Re-introducing dingoes – why we should think twice

The proposal to reintroduce dingoes to the Grampians National Park may be well-intentioned but it is, sadly, essentially flawed.

The archetype dingo, a yellow, brushy-tailed dog that has inhabited mainland Australia for about 4000 years, holds a special place in Australian hearts and minds. Its linkages with our indigenous culture place it on a social pedestal and the community, understandably, is concerned for its preservation and welfare.

However, while we acknowledge its significant conservation and cultural value, the reintroduction of a top order predator in this park could have dire consequences for other equally valued species.

The Grampians National Park, in Victoria’s west, is a sanctuary for numerous iconic native species, some of which are on the edge of extinction thanks to habitat loss and relentless predation by foxes and feral cats.

The critically endangered Brush-tailed rock wallaby, whose macropod ancestors evolved on our continent 30 million years ago, became locally extinct in the Grampians in 1999. Since 2008 significant funding and effort has been invested to reintroduce this unique marsupial – the only species of rock wallaby that occurs in Victoria. Almost 12 years on, after several reintroductions, Parks Victoria reported evidence of four new joeys and the release of a further two new males to improve genetic diversity of the colony.

This fragile project is gaining ground, however, the dingo’s dietary repertoire favours small to medium-sized mammals so while the 6-8kg Brush-tailed rock wallaby is swift and agile, it’s vulnerable population would be no match for 10-20kg carnivores with the ability to hunt in cooperative packs.

The Grampians is also home to the endangered red-tailed cockatoo and smoky mouse, one of Victoria’s most endangered native mammals, and the critically endangered southern brown bandicoot, long-nosed potoroo and heath mouse. A year ago, two koalas were spotted there, the first documented sighting in six years, a species for which dingo and wild dog predation is listed as a key threatening process.

Dingoes are not fussy diners, they are opportunistic hunters and will kill the easiest prey. They don’t have a moral compass, nor are they the custodians of an ecosystem in which they are relative newcomers.

Supporting the reintroduction of dingoes in this park, without considering the welfare of other species, is reckless at best.

Dingoes, dogs and foxes spread hydatids, a parasitic tapeworm that causes the zoonotic cystic hydatid disease. Canids show little ill-effect but for macropods cystic hydatids is a death sentence.

Supporters for dingo reintroduction often tout the benefits of an apex predator including the suppression of other predators such as foxes and feral cats that prey on native species.

Unfortunately, research demonstrates this is more wishful thinking than fact. For a few examples read: Claridge and Hunt 2008; Allen et al2011a; Allen and Fleming 2012; Allen et al. 2014c; Allen et al2017; Mech 2012; Middleton et al. 2013a; Kauffman 2013; Fleming et al. 2012; Hayward and Marlow 2014 and most recently Fancourt et al. 2019. (Please see reference list below)

Rather than providing any benefit to endangered species, dingoes pose the same level of direct risk as foxes and feral cats and many of these studies show that cats, foxes and dingoes happily co-exist.

The survival of endangered marsupials and mammals in the Grampians National Park relies heavily on effective predator management. Introducing dingoes would immediately neutralise the effectiveness of any practical control programs aimed at foxes and feral cats, leaving the fate of endangered species in the lap of the gods.

The Park is surrounded by farmland, it’s home to sheep, beef and cropping enterprises, families with young children, earning a living from a boom-and-bust industry, directly exposed to global market forces.

If dingoes were reintroduced to the Park, it is natural they will explore, hunt and defend their home ranges which in the eastern part of the State, in much hillier terrain, is estimated at 123km2 for males and 45km2 for females. This will bring them into direct conflict with producers who rightly need to defend their livestock from attack and minimise biosecurity risks from canid-borne diseases such as Neospora caninum that causes abortion in cattle.

With stock values tracking in record territory this is an emotionally and financially charged component of the debate that needs acknowledging and managing.

The National Wild Dog Action Plan is a strategic blueprint that aims to minimise the impacts of wild dogs, including dingoes, on agriculture and biodiversity. It is a difficult mission that aims to balance often opposing ideals, but a necessary mission which involves some of Australia’s leading ecologists, producers and policy makers and a mission no one takes lightly.

Dingoes are unique and much loved by the Australian public but reintroduction plans cannot be pursued blindly without thought for other equally valued species, communities or industries. Any such plan is doomed to fail and this iconic species deserves so much better than that.

References Cited:

Claridge, A.C. and Hunt, R (2008). Evaluating the role of the Dingo as a trophic regulator: Additional practical suggestions. Ecological Management and Restoration Vol 9, 116-119.

Allen, B.L., Engeman, R.M., Allen, L.R., (2011a). Wild dogma I: an examination of recent “evidence” for dingo regulation of invasive mesopredator release in Australia. Curr. Zool. 57 (5), 568–583.

Allen, B.L. and Fleming, P.J.S. (2012) Reintroducing the dingo: the risk of dingo predation to threatened vertebrates of western New South Wales. Wildlife Research 39(1): 35-50

Allen, B.L., Lundie-Jenkins, G., Burrows, N.D., Engeman, R.M., Fleming, P.J.S., Leung, L.K.-P., (2014c). Does lethal control of top-predators release mesopredators? A re-evaluation of three Australian case studies. Ecol. Manag. Restor. 15 (3), 191–195.

Allen B.L., Allen, L.R., Andrén, H., Ballard, B., Boitani, L., Engeman, R. M., Fleming, P.J.S, Ford. T., Haswell, P.M., Kowalczyk, K., Linnell, J.D.C., Mech, D.L. and Parker, D.M. (2017). Can we save large carnivores without losing large carnivore science?, Food Webs 12, 64-75.

Mech, L.D., (2012). Is science in danger of sanctifying the wolf? Biol. Conserv. 150, 143–149.

Middleton, A.D., Morrison, T.A., Fortin, J.K., Robbins, C.T., Proffitt, K.M., White, P.J., McWhirter, D.E., Koel, T.M., Brimeyer, D.G., Fairbanks, W.S., Kauffman, M.J., (2013b). Grizzly bear predation links the loss of native trout to the demography of migratory elk in Yellowstone. Proc. R. Soc. B 280 (1762), 1–8.

Kauffman, M.J., Brodie, J.F., Jules, E.S., (2013). Are wolves saving Yellowstone’s aspen? A landscape-level test of a behaviorally mediated trophic cascade: reply. Ecology 94 (6), 1425–1431.

Fleming, P.J.S., Allen, B.L., Ballard, G., (2012). Seven considerations about dingoes as biodiversity engineers: the socioecological niches of dogs in Australia. Aust. Mammal. 34, 119–131.

Hayward, M.W., Marlow, N., (2014). Will dingoes really conserve wildlife and can our methods tell? J. Appl. Ecol. 51 (4), 835–838.

Fancourt, B.A., Cremasco, P., Wilson, C. and Gentle, M.N. (2019) Do introduced apex predators suppress introduced mesopredators? A multiscale spatiotemporal study of dingoes and feral cats in Australia suggests not. Journal of Applied Ecology 56, 2584-2595.