In January 2020, Biosecurity Queensland commissioned the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to review the scientific principles that underpin the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program (NRIFAEP) and inform the controls the program implements to mitigate the risk of people carelessly or accidentally spreading fire ants in truck or trailer loads of fire ant carriers like soil, mulch and potted plants.
In December 2020 CSIRO reported on the program’s seven scientific principles. They were created by the program’s Scientific Advisory Group, chaired by Mr Bill Magee. In 2016, Mr Magee chaired a panel commissioned to assess the progress of the program to determine if it should continue with an eradication strategy or revert to a containment and control strategy. The review panel acknowledged it could not assess the progress of the program because it does not collect reliable and consistent performance data. Nevertheless, with no supporting data whatsoever, the review panel said it was still feasible to eradicate fire ants from south-east Queensland.
CSIRO said NRIFAEP’s seven scientific principles were a mish-mash of poorly referenced biological details and management actions which failed to respond to a major change in the fire ant population in south-east Queensland.
In 2001, the fire ant population was a mixture of polygyne fire ants and monogyne fire ants which spread in very different ways. Polygyne fire ants spread when a newly mated queen walks a short distance from her maternal nest to create her own. Monogyne fire ants spread when a newly mated queen flies 5km on her own, or 30km with the wind behind her, from her maternal nest, to create her own – in attractive nest materials like soil, potted plants, turf, hay, organic mulch, composted growing media, animal manure, gravels, sand and non-soil aggregates, if they are available.
In 2020, the fire ant population in south-east Queensland was almost entirely monogyne fire ants.
CSIRO said the change in the fire ant population in south-east Queensland is a direct result of the NRIFAEP’s strategic decision to target polygyne fire ants.
The NRIFAEP claims the change in the fire ant population is evidence its eradication strategy is working. In 2016, Dr Ross Wylie, senior scientist with the program, and member of the Scientific Advisory Group, wrote that this change in the fire ant population, not seen in other countries invaded by the red imported fire ant, is the result of the pressure being exerted by the eradication program.
CSIRO said the significant shift in the fire ant population had considerable ramifications for how the program controls the movement of fire ant carriers. They were:
CSIRO reworded five of NRIFAEP’s mish-mash of seven scientific principles, deleted one and added eight of their own. They recommended those thirteen scientific principles underpin significant changes to the program, including how it mitigates the risk of human-assisted spread of fire ants.
In 2001, international fire ant experts said it was too late to attempt to eradicate a well-entrenched fire ant infestation in south-east Queensland. They recommended tightly containing the infestation and controlling its spread. Instead, the program chose to chase the last ant to kill it: arguing if the ants were dead, they wouldn’t spread. But they have. An infestation of 40,000ha in 2001 now covers over 650,000ha. If the NRIFAEP adopts CSIRO’s recommendations for controlling the human-assisted spread of fire ants, it will only be twenty years too late.
Time to sack the entire Scientific Advisory Group.
Time for a Royal Commission to hold all Queensland Ministers for Agriculture and the chairs of all program oversight committees since 2001 to account for the waste of over $600m of public money and for the public risk of an out-of-control fire ant infestation.
22nd February 2021