Several Department of Conservation staff have been assaulted on the job this year, amid a growing wave of anti-1080 hostility that's included threats to shoot down helicopters.

As DoC prepares for its largest ever predator control operation to beat back a plague of pests, the Government has just invested millions more dollars to protect staff working on the front line of our biodiversity crisis.

Abuse against DoC over its use of 1080 poison to knock down stoats, possums and rats had moved beyond social media trolling, to the point where its workers, vehicles and property were now being targeted.

That had included staff and contractors being abused, threatened and even followed and filmed.

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"Vehicles have been tampered with, property and equipment vandalised, and staff assaulted," Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage told the Herald.

Sage said three staff had been attacked this year, and while none had suffered serious injury, each of the incidents had "potential for great harm".

Among 23 cases referred to police, three people had been convicted over striking a DOC staff member with a quad bike, threatening to release 1080 into public places and sending threatening letters containing substances.

Police had laid charges in a further seven cases which included two death threats, two cases of unlawful hunting, wilful damage and threats.

Other cases under investigation, or where warnings had been issued, involved threats to shoot down helicopters, one DoC ranger being abused and threatened, another being assaulted twice, and a third being threatened with an axe.

In an environment of rising threats and violence, DoC had identified dedicated funding was needed to improve its security and increasing staffing, Sage said.

The Government has responded with an extra $10.7m in funding over the next four years, which would include $4.1m for a permanent security team, $5m to improve health and safety and staffing levels, and another $1.6m to beef up physical security at DoC sites.

"New health, safety and security staff will be recruited over coming months and will be located mainly in the regions," she said.

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"The Department and NZ Police continue to work closely to keep people safe and allow staff to do their jobs without interference."

Sage said DoC was expecting the threats and abuse to continue as it rolled out a major programme to respond to the largest pest-fuelling forest seeding event in nearly half a century.

The operation would targeting rats, stoats and possums over about one million hectares, or 12 per cent of conservation land – mostly using aerial 1080 drops.

Such was the scale of the programme that DoC scientists were expecting local extinctions of some bird species in unprotected forest areas.

The threats followed a jump in serious incidents – one involving a local radio station DJ encouraging listeners to kidnap a DoC employee – previously disclosed to the Herald under the Official Information Act.

One ranger who spoke under the condition of anonymity, and who had resorted to sleeping with a gun under his bed to protect his family, blamed social media for giving a potent new platform to anti-1080 hostility.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague welcomed the new funding.
"In the face of increasingly hostile anti-1080 activity, this is absolutely the right thing to do," he said.

"But it's disappointing that precious taxpayer dollars have to be used in this way."

Dave Hansford, author of the book Protecting Paradise: 1080 and the Fight to Save New Zealand's Wildlife, said he'd made multiple complaints to Facebook over it being used as a vehicle for threats.

"It's ironic that these people profess to be concerned about native species, yet here they are, draining the lifeblood out of the conservation budget because they can't behave themselves," he said.

"There are lots of lobby groups in New Zealand that are actively opposing all sorts of policy, but none of them are resorting to threatening people with axes or trying to run them over with quad bikes."

MORE CASH FOR CONSERVATION

Last week's Budget carried a funding boost for conservation generally – much of it coming from the new International Visitor and Conservation Levy.

The levy – requiring most overseas tourists visiting New Zealand for less than a year to pay between $25 and $35 at the border - injected another $42m toward DoC's operating budget, which jumped from $399m last year to $499m this year.

Hague was pleased that income from tourists was going toward conservation, with the vast majority of the money will benefit our native wildlife and ecosystems – "not just more toilets and carparks".

Sage expected the levy to raise $180m over four years, all of it to be spent on projects to "protect and enhance our natural environment and biodiversity, and safeguard Aotearoa's taonga for generations to come".

"The funding boost is timely as there are significant challenges to turn the tide on the 4000 native species which are at risk of extinction and make sure our kids can hear the dawn chorus for generations to come," she said.

"Under the current Government DoC's bottom line has seen year on year boosts for our birds, bush, and make sure the precious places tourists come year to see are well looked after."

The funding built on last year's Budget, which packed the largest ever investment in conservation and boosted DoC's annual operating baseline by more than $51m by 2022/23 - an increase of more than 13% compared to 2018/19.

Tagged funding from the 2018 Budget would allow DoC to invest an extra $76m over the next four years to help address the biodiversity crisis.

It would go toward increased management of 610 out of the top 850 priority ecosystem and species management units, research projects across 30 migratory and threatened species, training at least 60 specialist staff in preventing island incursions and improving ecosystems in at least 14 priority river catchments.

• For evidence-based information on 1080, www.1080facts.co.nz.