because Biosecurity Queensland cannot stop people accidentally or carelessly spreading fire ants, they continue their march unabated.

Qualified and competent managers

Biosecurity Queensland managers have never been up to the task. A 2003 review said the program had not recruited the best managers for the job. A 2010 review said the program’s science was fragmented and ad hoc. A 2015 review said managers could not plan, could not prioritise and could not optimise their use of staff and money.  Consequently, Biosecurity Queensland has wasted much of the $400m of public money spent on the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program so far.  

We have to hope that the Australian Agriculture Ministers’ Forum continue to fund a National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program to rid Australia of this serious and aggressive super-pest, but the Ministers will be throwing more good public money after much that has been wasted, if Biosecurity Queensland continues to be responsible for the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.