The Department of Conservation is downplaying cuts to its protection schemes for endangered birds such as kakapo and takahe, but environmentalists say the subtle changes will be felt in years to come.
Department director general Al Morrison dismissed claims by conservation group Forest and Bird that its was removing dedicated scientists from the long-running, highly successful Kakapo Recovery Scheme as part of a major restructure.
He confirmed that the 12-strong team working with the highly endangered parrots would lose one staff member in total - two programme managers would no longer oversee the scheme, and would be replaced by a senior ranger.
Mr Morrison said this would not compromise the scheme, but conservationists were more sceptical.
Forest and Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said the programme managers were hands-on workers who had valuable, specific knowledge to the bird species.
"They lose a very skilled, talented member of the team. The whole reason they were team project leaders was because they have been with the project for a long time and understand it in detail."
He said that while finer details of the restructure were still being worked out, it was understood that programme managers could not be able to re-apply for the new ranger positions.
The kakapo programme manager whose position was being disestablished had worked with kakapo for 10 years, including four years as a ranger.
Despite cuts in 2008-09 which stretched the Kakapo Recovery Scheme, the team has helped grow the species' population to 126.
Its success has put more pressure on the scheme, because staff had to care for a larger bird population.
The Takahe Recovery Programme based in Te Anau was also expected to lose its programme manager, who would be replaced by a more administration-focused staff member. The flightless takahe, found in Fiordland and offshore islands, have grown to 350 individuals after coming close to extinction in the 1970s and 80s.
The kakapo scheme is one of New Zealand's most high-profile conservation programmes, and featured in a BBC documentary in 2009 created by British actor Stephen Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine.
It is part-funded by Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, which could be removing its business from New Zealand after failing to secure cheaper electricity for its aluminium smelter in Southland.
DOC communications spokesman Rory Newsam said yesterday [TUE] that this would not affect Rio Tinto's crucial sponsorship of the kakapo, which was signed to run until 2015.