Fire ants could spread to Australian military bases due to ‘massive surveillance failure’, experts say | Invasive species

Invasive species

Exclusive: Invasive Species Council calls for audit of all defense sites after imported red fire ants detected at Swartz Barracks outside Queensland containment zone

Thursday 27 June 2024 17.00 CEST

Defense bases pose a “huge risk” when it comes to stopping the spread of invasive fire ants in Australia, with experts suggesting there has been a “massive oversight failure” on Commonwealth-owned properties.

Fire ants have been detected at eight defense sites in Queensland. Seven are in the state’s 700,000-hectare fire ant containment zone, which stretches from the Gold Coast to Caboolture.

But the eighth infestation is outside that area – at Swartz Barracks in Oakey, 130km west of Brisbane. That infestation was discovered in April and at least 128 nests have since been destroyed.

The Defense Department insists that specialist pest managers are routinely employed on defense properties, but experts believe the nests at Swartz Barracks went undetected for years.

The Invasive Species Council is so concerned that its chief executive, Andrew Cox, has written to Defense Minister Richard Marles calling for an urgent audit of all Australian defense properties.

“It is likely that the fire ants have been at (Oakey) for several years, indicating a massive failure of oversight on the defense front,” Cox wrote to Marles, who is also deputy prime minister, in April.

“Oakey detection must trigger audit of defense forces landing in Australia for fire ant infestation.”

Queensland is home to the largest military base in the country and 14 major defense facilities. Across Australia, there are 3 million hectares of defense land.

Defense sites within Queensland’s red imported fire ant (Rifa) containment area include Victoria Barracks, Gallipoli, Damascus and Kokoda, as well as Greenbank Vehicle Training Center and RAAF Base Amberley.

Earlier this week, federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt – who received a copy of Cox’s letter – responded that the detection of Oakey was a “high priority” for Defense and the national fire ant eradication programme.

Watt said that in addition to the 128 nests destroyed, 192 acres were being monitored and 7,151 acres were being treated around Swartz Barracks.

The minister said the federal and Queensland governments were “working to improve the management of Rifa, surveillance and suppression activities at defense bases in Queensland” – particularly Greenbank and Amberley.

The Swartz nests were linked to existing populations in the containment zone, with the ants being transferred via contaminated turf, not military vehicles, the minister’s letter said.

A spokesman for the defense department added that specialist pest managers were “routinely employed by defense to provide land management services across the estate, including monitoring and control programmes”.

“Defence facilitates access to enable external parties to undertake biosecurity management activities on defense land in accordance with defense policy,” they said.

Reece Pianta, advocacy manager at the Invasive Species Council, said the nature of the defense land – which is often used for weapons testing or artillery ranges – meant the sites “were not visited enough and are not being maintained from an ecological point of view “. .

“We have had reports that fire ant personnel are having difficulty accessing the defense ground as it is restricted ground by its nature,” he said.

“I’m eager to hear how they will improve fire ant management on the defense field. I think the defense ground is a huge risk of fire ants – it is a risk that they have moved from that site (Oakey) and we should check. I suspect there are undetected fire ant nests on the defense grounds.”

Pianta said it is “disappointing” that the federal government is not overseeing the defense field. He also asked, “What else is on these sites that poses an invasive risk to other species? There is a lack of transparency.”

The Invasive Species Council spokesman said the nests at Swartz Barracks — which were located in a quadrangle — had been there for two to five years and were reaching the density of Rifa reported in some parts of the US.

The independent Invasive Species Council was established in 2002 “to seek stronger laws, policies and programs to keep Australian biodiversity safe from weeds, wildlife and other invaders”, according to the council’s website.

A 2021 strategic review commissioned by the Queensland government into what has now become a $1.2 billion fire ant eradication program has warned that the defense ground is a “particular concern” in the fight against the pest. The report was not made public until 2023.

The review panel, led by Dr Helen Scott-Orr, highlighted Greenbank Reserve and RAAF Base Amberley as “two major parcels” of defense land at risk.

Greenbank “could act well as a reservoir for reinfestation if it were not included in any nearby suppression program. Amberley Air Base also provides ideal Rifa habitat,” the review states.

In March, a Senate committee chaired by Matt Canavan heard that the scale of the Rifa problem was immense. If the ants spread through Australia’s habitat, the impact would be worse than the combined effects of rabbits, cane toads, foxes, camels, feral dogs and feral cats, the inquiry said.

Up to 650,000 Australians could be stung annually and the beef industry could be cut by 40%.

The defense spokesman said the department regularly reinforced biosecurity obligations and “guidance on how to identify red fire ants imported into defense sites to all defense personnel through base-level communications” and worked with the agriculture department to “ensure that sound biosecurity policies and processes are sound. to manage risks from pests, weeds and pathogens’.

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They said the eight infested defense sites have now been managed in accordance with fire ant eradication program guidelines. The most recent treatment at Oakey was completed on April 30.

“As Oakey is outside the biosecurity area, biosecurity area protocols did not previously apply to that site,” the spokesman said. “Increased protocols have now been applied.”

Restrictions at Swartz Barracks prevent the movement of soil, rocks, mulch, potted plants or other similar materials from the base, the department said.

A spokesperson for the national fire ant eradication program said fire ant eradication would take a “whole community” approach and that under the Biosecurity Act 2014 “all Queenslanders have a general biosecurity obligation to manage biosecurity risks and threats to the properties they own. manage or work on it’.