Adaptive Deer Management Plan 2023

SIKA FOUNDATION KAIMANAWA & KAWEKA ADAPTIVE DEER MANAGEMENT PLAN 2023

With assistance from the Game Animal Council (GAC), the Central North Island Sika Foundation Conservation Trust applied for and was granted funding through the Government’s Jobs for Nature Programme to deliver deer management and conservation projects over the next three years (year one starting in 2022). One of the deliverables is an adaptive deer management and research programme in the Kaimanawa and Kaweka Forest Parks. The project will be led by the Sika Foundation, strongly collaborating with and enabled by further funding from the Department of Conservation (DOC).

SIKA FOUNDATION PURPOSE & GOALS

To help facilitate a process of engagement with the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Game Animal Council (GAC), the Central North Island Sika Foundation was formed in 2015. The Foundation has as its vision:

“A healthy Sika hunting resource, thriving in resilient natural habitats, valued by stakeholders.”

The Sika herd, which also inhabits neighbouring Kaweka Forest Park and the Ahimanawa area, is the only wild herd of Sika in the Southern Hemisphere. Whether you hunt for meat, trophy or both, there is no denying that Sika present the hunter with challenges and interactions like no other deer species. Their vocal and inquisitive nature, combined with their ability to learn quickly from mistakes and adapt to hunting pressure makes them one of our most exciting and addictive big game animals to hunt. It is these traits that make the Sika one of New Zealand’s iconic hunting resources.

2023 ADAPTIVE DEER MANAGEMENT AND RESEARCH PLAN

The 2023 adaptive deer management and research plan is a cycle of research/monitoring and appropriate management in any areas of stress identified. This helps to increase an understanding of deer populations at place – to maintain a balance between the consequences of the Sika herd and their immense social, cultural and economic value.

The CNI Sika Foundation recognises that in order for a healthy sika herd to exist, there must be;

  • A foundation of healthy, sustainable resilient natural habitats.
  • Iwi and stakeholders’ support for a shared vision of how improve both the habitat and the Sika hunting resource.
  • Hind focused management. Targeting “Hinds at place” who live in matriarchal family groups on limited home ranges not only effectively decreases stress on the environment, it also improves rutting behaviour, ensures competition between stags and decrease genetic drift.
  • Facilitation of the recreational hunters and hunting community involvement, engagement and education.

ADAPTIVE DEER MANAGEMENT YEAR 1 FOCUS (2022)

With increasing evidence of poor herd and habitat health in the Kaimanawa Remote Experience Zone (REZ), the key focus for the year 2022 was to raise further awareness with Iwi, DOC, stakeholders and the hunting community around the poor state of the REZ and get some deer management underway.

In early 2022, the Sika Foundation successfully negotiated four helicopter access and landing sites for recreational hunters to access the REZ for the 2022 Roar (28 March – 15 May). This opportunity was granted in response to increasing reports of deer impact on beech forests in the catchment.

Hunters provided hunter datasheets and jaws from animals shot, to contribute to the 2022 management dataset and our understanding of the herd and habitat. Following the recreational hunter opportunity, a professional thermal aerial management operation was trialled, and management continued in the form of professional ground hunters from Mid-September through till early December with extensive kill autopsy and data collection on all animals recovered.

For 2022, this was a combined total of 338 deer shot a density of 2.25 deer per square km removed. (See more detail in REZ management unit)

Following substantial management efforts throughout the REZ in 2022, the creation and of a Kaimanawa/Kaweka monitoring plan in conjunction with DOC for the 2022/23 summer monitoring season was framed up. This monitoring plan is currently underway to monitor vegetation and deer density, with a primary focus on the REZ to gauge any ecological change in response to the 2022 management. Below – Ecology exclosure plot in the heart of the Kaimanawa REZ, June 2022


KAIMANAWA AND KAWEKA FOREST PARKS

Kaimanawa Forest Park is situated south of Lake Taupo and east of Mount Tongariro in the Taupo Volcanic Zone. It is a mix of Hawke’s Bay (Mohaka catchment), Waikato (Lake Taupo catchment) and Horizons (Rangitikei catchment) Regional Council boundaries in New Zealand’s North Island. The 75,957-hectare park was established in 1969 and is managed by the Department of Conservation.

The northern Kaimanawa canopy is predominately comprised of red beech fuscopora fusca and silver beech  Lophozonia menziesii forest ranging from the 600m foothills bordering farmland, exotic forests and private land heading south to higher altitude 1400m silver and mountain beech parcels. The western side of the park is predominately red beech and podocarp forest, with mountain and silver beech parcels to the south and east. The forest backs up to the exposed alpine tussock grasslands of the 1591m Umakarikari range to the east. Southern Kaimanawa is a similar higher altitude environment with a higher ratio of alpine tussock grasslands and shrubs above the bush line inclusive of the thunderbolt and Whakamarumaru ranges, split by the headwaters of the Rangitikei. The vegetation in southern Kaimanawa below the bush line is predominantly mountain beech fuscopora cliffortoides and sub alpine shrubland belts between the beech and tussock grassland tops.

Kaweka Forest Park borders and runs to the southeast of Kaimanwa. Northern Kaweka is comprised of a mixture of red, silver and mountain Beech. Central Kaweka is predominantly Mountain Beech leading up to the main kaweka Range summit 1724 leading downs Manuka/Kanuka on the eastern and southern faces of the main range. There are also extensive manuka shrublands in the east and south as a result of historic fires.

INTRODUCED DEER

Red deer (Cervus elaphus) reached a high population density throughout Kaimanawa Forest Park by 1930 after dispersing from liberations in 1896 at nearby Tongariro to the west, and in 1883 at Matapiro to the south-east. Similar patterns were observed following deer introductions in other parts of New Zealand, where deer numbers typically reached irruptive peaks within two to three decades of establishment.

Sika deer (Cervus nippon) were liberated in Kaimanawa Forest Park in 1905 but colonised the area much more slowly. They only colonised western parts of Kaimanawa Forest Park in the 1950s and southern Kaimanawa Forest Park during the 1980s. Sika deer are thought to have the ability to browse more intensively than red deer because of a different digestive morphology. In Japan, Sika deer eat unpalatable plants and litterfall when preferred food sources are not available.

Reproductive rates of both deer species were initially high, until carrying capacity was exceeded and deer numbers crashed, and/or were reduced through intensive commercial and government-funded hunting. Recreational and ground and aerial based commercial hunting was the most used management technique chosen to control deer in New Zealand.

Kaweka Forest park has had deer management operations associated with the Kaweka mountain beech project through Central Kaweka that ran from 1998 to 2016.

OTHER KEY ECOLOGICAL FACTORS

With acid soils based mainly on pumice and volcanic ash, lashed by wind, rain and snow, while being fractured and heaved by serious winter frost. Summer and autumn drought is common, so wildfire has been a regular feature of this landscape for centuries, each successive fire kick starting a short-lived ‘puff’ of biological activity before driving the system further into nutrient deficit.  Seabird colonies of mottled shearwater, grey-faced petrel and black petrel that once came all this way to breed here bringing important marine nutrient critical to the sustainability of the ecology have been snuffed out by rat and stoat predation in the past century, robbing the landscape of its natural replenishment.

Weather events form SE winds from Cyclones Bernie (1982) and Bola (1988) knocked over vast areas of beech canopy.  These have regenerated on some places buy not in others. Impacts from Cyclone Gabrielle (Feb 2023) have yet to be quantified.

RECREATIONAL HUNTER AND SIKA FOUNDATION FACILITATED REC HUNTER CONTRIBUTION

There are currently 3 jaw boxes containing hunter data sheets and jaw cards – at the Clements Road entrance, Helisika hanger and the Tauranga Taupo garage. Recreational hunters are encouraged to drop off or send jaws and hunter data sheets to the Sika Foundation’s data collection programme. The Sika Foundation data collection programme has been running since the inception of the organisation in 2015.

Recreational Hunter data collection is key to understanding herd health indicators throughout Kaimanawa/Kaweka forest parks and recreational hunter contribution and associated impact on the herd. Jaw and hunter datasheet collection can be incentivized through competitions and prize draws.

The Kaimanawa Forest Park Conservation Management Plan provides for just six designated helicopter landing sites, often associated with huts. This can restrict the recreational hunting effort in more isolated parts of the park. In recognition of this restriction, the Plan also provides for helicopter landings at additional sites for ‘management purposes’, including recreational hunter access where this is deemed desirable and where hunting can be coordinated.

The Sika Foundation facilitates 4 management hunts a year, outside of the fawning period for ethical reasons, and in strategic locations to avoid times/locations where stags are vulnerable due to velveting in their “fattening country” and to encourage hind harvest. This data sits alongside data collected from professional management operations and helps increase our understanding of herd health.

Recreational hunting interests, including the NZDA and Sika Foundation, work with DOC to identify strategic helicopter landing sites within Kaimanawa Forest Park, to allow for additional recreational hunter effort in more isolated catchments, on the basis that these are used for Management Hunts.

MANAGEMENT UNITS & STATUS 2023

Kaimanawa and Kaweka Forest Parks have been divided into 8 management units. These management units have been constructed based on recreational hunter access/pressure, altitude, canopy/vegetation type, species diversity and resilience to ungulate browse. Management units across KKFP can be very diverse and will have a different carrying capacities and associated management needs. Management units not yet under active monitoring or management may get amended or refined through the course of the project.

REMOTE EXPERIENCE ZONE (REZ) MU 15,000Ha

This management unit starts from the thunderbolt range heading east inclusive of the Otamateanui and Makomiko streams encompassing the upper Rangitikei catchment and Whakamarumaru Tops, to the eastern border the true right of the Mangamaire stream. There has been little to no deer management in the last 20 years. With the Remote Experience Zone designation stopping recreational hunter landing throughout this block in 1990’s. This has also limited recreational hunting to “walk in”, which has minimised recreational harvest since the REZ implementation.

VEGETATION AND HABITAT

The canopy of the REZ is predominantly mountain beech fuscopora cliffortoides with sub alpine shrubland belts between the beech forest and tall tussock grassland tops. Isolated Manuka/kanuka faces exist in the southeast of and true right faces of the Mangamaire stream (eastern boarder). With limited palatable species due to over browsing in this environment, the habitat in the REZ is in a poor state and impacting mountain beech forest regeneration following natural canopy dieback.

DEER AND HERD HEALTH HISTORY

From 2017 to late 2019, OSPRI contracted Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research to carry out a deer survey in the southern Kaimanawa Range to confirm the area to be TB free. The survey involved helicopter harvesting and recreation hunter contribution over the three years. While no TB was found, 316 deer were shot from within the REZ, this dataset provided a valuable insight into the health of the herd in the REZ. 48% of the hinds shot of breeding age were barren and 76% were in average to poor condition.

2022 DEER MANAGEMENT

In early 2022, the Sika Foundation successfully negotiated four helicopter access and landing sites for recreational hunters to access the REZ for the 2022 Roar (28 March – 15 May). This opportunity was granted in response to increasing reports of deer impact on beech forests in the catchment. A total of 48 deer (14 Hinds, 34 Stags) were shot and estimated 1300 hours were recorded (26 hours per hunter). There were 200 estimated encounters (4 per hunter on average).

Following the recreational hunter opportunity, 30 more deer (28 hinds and 2 stags) were shot in late June 2022 as a part of a helicopter-based deer shooting trail in the REZ. The focus was on further thinning out of the deer population (targeting hinds at place) predominately through the mountain beech canopy on the valley floor and terraces. Hind-focused deer management continued in the form of professional ground hunters from mid-September through till early December with extensive kill autopsy and data collection.

A further 260 deer were removed throughout the REZ. For 2022 This is a combined total density of 2.25 deer per square km removed.

Animals removed worked towards improving forest health and contributed to the 2020 – 2022 REZ Herd health dataset and provided valuable snapshot of how the health of the herd is tracking since the density removed with 2017 – 2019 TB dataset, and management efforts.

2022 FINDINGS

Hinds of breeding age shot from the REZ (R2+) from mid-September through till early December have showed an increase in herd health. Reproductive rates have improved from 52% in fawn and 76% “average to poor” (2017 – 2019 TB dataset) to 85% in fawn and an average condition score of 2.75 (out of 5 in 2022), It’s worth noting for the 2017 – 2019 TB dataset majority were taken November – December months and the 2022 samples were taken from mid-September to early December. This is during the seasonal lack of vegetational growth while there is increased demand on hinds due to sustaining a foetus. Early indications suggest densities removed through the 2017 – 19 TB survey and subsequent, Sika Foundation management operations are having a positive influence and is shifting the herd back from carrying capacity.

VEGETATION AND HERD DENSITY MONITORING

Over the 2022/23 summer, monitoring is occurring throughout the REZ on the deer density (faecal pellet counts) and vegetation (in the form of seedling ratio index with associated browse) to gauge how the habitat is recovering following management efforts, and to provide a baseline to compare ecological recovery throughout the course of the project.

CLEMENTS MILL MU (CLE)

As a part of “pressure, deer populations, and vegetation impacts in the Kaimanawa Recreational Hunting Area K. W. Fraser and C. J. Speedy” the “Clements Mill block” alongside 8 others in the Kaimanawa RHA Vegetation plots from 1987 – 1988 were re-examined in 1995 with seedling transects and browse incorporated. This data along with associated hunter diary and jaw data provides a historic point of comparison, and an ideal secondary management unit to undertake deer density and seedling ratio index (with browse) monitoring over the course of the project.

This is also a key location to show “the other side of the coin” where sika deer exist in a low to medium density with improved herd health indicators due to high recreational hunter access – and will allow further understanding of the associated vegetational response to this density.

VEGETATION AND HABITAT

The canopy in the Clements mill management unit is a mixture of red beech fuscopora fusca and silver beech Lophozonia menziesii. This lower altitude management unit is more “species ritch” than some higher altitude management units.

YEAR 2 (2023) MANAGEMENT FOCUS

  • Socialise 2023 Adaptive deer management and research plan – learnings, goals and direction with Iwi, the Department of Conservation, and key stakeholders.
  • Engage Kaweka Iwi and liaison groups to get support for monitoring to identify any potential areas of stress.
  • Socialise 2023 Adaptive Deer Management and Research plan, goals and direction with the hunting community to facilitate involvement. Hunters have and do have a key part to play in adaptive deer management for Kaimanawa and Kaweka forest parks.
  • Maintain and suppress the density in the REZ management unit by using a combination of recreational hunter opportunities, professional ground hunters and thermal helicopter trail operations to research and gauge effectiveness of all potential management tools.
  • Further research and document ecological response to the habitat following management efforts in 2022, through extensive vegetation and deer density monitoring throughout the REZ through the 2023 summer monitoring season.
  • Further research and document improvements in herd health indicators from deer in the REZ through facilitated recreational hunter contribution and all management operations in 2023.
  • Capture “the other side of the coin” in Kaimanawa Forest park in Clements Mill Management unit (CLE) where deer exist in a low – medium density, with associated positive herd health indicators gathered through recreational hunter data contribution.
  • Further research and document vegetation and deer density monitoring throughout the Clements Mill management unit through the 2023 summer monitoring season.