Writings: Biosecurity Qld has a long history of outrageous claims it is eradicating fire ants. Now needs evidence $411+m Fire Ant Program is working. No data and no money to collect it. Time for a Royal Commission.

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The goal of the Biosecurity Queensland’s $411m+ Ten Year Fire Ant Eradication Program 2017-2017 is to eradicate fire ants from south east Queensland. In 2027, the program must provide ‘Proof of Freedom’ – evidence the program has eradicated fire ants from Brisbane, Logan, Ipswich, Redlands and Gold Coast cities and the Lockyer Valley and Scenic Rim regional areas.

In February 2019, nineteen months into the program, the Steering Committee, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, realised the program was not collecting evidence to support such claims.

It is inconceivable that the program has not been collecting data on the effectiveness of its treatment and surveillance activities.   They were told to in 2004.

An independent scientific review team, headed by international fire ant expert Professor Bart Drees from Texas A&M University, was sceptical of the then Program Director’s claim the program was killing 99.4% of fire ant nests. They could see with their own eyes that fire ants were re-infesting areas that had been treated multiple times, including the site of the original detection in Richlands in Brisbane’s south-west.  They said, to be able to declare a property or area fire ant free, the program needed to develop a ‘proof of freedom protocol’ that included data on the property’s history – invasions/re-invasion, treatment regime, survey history and the result of tests on surviving nests.

Dr Ross Wylie, currently a senior scientist with the program and a member of the program’s Scientific Advisory Group, was a member of that 2004 review team.

But they never did. As multiple independent review and audits of the program have said since 2002, including the Queensland Audit Office in 2017, the program has never collected reliable and consistent data on the effectiveness of its treatment, surveillance and containment strategies.

But like the program Director in 2004, current program managers continue to make outrageous claims about the success of the program. In October 2020, General Manager Graeme Dudgeon told ABC News, ‘We have eradicated fire ants six times.’  A program media statement in October 2020 said the same thing – ‘The National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program… is on track to eradicate fire ants from South East Queensland.’

But the chickens are coming home to roost.

In December 2018 the program’s Risk Management Sub-committee reported that the program’s lack of functioning information systems, either digital and paper-based, to provide timely and accurate performance data, was an EXTREME risk to the program.  This is despite the fact that one of the milestones set for the program by the Commonwealth in 2001 was a functioning information system.

In a mad, last minute scramble, the Steering Committee is now attempting to create a ‘proof of freedom protocol’.  In February 2019, the Steering Committee asked the program’s  Scientific Advisory Group, which contains Dr Wylie, for advice on how to prove the program has eradicated fire ants from south-east Queensland.

In November 2019, the Scientific Advisory Group advised that the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (ARI), an agency of the Victorian government, recommended developing an infestation heat map that combined data on known infestations, distance to known infestations, suitable habitat for fire ants, negative public sample data, number of rounds of treatment, intervals between treatments and the season of treatment and search effectiveness.

But in February 2020, the Scientific Advisory Group, further advised Steering Committee that:

  • It was imperative that data for the proof of freedom protocol is collected and aggregated from the start of the Ten Year Program in July 2017. It wasn’t.
  • The program does not have the capacity or capability to survey the vast area of the infestation now without relying heavily on remote sensing surveillance technology which was remains under-development because of enormous technical and regulatory issues, and
  • The program’s budget does not include funding to collect and analyse ‘proof of freedom’ data.

The program has neither the data, nor the capacity or the money to EVER be able to declare south-east Queensland free of fire ants.

The Steering Committee of the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program, chaired by Dr Wendy Craik, is responsible for an effective fire ant eradication program and is responsible for the use $411+m  of public money. Time for a Royal Commission to hold the Steering Committee to account.

14th January 2021