New program targets red imported fire ants

S24 May 2018


Red Imported Fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) were first detected in Brisbane in February 2001 but may have been here much earlier. Native to several South American countries, fire ants have now spread far and wide including to several Asian countries that Australia trades with. Fire ants are one of the worst invasive species capable of inflicting painful stings and have been known to disrupt everyday activities, impact our environment and effect a range of industries. In the United States of America 80 deaths have been attributed to this ant.

Governments of the day did not ignore the presence of this species when first recognised, initiating  control programs. However, unfortunately, for a range of reasons a successful outcome has not been achieved. Fire ants were eradicated from certain sites but not before new colonies were established elsewhere. The fire ant inhabits disturbed sites, can fly up to 5kms, and enjoys being accidentally transported to new sites by various means.

Thankfully, a new National Red Imported Fire Ant program has commenced. The program is underpinned by a comprehensive 10-year eradication plan to find, contain and destroy fire ants in South East Queensland. In July 2017, funding of $411.4 million over 10 years was agreed to by the Agricultural Ministers Forum: the relevant Ministers from the Commonwealth and various states and territories responsible for biosecurity. A new independently chaired National Red Imported Fire Ant Eradication Program (SEQ) steering committee has been established to provide clear guidance and support and ensure program transparency and accountability. The Committee is chaired by Dr Wendy Craik with representation from the Commonwealth, all states and the Northern Territory.

The 10-year eradication strategy is to reduce the size of the infestation in a staged, rolling, planned treatment program starting from the west and progressively moving east. The western limits are the eastern sections of Lockyer Valley Regional Council, with southern sectors of the Moreton Bay and Somerset Regional Councils defining the northern limits. The coastline of the mainland of Moreton Bay indicates the eastern limits with the southern boundary reflected by the southern boundary of Logan and the northern sections of Scenic Rim and Gold Coast local authorities. Key recommendations of the independent review undertaken in 2015-2016 of the earlier eradication attempts since 2001 have been included.

So what appears to be significantly different from earlier attempts to eradicate the fire ant?

Well, this program involves a significant increase in eradication activities and an extended area of operation. The staged and progressive rolling strategy has merit. The coordinated and focussed activity in infested areas combined with a staged clearing of suburbs to reduce the operational area throughout the life of the program, and confirmation of area freedom from fire ants following completion of the plan, is more likely to produce a positive outcome. The program is well funded.

The most significant change, however, is the proposed collaboration with multiple industries and the wider community, which has commenced. Wildlife Queensland was invited to, and attended on 9 May, a stakeholder forum held at Hamilton, Brisbane. Information sharing, stakeholder feedback as well as opportunities for greater stakeholder engagement and collaboration underpinned the forum. The Invasive Species Council with whom we frequently work on issues of biosecurity was the other conservation-focussed organisation in attendance.

Wildlife Queensland urges everyone to participate actively in this program as opportunities present. It is well established that if climate change is taken out of the equation, biosecurity is second to habitat loss as a threat to our biodiversity.

Wildlife Queensland is aware that this program involves a baiting program on targeted properties. The fire ant bait is made up of corn grit soaked in a mixture of soybean and an insect growth regulator – either S-methoprene or pyriproxyfen. According to the authorities the bait treatment is not harmful to humans or animals as it is specifically targeted at fire ants. After baits are distributed they break down in direct sunlight. The fire ant bait treatments are considered to pose no risk to public health or the health of pets. However, the authorities advise that young children and pets should be kept away from baited areas for a day or so.

To rid Australia of this invasive species cooperation by all is highly desirable, if not essential. Biosecurity Queensland will be only too pleased to address any questions or concerns you may wish to raise. Wildlife Queensland will certainly be doing everything possible to assist in ensuring that in 10 years from now, fire ants no longer call Australia home.

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