Lack of aerial culls impact donkey collar program and feral pest management in Kimberley region

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Aidan SmithCountryman
Radio tracking collars are fitted to feral donkeys, the device allows aerial shooters to effectively locate and destroy feral donkey herds.
Camera IconRadio tracking collars are fitted to feral donkeys, the device allows aerial shooters to effectively locate and destroy feral donkey herds. Credit: Unknown/supplied

A major tracking program to assist with aerial culls of feral donkeys in the Kimberley and Pilbara is being thwarted by government-approved shooters being stood down, which could increase feral numbers by 20 per cent this year.

Kimberley Rangelands Biosecurity Association executive officer Dick Pasfield said the association had not seen Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development aerial shooters undertaking culls since June last year.

He said normally there would be three aerial culls a year, sometimes five, to control “large feral herbivores” including donkey numbers in the region.

“The program has stalled until we can locate a shooter to carry out the work,” Mr Pasfield said.

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He said without the culling program in place numbers of feral donkeys could increase by between 10 and 22 per cent annually.

Pilbara Regional Biosecurity Group chair Clint Thompson said DPIRD had cancelled three aerial culls in the past 18 months with little warning or explanation, and the new season cull starting in October was in doubt.

“The cancelling of programs will have a long running impact as this allows, and will continue to allow, numbers to increase,” Mr Thompson said.

“The PRBG has undertaken some small-scale control within the bounds of their permissions to do so.

“The program for 2022 has still not been completed and confidence that the October program can be undertaken is extremely low.”

He said in April DPIRD also advised the group of a “massive increase in costs”.

A DPIRD spokeswoman said the cancelled shoots had been due to the department’s reduced capacity and the implementation of updated firearms related policies and procedures, as well as training.

“DPIRD currently has reduced resource capacity to support community-level large herbivore aerial control programs,” the spokeswoman said.

“DPIRD remains committed to aerial control programs for large feral herbivores and is working to rebuild its capability.

“The safety of staff and the best practice management of high-powered firearms remains the priority — DPIRD reviewed its operational practices associated with Category D firearms and is in the process of implementing updated policies, procedures, and training.”

She said the department continues to provide targeted aerial control services, such as those in response to the Fitzroy floods and “continues to liaise with relevant biosecurity groups in the pastoral region about large feral herbivore management”.

According to the WA Large Feral Herbivore Strategy 2020-2025, donkeys commonly occur in the Kimberley and Pilbara, with smaller localised populations in Murchison, Carnarvon and the Goldfields regions.

While there is no current population estimate for feral donkeys in WA, more than 600,000 have been removed from the Kimberley and Pilbara regions over the past 40 years through co-ordinated management programs.

According to the KRBA 2022-23 Operational Plan, $120,000 had been set aside for the culling program to be undertaken across 18 days during the dry season.

“Its a large capital expense but a really efficient program,” Mr Pasfield said.

“With helicopters we can cover the area better than at ground level.”

Mr Pasfield said removing donkeys from the landscape and replacing them with cattle improved the environment and was financially beneficial for pastoralists, with a cost-benefit analysis of undertaking the culling program estimated at $2-$2.90 returned for every dollar spent.

“That’s not taking into account the environmental benefits of removing the animals,” he said.

Mr Pasfield said the KRBA donkey culling program began in 1978, and while it was hard to know exact numbers the population had been culled significantly to be estimated between 3000-5000 head in the region.

“Everyone is keen to see programs succeed,” Mr Pasfield said.

“We are hoping (the program starts again) sooner rather than later but we need to be patient or find other ways, alternative sources — but then we run into issues.”

The donkey collar tracking and culling system uses the “Judas program’s radio telemetry techniques” which is best done by DPIRD shooters as they are specifically qualified to apply the collars and track the animals using VHF radio signals.

Currently there are about 45 active collars throughout the Kimberley region including three satellite collars utilised for research purposes.

“It is a unique skill set that not every private shooting contractor is able to do,” Mr Pasfield said.

“Not all our shoots can be carried out by private shooters — the donkey program requires correct procedures to be followed, and there’s limited expertise and authority to do it.

“Without the collars we would not be able to track them.”

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