Writings: Biosecurity Queensland doubles effort to fight fire ants but problem is ten times worse. Again, too little, too late.

Having wasted $400m of public money on a failed fire ant program that has seen the infestation get ten times worse, Biosecurity Queensland is desperate keep the Commonwealth and other State and Territory governments funding the program. Biosecurity Queensland has promise to double its efforts, which are again, too little too late: likely to waste more public money. Biosecurity Queensland plans to: • Treat more of the infestation by air. 16 years after they were told to blanket the infestation with low toxic bait by air, they are now going to treat less than a quarter of it. • revamp the decommissioned aerial surveillance program that found millions of rocks and cow pats and only 38 nests while the infestation tripled. • increase the use of odour detections dogs that are expensive to train and have limited use. • better engage the community who find most of the fire ants and who are sick of waiting months for Biosecurity Queensland to treat them. • Improve the program's Information Technology system. Biosecurity Queensland still does not have a functioning data base to support any claims of success. • Continue to dump the responsibility for containing the spread of fire ants onto the public. 22 September 2017

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For sixteen years and with $400m of public money Biosecurity Queensland has chased fire ants with the result the infestation in south-east Queensland is now ten times worse than when they were first detected in 2001.  No wonder the Commonwealth and the State and Territory governments, who fund 90% of the program, needed a lot of convincing to throw even more public money at the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program.

 But because fire ants are such a serious national threat, and because Biosecurity Queensland has promised to double its efforts with a new ten-year fire ant plan, the funders agreed to contribute another $411m over ten years. But Biosecurity Queensland’s new ten-year plan looks like too little too late and an even greater waste of public money.

The big change in Biosecurity Queensland new fire ant plan is to increase its use of aerial baiting: sixteen years after they were told to do just that.

In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said the infestation in south-east Queensland was as bad as anything they had ever seen. They said Queensland had an outside chance of eradicating fire ants, but only by quickly and totally blanketing the whole infestation with lox toxic bait: leaving no gaps for fire ants to escape through. The quickest, cheapest and most effectively way of doing that was by helicopter. And the National Fire Ant Consultative Committee agreed. Even though the Queensland government contributes only 10% of the funding for the fire ant program, Biosecurity Queensland over-rode the National Fire Ant Consultative Committee. Instead of cheap and effective aerial baiting, Biosecurity Queensland mounted a slow, trouble-riddled, ineffective ground force of 400 unemployed people look for and kill fire.  The ground force took two years to get the first rounds of bait down and fire ants have continued to spread ever since.

Between 2002 and 2006, three independent scientific reviews of the program and the National Fire Ant Consultative Committee continued to advise Biosecurity Queensland to use aerial baiting. By 2006, as fire ants continued to spread beyond the treatment area and continued to re-infest areas that had been treated, the independent scientific reviewers of that year basically said ‘Do what you were told to do in the first place.’ They said ‘The option with the highest probability of eliminating all re-infestations and new infestations would be to treat the entire region of the infestation (approximately 150,000ha) by air.’ They said, ‘6-9 rounds of treatment over 2-3 years would cost $70-100m’ which was still cost effective, given that Biosecurity Queensland had already spent $175m: $50m over the original budget. But, again, Biosecurity Queensland didn’t.

The fire ant infestation now covers an area of over 400,000ha of south-east Queensland: stretching from Redlands on the Bay, through Brisbane, Ipswich, Gold Coast and Logan city council areas and into the Lockyer Valley, Scenic Rim, Somerset, Moreton Bay and Sunshine Coast regional council areas.

In July, in a desperate bid to keep the funders paying for the program, the Queensland Agriculture Minister told the Agriculture Ministers’ Council that Biosecurity Queensland would double its efforts to fight fire ants by increasing its use of aerial baiting.  And in usual Biosecurity Queensland fashion, the aerial baiting plan is half-baked and too little too late. Biosecurity Queensland intends to start aerial baiting from the western edges of the infestation in the Lockyer Valley, the Scenic Rim area and around Ipswich and move eastward. The plan is to apply three rounds of bait over the next nine months to treat a total area of 250,000ha.  But Biosecurity Queensland does not know where the western edge of the infestation is.  In August, fire ants were found in a new housing estate in Lowood, well into the Somerset Regional Council area, and way outside Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant containment lines. And three rounds of bait to treat a total of 250,000ha means that only 84,000ha, less than a quarter of the 400,000ha infestation, will be treated three times this year: to add up to a total area treated of 250,000ha. Biosecurity Queensland’s half-baked aerial treatment program has holes in it big enough to drive a lot of truck-loads of fire ant infested soil or mulch through.

The Queensland Agriculture Minister also said the new ten-year fire ant program would include more of the same old programs that have failed so far.

Aerial surveillance: detecting fire ant nests from the air with cameras mounted on helicopters. When the science review team of 2010 said the fire ant infestation was at ‘an all-time high’ and that Biosecurity Queensland could not eradicate fire ants using its current methods, Biosecurity Queensland mounted another desperate bid to keep the funding coming.

The silver-bullet they proposed was a system of cameras mounted on a helicopter to, supposedly, detect fire ant nests quickly and cheaply from the air. The 2010 science review team cautioned against it. They said the technology was not used anywhere else in the world because it was likely to identify rocks and cow pats as nests and miss actual nests. Which is exactly what happened. It identified millions of cow pats and rocks as fire ant nests, found 38 actual fire ant nests, cost millions and was decommissioned in 2015. In the meantime, the fire ant infestation tripled from 100,000ha to over 300,000ha.

Odour detection dogs. The 2010 science review team noted that the use of odour detection dogs was a novel, but expensive and limited addition to the program. The dogs are expensive to train, can cover only a couple of hectares per day and the infestation is now over 400,000ha. And as the Biosecurity Capability Review of 2015 said, Biosecurity Queensland cannot evaluate the cost benefit of using the dogs, or any other program element, because it lacks performance management data.

Community engagement: The involvement of the community in the fire ant program is crucial: 70% of all new detections have been made by the public. But Biosecurity Queensland is doing more to alienate the public than to engage it. The public cannot remain vigilant if they don’t know where fire ants are. Biosecurity Queensland’s fire ant zone map is fifteen months out of date and Biosecurity Queensland won’t identify properties that are infested. Members of the public are angry that Biosecurity Queensland takes weeks to sample a suspicious nest they have reported and then months to treat it.

Improving the Information Technology System. The fire ant program does not have and has never had a functioning data base; even though that was one of the milestones set by the Ministers’ Council in 2001. In 2005, auditors Deloitte said because program managers did not trust the data base, they were running an independent information system through a series of spread-sheets. In December 2012, a data-base improvement team said ‘the data-base was fragile, its performance was erratic, it was subject to outages and its ability to provide basic functions was questionable.’ Nothing improved. In 2015, the Biosecurity Capability review team reported that Biosecurity Queensland does not have an effective performance information system; meaning that Biosecurity Queensland does not have the data to support any claims of success. The Biosecurity Queensland manager responsible for producing the new fire ant program ten-year was previously the program’s Data-base Services manager, and would know that.

The one thing the Queensland Agriculture Minister did not mention as being part of the new ten-year fire ant program was any sort of fire ant containment program.  In 2001, US fire ant experts said human-assisted movement was the main cause of fire ants spreading: people carelessly or accidentally moving fire ants in truck-loads of infested materials like soil, mulch, compost, turf, hay or potted plants from infested areas to fire ant free areas. The US fire ant experts recommended a program of ‘aggressive containment’ with stringent controls on the movement of these fire ant friendly materials.  Instead, Biosecurity Queensland has aggressively unwound its containment program. In 2002, when the fire ant infestation was 40,000ha, Biosecurity Queensland had a team of twenty qualified biosecurity inspectors to implement stringent fire ant movement controls. Now, with the infestation ten times worse, Biosecurity Queensland has only a handful of biosecurity inspectors. Biosecurity Queensland has abrogated its responsibility for containing the spread of fire ants by simply dumping that responsibility onto the public.

Biosecurity Queensland’s ten-year program to double its efforts to find and kill fire ants is, as usual, half-baked and too little too late: likely to waste another $411m of public money.