Writings: Two failed fire ant eradication programs. Now 22 years too late a 'horseshoe' containment program. Biosecurity Queensland's Fire Ant Fiasco.

Now showing category: Writings

Following two failed Fire Ant Eradication Programs from 2001 – 2023, on the 25th July 2023, Queensland Minister for Agriculture, Mark Furner, announced a THIRD National Fire Ant Program: a Horseshoe Containment Program.

When red imported fire ants were detected in south-east Queensland in January 2001, national and international experts said it was too late to eradicate a well-entrenched infestation. With human assisted movement the main cause of their spread, national and international experts advised implementing a containment program with tight controls on the movement of fire ant carriers out of a relatively small infested area and baiting that area, multiple times each year, by air, to suppress the infestation. And to have any chance of achieving that, Queensland need to response hard and fast.

Unemployment levels in Queensland in 2001 were high. Then Minister for Agriculture, Henry Palaszczuk, knew there was national funding for an eradication program and Queensland’s contribution to that would be just 10%. He also knew there was no national funding for a containment program. Queensland would have to fund one 100%.  The Queensland Government rejected sound scientific advice to use national funding to create a slow, cumbersome jobs program for 400 unemployed workers to search for and treat fire ant nests. Auditors said the workforce was the biggest drag on the efficiency program.

When the infestation was relatively small, about 40,000ha, a team of about 20 compliance officers worked to identify high risk businesses, help them develop and comply with Approved Risk Management Plans and prosecute those who did not comply. To give national funders confidence the program would eradicate the pest, the Queensland Government dismounted the program’s Risk Management Team and the use of Risk Management Plans.

The first National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program ran from 2001 to 2016 and cost $400m. With its patchwork of treatment and little control on the movement of fire ant friendly materials like soil and mulch, the infestation blew out to 400,000ha.

The second National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program was supposed to run from 2017-27, but its $411.4m budget ran out in just five years. With its patchwork of treatment over rural areas, spot treatments in urban areas and little control on the movement of fire ant carriers, the infestation blew out to 600,000ha.

Fire ants now infest an area of around 800,000ha in an arc that stretches from the Moreton Bay Regional Council in the north, Redland City, including Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), in the east, Gold Coast City in the south and extending through Brisbane, Ipswich, and Logan cities to the Lockyer Valley, Somerset and Scenic Rim Regional Councils in the west.  Fire ants have also been found further west in Toowoomba city.

In the face of this disaster, Queensland Minister for Agriculture, Mark Furner, claims the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication program is ‘a world leader’ with claims it has eradicated some areas infestations and slowed and contained the spread of the main area of infestation.  Minister Furner has no evidence to support these claims.

A make-or-break performance indicator set for the program by the Ministerial Council in 2001 was for a functioning information system. It never got one.  The Queensland Audit Office, the program’s own risk management committee, and other reviewers says the program has never collected reliable performance data to support any claims it has eradicated any infestations or contained or slowed the infestation. An argument CAN be made, however, that by dismantling the program’s Risk Management Team and the use of Approved Risk Management Plans the National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program made the infestation worse. Those responsible need to be held to account.

Now 22 years too late, Minister Furner has announced a four year (2023-27) ‘horseshoe’ containment program. No word on the cost of this program to the public yet.

Minister Furner blames the failure of the program so far on industries who have failed to comply with their General Biosecurity Obligation, spelt out in the Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014, to not spread invasive species.

Industry representatives at a Fire Ant Program Stakeholder Forum in May 2018 said they were happy to accept their General Biosecurity Obligation, but they wanted Biosecurity Queensland to fulfil its own by:

  • re-establishing a large team of compliance officers,
  • re-introducing the use of Approved Risk Management Plans for high-risk enterprises and Quality Assurance programs for suppliers to help them mitigate their risk of spreading fire ants,
  • approving land development plans,
  • controlling the movement of fire ant carriers in and out of biosecurity zones and
  • keeping the Fire Ant Biosecurity Zones map up to date.

In December 2019, the independent auditor of the program noted that controlling the spread of fire ants, either by natural spread or human-assisted movement was a central and essential element of the eradication program and that the Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014 provides for regulations to control the movement of fire ant carriers and penalty infringements notices for non-compliance.

He found that while the program was funded for eleven compliance officers, there were just seven, and the program had no idea of how many high-risk businesses operated in the operational area. He said between 2018-19 the program conducted 912 compliance checks, at least better than the 534 conducted in 2017-18.  He said 30% cases were not resolved in a month, but for the first time, three infringement notices had been issued, but no prosecutions. He said dismissing breaches as minor was not acceptable. He recommended having a full complement of compliance offices who used infringement notices and prosecutions to improve compliance with movement controls.

The Program said it would consider the auditor’s recommendation to introduce regulations and fees to inspect loads of fire ant carriers crossing the operational area boundary by the end of 2020. It appears the Program chose not to accept it. Mr Furner is now promising the Program will conduct 12,000 audits each year. By whom?  And is that enough, given the Program does not know how many high-risk enterprises are operating in the infested area?

The 2023-27 Horseshoe Fire Ant Containment Program intends to

  • inspect just 17% of a 10km wide, horseshoe-shaped band, around the edge of the infested area that does not include the infestations on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), Tallebudgera on the Gold Coast, Kleinton near Toowoomba, and Innisplain and Tamrookum Creek in the Scenic Rim Region.
  • Treat a 15km wide band inside the surveillance band with to  ‘up to’ three rounds of treatments each year for two years.
  • Use the Queensland Government’s Fire Ant Suppression Task Force (FAST) to dump the costs and risks of fire ant surveillance and treatment onto City and Regional Councils, the public and industries inside the horseshoe.

In 2001, fire ant experts from the USA said if the program neither contained the infestation nor eradicated it, the only option left was self-management.  After years of telling the public not to treat fire ant nests themselves, the Fire Ant Program is now dumping that responsibility, costs and risks of treating fire ants onto to the public. If they mis-use the free bait provided by the program, registered only for professional use, the bait could lose its efficacy.  If the public use cheap, dangerous and useless methods like petrol to destroy nests, they are a danger to themselves and those around them.  

In 2001, Australia had a chance to contain an infestation of one of the world’s worst invasive species to a relatively small area of south-east Queensland (40,000ha). Two failed Fire Ant Eradication Programs managed by the Queensland Government have wasted ~$1b of public money and seen the infestation blow out and now threaten other to states and territories. Queensland Minister Furner needs to be held accountable.

30th July 2023